Character Analysis in The Yellow Wallpaper
Narrator: Charlotte Perkins Gilman presents subtle clues to help us identify the main character, an unnamed narrator. We can infer that the narrator is an upper-class married woman struggling with the prescribed rest cure for her condition. Gilman uses contextual details to speak to the overwhelming social struggles that both women and the mentally ill faced in the late 1800s.
John: John is the husband of the unnamed narrator. He is an esteemed physician who is “practical to the extreme.” Although he claims that he wants his wife to feel free to make her own decisions, he ultimately makes all of her decisions for her. He cares for the narrator, but his patronizing tone and authoritarian attitudes stifle her. John’s character can thus be read as a symbol for the patriarchal society of the time.
Character Analysis Examples in The Yellow Wallpaper:
Notice how John’s refusal to believe his wife is “sick,” or to give credence to her feelings and fears about her condition, affects the narrator’s mental state throughout the story. As he is both her husband and a physician, John’s word carries ultimate authority for the narrator.
Notice how the language John uses when speaking to the narrator emphasizes the patronizing way in which he treats her. Addressing her as “little girl” fits right in with John’s isolation of his wife in a former nursery, his control over almost every aspect of her daily life, and his refusal to take what she says about herself seriously.
While there is something charming about the idea of a young girl's imagination getting the better of her, this line indicates that her mind has always been restless and that her current mental health issues are part of a larger pattern of troubles.
One of the major themes of "The Yellow Wallpaper" is silence and the way that women's voices are silenced. There's no medical reason for the narrator not to be allowed to write, but her husband doesn't like it because he is, by all accounts, very controlling and doesn't want her voice to be heard.
Modern readers will likely recognize this as a sign of infidelity. While the estate's remote location would make travel between patients difficult for John, we can't entirely discount the possibility that the narrator's husband is having an affair.
While Gilman's narrator has been diagnosed with hysteria, more likely she was suffering from postpartum depression and resultant psychosis. In the late 19th and early 20th Century doctors didn't recognize this illness and didn't take a woman's mental health very seriously, which resulted in many cases of misdiagnosis.