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A Literary Analysis of The Yellow Wallpaper

February 20, 2008

The Yellow Wallpaper Book by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1899

Read the full text of The Yellow Wallpaper (PDF)

In 1892 Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote The Yellow Wallpaper. It is the story about an unidentified woman, who I presume is named Jane, and her husband John. This fictional story, in classic form, has a plot, a setting, a cast of characters, and a point of view in which the story is told. However, it is the way in which the story is told and the unexpected conclusion of the story that have made it an important piece of 19th century fiction.

The Yellow Wallpaper portrays a very common view of 19th century medicine and culture. The conflict of this story is the struggle of Jane against her husband and then later her struggle against the wallpaper itself. As the protagonist of the story, Jane faces the opposition of the first antagonist, her husband. This story is an insight into a time in which mental disease was poorly understood and it was common for those who were sick to just be locked away. This is specifically what has happened to our main character. She has been taken to a house in the woods and virtually locked in a second floor room, which even had bars on the windows. She is looked after by her husband John’s sister, Jennie. The story has a gradual progression toward a climax, as we first hear only a mere mention of the wallpaper in the narrator’s first writing but toward the end of the story we hear only about the wallpaper. The climax of the story is when we discover that the narrator has now completely gone crazy and tears off all the wallpaper so that she can never be put back in her prison. This story begins in medias res, with the story picking up when the narrator has just arrived for a summer stay at a rented home. The plot, however, is dependent upon the setting of the story, without which the story would not be believable.

The setting of this story takes place during the summer in a rented home that John has acquired so that the narrator may rest and get well again. The story takes place about the time in which it was written, in the late 19th century. The house is a colonial mansion, which our narrator quickly tells us she thinks is haunted. It is in a rural setting surrounded by gardens and woods with “a lovely shaded winding road” leading up to the mansion. The main setting, which the narrator describes, is the room in which she stays. She goes into explicit detail as she carefully describes the yellow wallpaper which consumes more and more of her attention. The wallpaper becomes a moving prison to our main character, while other characters, like John, barely seem to notice its presence.

There are not many characters in this story, but each one plays a vital role in giving the reader insight into the mind of the writer and allowing the reader to come to a deeper understanding of the meaning of the story. Jennie, a flat character and foil of the main character, is the main character’s sister-in-law and is the caretaker of the home. She is the “perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper and hopes for no better profession” who serves as a substitute wife for John’s traditional family view. She is the imprisoned woman who is perfectly fine with her prison, even blaming the narrator’s sickness on her untraditional thinking and writing. John, who is also a flat character, is the main character’s husband and is the archetype of the 19th century white male. He is a successful “practical physician” who treats his wife more like a patient than he does an equal partner. John is a representative image of the dominant sunlight, which in the story keeps the woman behind strict bars and prevents her from being free or creative. Though the narrator never explicitly tells us her name, the very end of the story says, “’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!’” This is a clear indication to me that the narrator’s name is Jane, as revealed by the crazy woman (Jane) who now thinks she was the one in the wallpaper. The narrator of the story, Jane, is the main character and is a round character that is fully developed. She is representative of the woman imprisoned, unsatisfied with being merely the submissive housekeeper. Jane is like the less dominant moon, which in the story allows the bars of the wallpaper to move and free the woman in the wallpaper from her daytime prison. We are given an insight into Jane’s mind and opinions through her writings in her journal.

This story is told in first-person narration. However, it is not in traditional story form, but it is constructed as if we are reading the hidden journal of the Jane who is telling, us alone, all her intimate thoughts. This also allows for the time-lapse in which the story skips over weeks at a time allowing the reader to gain an understanding of what is going on without having to read mundane and unimportant details. The chronological order of the journal also lends to it appearing as if it could be an actual journal the audience is reading.

Although The Yellow Wallpaper has all the components of the average fictional story such as plot, a setting, characters, and is even told in a fairly common point of view, the brilliant writing of the story combined with the unique way in which it is presented, make for an exciting story that keeps the reader’s attention. The story is also a deep insight into the author’s world and time revealing her own personal point of view. It is this creative writing, coupled with deep meaning and veiled in captivating writing, which assures this literary work will continue to remain a hallmark of fiction.

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Comments

29 Responses to “A Literary Analysis of The Yellow Wallpaper”

  1. Felix on July 20th, 2008 7:19 pm

    You say that Jennie’s the narrator, and then you say that the narrator’s name is Jane, and that she’s also the crazy lady.
    Are you saying they’re both narrators?

    “This is a clear indication to me that the narrator’s name is Jane, as revealed by the crazy woman (Jane) who now thinks she was the one in the wallpaper.” That sentence doesn’t make much sense, unless you mean that Jane the Narrator is another character, and not Jane the Crazy Lady. Since the story is told in a first-person perspective.

    Couldn’t Jennie perhaps be a nickname for Jane, and that Jane and Jennie are the same person and we never get to know the narrators/main characters/crazy ladys name.

