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The Yellow Wallpaper Analysis Essay by EduBirdie

Introduction: Symbolism and Female Oppression in “The Yellow Wallpaper”

This paper aims to identify and analyze those symbolisms prominent in “The Yellow Wallpaper” which represent the struggles of the oppression of females in the 19th century. “The Yellow Wallpaper” manages to represent the patriarchal society, specifically that of the 19th century in America, and is thus often read as feminist literature.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) is about a woman, the unnamed narrator of this short story, who gets diagnosed with a “temporary nervous depression” (648) by her husband John, who is a physician. Even though he does not truly believe her to be sick, he decides to move to a “colonial mansion” (647) for the summer in hopes to cure said depression with a lot of rest and little distraction from the outside. Even though the narrator is not supposed to write, as this would, according to John, only worsen her state of mind, she does so anyway, keeping a diary without her husband’s knowledge. In this she describes her stay at the house and how she is treated; mostly about how her husband treats her. She also describes her dislike for the room she is staying in, especially her distaste for the yellow wallpaper, which becomes the most prominent symbol throughout the short story.

Analyzing Key Symbols

The House as a Representation of Society

This short story is packed with symbolism, one of the first encounters being the house the narrator and her husband stay in. It is described as a “colonial mansion, a hereditary estate” (647) and represents the patriarchal society in which they live; the society that restricts the narrator and women in general. She finds something to be eerie about the house and even calls it “haunted” (647) but her husband brushes it off, laughing about it and simply blaming her feelings on a “draught” (748).

The room she stays in represents this even further. The narrator thinks it used to be a nursery due to the window that had been “barred for little children” (648). This and the “nailed down” (650) bed produce the uncomfortable feeling of a prison, which is underlined by the fact that the narrator doesn’t leave the room very often as she is supposed to rest as much as possible to get over her depression. The room’s wallpaper immediately catches the narrator’s attention; however, it is not in a good way. She announces to have never seen a “worse paper in [her] life” (648) and describes it with negative words calling the color ‘repelland, almost revolting” (649).

At first, it seems to be bearable to live in but the longer the narrator stays in the room or the house, the more she wants to leave, and the more it seems to be “haunted” (647). What only seemed to be her imagination at first turns out to be true due to her growing paranoia and the woman spooking behind the wallpaper. Similarly, the narrator has always lived in a society that oppresses women, blatantly accepting the norms. However, throughout her life she has grown to be more and more uncomfortable with this and the gender norms, wanting to break out of it. According to Barbara A. Suess the room the narrator is placed in and the wallpaper in it have eventually influenced the narrator’s mind, adding to her loss of sanity and paranoia. (92).

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John as the Embodiment of Patriarchy

The narrator’s husband, John, perfectly represents the patriarchal society of the 19th century. According to Karen Ford, this is also portrayed by the fact that John first gets introduced as a physician and then-husband, first relating him to patriarchy and then to his wife (310). The narrator is clearly subordinate to John, as she does what he says without much of a debate. John controls almost all of her actions and her every day by scheduling “each hour in the day” (Gilman, 648). Even though the narrator is not happy about it, feeling “ungrateful not to value it more” (648), she obeys her husband’s orders. The only thing she really does that goes against what John and everyone else tells her is that she continues to write in secret. She otherwise accepts what John tells her. She takes medication, “phosphates or phosphites – whichever it is” (648), even though she doesn’t believe it to help her and she gives up on trying to stay in a different room or at least have the wallpaper changed as John calls them “fancies” (649) which she shall not give in to. She only silently curses out her husband in the diary he keeps, disagreeing with him and arguing against what he says. The repression by her husband goes as far as giving her the illusion of a conspiracy planned by John and his sister (Carol Margaret Davison 60).

The Yellow Wallpaper: A Complex Symbol of Entrapment

The most prominent and probably most important symbol in the short story is that of the yellow wallpaper. At first, the wallpaper is nothing but “horrid paper” (649) that the narrator wishes to dispose of. However, her husband refuses this and urges her not to give in to her “fancies” (649) as it will only start with the paper and then go on to her wanting to change every little detail of the room. However, the more time she spends in the room, the more she starts to analyze the yellow wallpaper. The narrator eventually describes it to have two patterns; a “front design” and a “kind of sub-pattern” (650). The front design consists of different lines pointing in various directions, while the sub-pattern shows a woman “stooping down and creeping about” (652).

