“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Published 12 Oct 2017

In the short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, there are several examples of symbolism. In a story that seems to be self-inspired, Gilman’s main character is fighting the clingy, overprotective husband and his pushy treatments for her “ailment”. Gilman’s character is also battling against a closed-minded society that would rather hide her away in a closet than to accept her for who she is. The narrator is unable to do anything for herself, and her husband seems to think it better for her to be locked away in a bedroom than for her to interact socially. The relationship of the narrator and her husband, though common for the time period, consists of the wife being submissive to her husband, caring for day to day household chores while the husband manages his career. It is this dominance that drives the narrator into madness as she realizes how little control she has over her own life. The actions and observations of the narrator with regard to the woman she sees behind the wallpaper are representative of her own life in many ways.

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First of all, the main character sees a woman trapped in the wallpaper of the room the narrator and her husband are staying in. The narrator observes, “The front pattern does move – and no wonder! The woman behind it shakes it!” This woman, behind the wallpaper, is symbolic of the narrator’s own life. The woman behind the wallpaper is trapped behind that paper, just as the narrator is trapped in her own life. Locked away in their vacation house without any interaction from friends or family, the narrator is forced to live a very lonely, but yet very controlled life within her bedroom. The narrator is being nearly suffocated by her overbearing husband and his treatments for her nervous condition. The narrator says that, “So I take phosphates… and am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again”. This passage illustrates the absolute dominance that the narrator’s husband exerts over her. He forbids her to do anything that he would consider to be “work”, regardless of his wife’s thoughts or wishes. Through this observation, the society that this story is set in seems to be refusing to accept the narrator’s condition. She is struggling to find her place in both her relationship with her husband and the society that has misinterpreted and is unwilling to accept her “illness”.

Secondly, the narrator says that John’s sister thinks that, “it is the writing which made me sick! But I can write when she is out, and see her a long way off from these windows”. The writing is symbolic of the narrator letting out her feelings about the things going on in her life. The narrator’s writing being forbidden is another way that her husband is limiting how much his wife uses her mind, either creatively or critically. John’s sister believing that the writing is making her sick is one more representation of oppression in the narrator’s life. John’s sister obviously believes that the narrator would be better off not expressing her feelings through her writing, but keeping them hidden away inside. This also represents the way that the narrator is living her life. She is merely an observer in her own life. Her husband and his sister do everything for her, and hardly let the narrator do anything for herself.

The narrator is told what is best for her, and never able to decide for herself what she needs or wants. John is constantly reminding his wife that she must use self control to limit her imagination, discouraging her from using her mind at all. Her husband and his sister take care of the narrator, but in their attempts to do so, are only suffocating the poor woman. The narrator’s thoughts and wishes are completely disregarded, and she is hidden away in an upstairs room of the rental home without any social contact.

Thirdly, the narrator’s “sickness” is obviously worsened through the way in which her marriage is completely out of balance. The element of madness in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, and the narrator’s fragile mental state are representative of the way that the marital imbalance in her relationship with her husband are problematic. Every wish or thought that the narrator has is completely disregarded, and her husband exerts his dominance over her at every turn. John exerts his dominance, flaunting what he believes to be his superior wisdom and maturity over his wife. The narrator begins the story allowing and almost appreciating her husband’s incessant doting over her condition. However, the more time that she has alone to reflect on her situation, the narrator begins to fall deeper into her maddening condition, ultimately falling into the delusion of seeing the woman behind the wallpaper, which is a reflection of her own “trapped” mental state. John’s constant insistence that his wife not use her imagination force her to repress all of her thoughts and ideas, ultimately driving her further into madness, rather than helping her to regain her sanity. Ultimately, John’s constant nagging and controlling of every aspect of his wife’s life only contribute to her “condition”, rather than help her regain her sanity.

Lastly, at the end of the story, the narrator locks herself in her room and throws the key out of the window so that she may free the woman behind the wallpaper. This scene is very representative of the narrator’s own life, and the choice that she makes more for herself than the woman she sees behind the wallpaper. By finally realizing that she has been forced to sneak around, hiding her every creative thought from her husband for fear of being scolded, the narrator realizes that she, herself is the one who is truly trapped. In the end of the story, the narrator finally breaks from her husband’s dominance, and separates herself from his constant and suffocating demands. The narrator has finally decided that she is no longer going to be held captive in her relationship with her husband, or put up with being hidden away from society because of their ill conceived notions about her sickness. By finally taking a stand and freeing the woman behind the wallpaper, the narrator is actually demanding her own freedom. When John comes into the room, the narrator tells her husband, “I’ve got out at last, in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper so you can’t put me back!” This scene shows that the narrator has finally freed herself from her husband’s suffocating and often annoying fussing over her nervous condition. The narrator also makes it evident that she will not go back to being smothered and oppressed. By taking this stand, the narrator creates her own freedom within her marriage and within the society that has tried to lock her away.

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” the symbolism of the wallpaper is obvious. The narrator of the story is struggling to free herself from the oppression of both her husband and her society. Her husband is constantly suffocating her, restricting her movements even in their own house and treating her as if she were incompetent. The narrator is also trying to find her place in her relationship with her husband and her place in society. In the end, by freeing the woman that the narrator sees behind the wallpaper, she literally frees herself from the oppression of her controlling husband. With absolutely no say in her own life, the narrator falls into madness, perpetuated by her husband’s dominant and controlling personality. The madness and delusion of the narrator lead her to “see” the woman behind the wallpaper. It is this woman that the narrator is able to sympathize with, freeing both herself and this mysterious woman behind the wallpaper.


  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman “The Yellow Wallpaper” , 1892.
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