    Also, perhaps there’s two Janes in this story (if we assume that the main characters name’s Jane). Jane the Almost-Sane, which is the narrator, and Jane the Insane who’s completely taken over Jane the Almost-Sane by the end.

  2. ParrishCo on July 22nd, 2008 11:32 am

    Thank you Felix. There was a typographical error in uploading this to my website. It has been fixed. Jennie is NOT the narrator. Jennie is John’s (the narrator’s husband) sister who looks after the narrator. The narrators name is never given however it is inferred toward the end of the story to be Jane.

    You are, however, on the right track. In the beginning of the story the narrator talks about a woman she sees in the wallpaper. But at the end of the story we read,

    “’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!’”

    This is the narrator talking to John, however the narrator (Jane) has now become the woman that Jane saw trapped behind the bars of the wallpaper in the beginning of the story. That is the brilliance of the work. The narrator was seeing herself in the wallpaper the whole time until that personality overtook the personality we are introduced to initially. Think along the lines of Schizophrenia (multiple personalities).

  3. Rachel on December 17th, 2008 11:25 am

    Schizophrenia is NOT the same as multiple personality disorder!! which is now known as dissociative identity disorder. Schizophrenia, which i strongly believe the narrator has, is detachement from reality relating to things such as delusions, hallucinations, neologisms and clanging. Dissociative identity disorder relates to multiple personalities each having their own very different characteristics. The narrator is not a reliable narrator on this basis alone. The narrator does not know her husband is watching her, thus making her delusional in seeing “the woman” or “the bars”

  4. tania. gutierrez on January 10th, 2009 9:47 pm

    umm yea, i was just wondering… how are people supposed to cite this in a paper?

  5. ParrishCo on January 10th, 2009 10:00 pm

    MLA does not yet have any official rules for citing blog entries or comments. But as the technology becomes more widely used for academic discussions, you may find yourself referencing blogs more often. If you are drawing on a blog as a source, make sure you consider the credibility of the weblog site and/or the author of the posting or comment. Also, check with your instructor or editor to see what their stance is on incorporating evidence from blog entries.

    If you decide to use blogs, we suggest the following for how you would cite blog entries and comments depending on the author or sponsor of the weblog.

    Citing Personal Weblog Entries:

    List the author of the blog (even if there is only a screen name available), provide the name of the particular entry you are referring to, identify that it is a weblog entry and then follow the basic formatting for a website as listed above.

    Last Name, First. “Title of Entry.” Weblog Entry. Title of Weblog. Date Posted. Date Accessed (URL).

    NOTE: Give the exact date of the posted entry so your readers can look it up by date in the archive. If possible, include the archive address for the posted entry as the URL in your citation as you would for an online forum. If the site doesn’t have a public archive, follow the suggestion under “Listserv” citation above.

    Hawhee, Debra. “Hail, Speech!” Weblog entry. Blogos. 30 April 2007. 23 May 2007 .

    Read all about it at http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/557/09/

  6. VinceLHarts on April 19th, 2010 1:27 pm

    Do not use this “article” as a literary reference. If your teacher read this blog, they would laugh. The writer clearly isn’t knowledgeable about the subject he/she is writing. If you are trying to find an actual literary article, I suggest Bloom’s Literary Reference. In no way is the narrator’s name Jane. Also Rachel is correct about the differences between Schizophrenia and “multiple personality disorder.”

  7. greg on May 25th, 2010 9:32 pm

    The term “crazy lady” is terribly misused in this blog entry. Look up a better description for the narrator and make sure it is not offensive to readers who may be affected by a mental disorder.

  8. Arnulfo Cilley on February 5th, 2011 2:37 pm

    I got what you mean , saved to my bookmarks , very decent internet site .

  9. Doren on February 26th, 2011 7:29 pm

    At the end of the story the it say’s that “John fainted? Why did he faint?

  10. Terry on February 26th, 2011 7:38 pm

    How does the wording of the descriptions in the story embellish the situation that the narrator is in?

  11. Analiese on February 27th, 2011 7:02 am

    in no way is it indicated throughout the novela that the protagonists’ name is Jane. Also it is highly possible that the mental illness that she held was post natal depression, which is an illness that Gilman herself was diagnosed with, therefore leading her into a state of Schizophrenia. Also John treats his wife not only as a patient but as a child as he calls her “blessed little goose” and later on says “What is it little girl?”.
    The language throughout reflects the narrator’s state of mind as the narrative becomes disjointed as she becomes more obsessed with the wallpaper. Also at the beginning of the novela we realise that the narrative becomes an expression of her stifled creativity and this instruction not to work is what she writes about at the beginning. she at first describes the wallpaper as “suddenly commit[ing[ suicide” this also shows us the state of her mind in the early stages of the novela as she uses destructive metaphors. The fact that the narrator describes the room she is kept in as a “nursery first and then a playroom and gymnasium…for the windows are barred for little children and there are rings and things in the walls.” indicates to the reader that the room could have possibly been used for an insane person in the past, this causes dramatic irony.
    It is this need for the narrator to stimulate her mind as she is “forced not to work” therefore the only way to do so is to devote herself to finding a meaning in the pattern.
    it is this creativity that her husband, brother and sister-in-law have stifled that leads the narrator to seeing herself in the yellow wallpaper.