The Evolution of the Narrator’s Relationship with the Wallpaper

According to Pula A. Treichler and nineteenth-century readers, the yellow wallpaper represents several things:  (1) the narrator’s own mind, (2) the narrator’s unconscious, and (3) the ‘pattern’ of social and economic dependence which reduces women to domestic slavery. The woman in the wallpaper represents (1) the narrator herself, gone mad, (2) the narrator’s unconscious, and (3) all women. (64)

Representing all of this, it is clear that the wallpaper plays an important role and needs further analysis. In the design of the front of the wallpaper, the different lines, represent bars that trap the woman in the sub-pattern behind them. This turns the wallpaper into a symbol of surveillance seeing as it represents a prison under constant observation of the husband John. (Ghandeharion and Mazari 116). The further the short story progresses, the more the woman tries to break out by “shak[ing] the pattern” (Gilman 652). This action symbolizes the narrator’s own mind trying to escape any sort of entrapment according to Azra Ghandeharion and Milad Mazari while furthermore representing all women of that time (124). The narrator, despite her original hatred for the wallpaper, becomes, in her own mind, a part of the wallpaper; she becomes the woman behind the wallpaper (Suess 14). Facing the end of the story, and the end of the stay in the mansion, the narrator begins to pry off the wallpaper in an attempt to free the woman trapped behind it; succeeding to rid the wall of most of the horrible paper. Once her husband gets to her and sees what she has done she claims ‘I’ve got out at last’ said I, ‘in spite of you and Jane? And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!’” (Gilman 656). In response to this, her husband faints, amplifying the narrator’s final escape from her husband’s rule over her and her role in society. Treichler however indicates, that the narrator might not be free at last, as she is still locked up in a room and mentally ill. Her escape from the wallpaper only demonstrates the possibility of a change in the oppression of women (Treichler 74)

The Woman Behind the Wallpaper

As we do not know who Jane is, looking into this matter is very interesting. It could simply be a sort of typo, Gilman having written Jane instead of Jennie, who takes care of the house. However, another approach is to see Jane as the narrator, which Suess takes, referring to the narrator as Jane in her paper. However, Suess claims Jane to be an anonymous figure without any background or connections (86). Both approaches are plausible but mean two different things. If Jane is meant to be Jennie, then she would be another outside obstacle trying to oppress the narrator. Even though Jennie is a woman since she obeys what the narrator’s husband asks, it ultimately shows how a patriarchal society works. However, if you interpret Jane to be in fact the narrator, the meaning of the sentence, “in spite of you and Jane” (Gilman 656), changes drastically. Jane now represents the narrator’s mind, meaning freeing herself from the wallpaper is her overcoming her own mindset. She overcomes the idea that you need to accept the norms in society and the superiority of her husband, or any man in fact, over her.

Escaping the Wallpaper and Overcoming Oppression

It is Important to note that whilst society strategically oppresses women, they seem to have simply accepted that as the norm. This is not only shown through the narrator, who, even though she doesn’t agree with what her husband says, listens to him without much of a refusal but also through her sister-in-law who seems to be not much more than a housewife, which is what was expected in the patriarchal society back then (Ghandeharion and Mazari 121). The narrator repeatedly shows her disapproval of John’s decisions when he is not around but does not dare to speak up against him personally. She stays obedient as expected and doesn’t make a big fuss out of anything, until the very end of the course. She clarifies that her husband holds the last word and that whatever he deems correct will be accepted, even if it displeases her. This even goes as far as her following John’s orders as a physician which are supposed to cure her depression, even though she believes John to be the reason for her not becoming any better (Gilman 647). She also believes that John doesn’t know how much she truly suffers. However, instead of telling him so and maybe trying to get more or better help from him she simply complains about it in her diary but not to John himself.

Since the short story is told by a first-person narrator we do not know what her sister-in-law truly thinks; however, she seems to be happy in her role as the housekeeper and has no trouble following the orders of her brother John by keeping the narrator from writing as that is believed to worsen her condition. According to the narrator, she is

Conclusion: The Lasting Impact of “The Yellow Wallpaper”

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is filled with symbolism representing the female oppression in the 19th century, which is why it is often read as a feminist work. The most important symbols are the narrator’s husband, John, the house they stay in, and the yellow wallpaper in the former nursery.

The house represents the patriarchal society, first seeming to be pleasant to live in but with an eerie background which the narrator, representing females, wants to escape from. John is the epitome of a man in the 19th century. He holds all decision power over his wife, treating her as subordinate to him. Lastly, the wallpaper in the room and the room itself represent a prison trapping a prisoner so the society trapping and oppressing women. It is the strongest symbol representing more than just the oppression of women, but also their possible overcoming of said oppression and even the mind of the narrator.


  1. Davison, Carol Margaret. “Haunted House/Haunted Heroine: Female Gothic Closets in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Women’s Studies, vol. 33, no. 1, Jan. 2004, pp. 47–75.
  2. Ford, Karen. “‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and Women’s Discourse.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 4, no. 2, 1985, pp. 309–314.
  3. Ghandeharion, Azra, and Milad Mazari. “Women Entrapment and Flight in Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses, no. 29, Nov. 2016, pp. 113–129.
  4. Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The New England Magazine, vol. 11, No. 5, (January 1892), pp. 647-657.
  5. Suess, Barbara A. “The Writing’s on the Wall: Symbolic Orders in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, vol. 32, no. 1, Jan. 2003, pp. 79–97.
  6. Treichler, Paula A. (1984): “Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 3(1/2): 61-77.

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