  12. Andrea on March 22nd, 2011 9:58 am

    I’m doing a reaserch paper and my focus is on the progression of the narrator (whom I believe is Jane also) and the woman behind the wallpaper’s similarities and the possibility of multiple personalities. What is are some other things you can say about her and her possible personality disorder?

  13. JPT on May 5th, 2011 3:35 pm

    If any of you actually read the story carefully, you would realize that the narrator did not have D.I.D. She had just had a baby and was despressed, pretty common these days.

  14. Pablo Negrete on August 31st, 2011 7:24 pm

    Why doesn’t John want her to write?

  15. Karen on September 20th, 2011 6:10 pm

    Well, there’s never a true story, its all interpretation and being able to find evidence from the story to support your argument. For instance, I am writing an analysis and I had two different thesis 1) John keeps his wife stable but never truly wishes her to heal, in order to control her. 2) John’s belief in his profession makes him inattentive to his wife’s needs, and this exacerbates her illness. Both thesis were approved by my professor.

    Thanks to whoever wrote this analysis, it helped to look at the story from a different perspective.

  16. e.johnk on December 4th, 2011 3:39 am

    Referring to the narrator as “crazy” seriously trivializes Gilman’s message– and in fact makes you sound a bit like the male-dominated world of medicine that diagnosed “hysteria” in women. This analysis is a bit amateurish; important underlying concepts (someone earlier in the comments points out “she had just had a baby”) are ignored.

    And what is “completely crazy”, anyway? Again, a subjective assessment awfully similar to one a “mental illness specialist” of Gilman’s time would have made.

    Also, I disagree about you examination of the climax; what you describe is more like the resolution. If the problem of the story is trying to uncover the mystery of the wallpaper, then the climax is when she discovers the woman is in fact imprisoned in the wallpaper and wants to get out; the resolution is when she frees the woman (and thus herself) from the wallpaper.

  17. Kaytlen P. on December 13th, 2011 4:52 pm

    I would just like to point out that Jane is the name of John’s sister. The narrator/main character goes unnamed in the short story. My guess is because she represents the “every woman.”

  18. Liane on December 18th, 2011 7:32 am

    well, id judt like to thank all of the above as reading this site enabled me to make up my own mind about things. carry on debating its very interesting

  19. Liane on December 18th, 2011 7:33 am

    *just

  20. The Yellow Wallpaper « American Literature II on January 24th, 2012 9:51 am
  21. amarie on January 29th, 2012 9:08 pm

    Jane is the narrator. She speaks to her husband and then to herself in third person when she says, “you can’t put me back.” YOU meaning her husband and her “alter ego” can’t forcefully put her back into the wall anymore. She is now free to [creep] into and out of the wall however she pleases.

  22. Alina on February 21st, 2012 7:12 pm

    I think that Jane is a reference to Jane Austen. The narrator has gone mad, and I think she thinks of herself both as the woman behind the wallpaper, and Bertha.
    She called her Jane because both Jennie and her husband were trying to keep her locked up.

  23. Sean on March 28th, 2012 11:42 pm

    What is with the color yellow? Does that have some sort of symbolism? Also, what puts her over the edge? Is it the color of the wallpaper, the design of the wallpaper, being alone for so long, or something completely benign?

  24. Holly on November 12th, 2012 11:24 pm

    There are a lot of people beating down on the idea that Jane is the name of the narrator, and I for one, find it perfectly plausible. John’s sister’s name is Jennie, not specifically Jane. And the fact that the “woman” inside the wallpaper is inside the narrator at this point, almost as though she is possessed. Therefore, to the point of her being “every woman” she still is. Jane would have been the submissive form of the narrator, and when the woman behind the paper breaks free, it is that woman that “creeps” or crawls all over John in a way Jane would never have been able to.

  25. analease on January 27th, 2013 7:23 pm

    The main character has neurasthenia. The evidence is in the October 1913 issue of The Forerunner. search it.

  26. Karla on November 16th, 2013 2:39 pm

    Thanks for this website. Gilman’s book can be interpreted many ways and reading different perspectives is what I am after. I agree with your analysis that the woman’s name is Jane. My professor agrees also. Thanks again for your website.

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  28. Samantha on June 19th, 2014 10:11 am

    Referring to her as a “crazy woman” is another way of calling her “hysterical” which is exactly why this story needed to be told to begin with. It was a term to dismiss women and their feelings/possible problems. Not only that, but you are dismissing all mental illness with the term “crazy”.

    Why not call John the prison guard if you’re going to be throwing around generalizations?

    I’ll be sure to go to other sources for literary analysis in the future.

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