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Character Analysis in The Yellow Wallpaper

The Unnamed Narrator: Charlotte Perkins Gilman presents subtle clues to help readers determine the identity of the unnamed narrator. Reader can infer that the narrator is an upper-class married woman who just gave birth to a baby boy. She likely suffers from postpartum depression and exhibits symptoms such as mood swings and exhaustion. 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 tendencies stifle her. John’s character serves as a symbol for the patriarchal society of the time.

Character Analysis Examples in The Yellow Wallpaper:

The Yellow Wallpaper

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"for he sat up straight and looked at me with such a stern, reproachful look that I could not say another word...."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

The adjectives “stern” and “reproachful” mean harsh and disapproving, respectively. After the narrator’s second failed attempt to stand up for herself, John shoots her such a powerful look of disapproval that she immediately quiets down. This moment highlights the power John has over his wife to acquiesce and oppress her.

"I am a doctor, dear, and I know. ..."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

In an effort to establish his credibility and superiority over his wife, John asserts that since he is a doctor, he knows better than she. Readers should note the irony as he states that the narrator is getting better when she is clearly only getting worse. The narrator tries to stand up for herself, but John patronizingly quiets her again, saying “Bless her little heart!”

"And dear John gathered me up in his arms, and just carried me upstairs and laid me on the bed, and sat by me and read to me till it tired my head...."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

In another instance of infantilization, John coddles the narrator and lays her down to rest. Notice the irony as John asks the narrator to take care of herself, when in fact his very treatment of her—his prescriptions, his isolating her, and his complete oppression of her every choice—has caused her to descend into madness.

"But I MUST say what I feel and think in some way—it is such a relief!..."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

The narrator finds herself in a bind. On the one hand, she feels guilty for indulging in writing, a practice her husband hasn’t prescribed; on the other, writing is the one activity that offers her a sense of autonomy and freedom of expression. Without the ability to write and to express herself in the face of the stifling oppression of her husband, she might easily lose her voice. Despite her fear of getting caught, the narrator continues to write, recognizing that this solitary practice is her only source of power.

"I don't know why I should write this. I don't want to. I don't feel able...."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

Although most of the short story is structured into a series of one- or two-sentence paragraphs, this sequence of sentences stands out specifically for its briefness. This sequence of curt sentences encapsulates the narrator’s state of mind. Her raving “fancies” have left her mind exhausted and her body depleted.

"I'm getting dreadfully fretful and querulous...."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

The adjectives “fretful” and “querulous” mean restless and whining, respectively. As the story progresses, the narrator’s mental state deteriorates further. Her husband fails to provide her with accurate treatment and stifles her only creative outlet. As a result, she descends into madness, going so far as to imagine someone hiding behind the wallpaper.

"So I try...."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

The short story brings up issues over the compatibility of imagination and realism. The narrator, a writer, often “fancies” the happenings of the world around her. John, in contrast, is a man of science and does not divulge in “story-making.” There is a clear dichotomy between how the two individuals cope with their surroundings—the narrator does so through imaginative thinking, and John does so with practical thinking.

"I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency...."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

The verb “to fancy” means to imagine something, often capricious or delusively. Readers should note that the narrator uses this word, which carries negative connotations, instead of the comparatively neutral “imagine.” Her husband has made her believe that her power of imagination is dangerous, and any that such thinking should be eliminated.

"Then he took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose,..."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

To silence the narrator, John often resorts to coddling her and calling her pet names. Here, he calls her “a blessed little goose” and comforts her like a child. By infantilizing the narrator, John dismisses her pleas to go downstairs. This pattern recurs frequently throughout the story—whenever the narrator raises an opinion, John silences her.

"It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. Such a dear baby! And yet I CANNOT be with him, it makes me so nervous...."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

Here, readers encounter the first of only two times the narrator mentions her baby. From these few lines readers can gather the key information that the narrator’s baby is a boy who is cared for by a nursemaid, Mary. As the she states, the narrator does not spend very much time with her son because doing so causes her to become anxious and experience feelings of exhaustion and sadness. Readers can ascertain that her nervous condition may be the result of postpartum depression.

"He said that after the wall-paper was changed it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the stairs, and so on. ..."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

Notice how every element of the nursery room is intended to keep the narrator confined. The bedstead is nailed to the floor, the windows are barred, and the stairs are shut off by a gate. Despite the narrator’s plea to go downstairs, John insists that this confinement serves her some good. The narrator even begins to think so herself.

"chintz hangings..."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

The word “chintz” refers to the calicoes, or the printed cotton fabric, of India. The narrator desires color and animation—revealed through her wish to stay in the downstairs bedroom with the roses and chintz. However, at her husband’s urging, the couple sleeps in the nursery upstairs, which is contrastingly characterized by its dark, Gothic elements.

"But what is one to do?..."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is formatted as the narrator’s journal entries. She takes up writing whenever she needs relief and often writes in the second person, as though she were speaking to a friend. However, her husband disapproves of this practice and chastises her whenever he sees her writing. The narrator, in turn, must write in secret. This circumstance lends her writing a tone of abruptness and curtness. Everything she writes is in one or two sentence increments and she often signs off when she sees her husband approaching. The brisk nature of these sentences demonstrates her anxiety and precariousness. She fears her husband’s “heavy opposition” and must write quickly and furtively. The format of these sentences also demonstrate how she dismisses her own thoughts, just as her husband does. The narrator will start with one thought and never finish it, instead cutting herself short as she begins the following sentence. In other instances, she will abruptly end a sentence by imagining how John would dismiss her.

"So I take phosphates or phosphites—whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to "work" until I am well again...."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

The narrator’s inability to differentiate between phosphates and phosphites demonstrates her addled state of mind and her inability to make sense of her reality. She employs the literary tool of polysyndeton—the repeated use of conjunctions without commas—to highlight her husband’s ineptitude. Since he is a so-called wise physician, he believes that he will be able to cure his wife. He prescribes her various medications, advises her not to work, and forces her to exercise. None of his instructions cure her; instead, his iron fist stifles her.

"And what can one do?..."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

The unnamed narrator of the story repeatedly intersperses her journal entries with rhetorical questions. In the first several paragraphs alone, the narrator asks herself, “And what can one do?”, “What is one to do?”, and “But what is one to do?” Using variations of the same refrain, Gilman hints at the narrator’s sense of confinement and her inability to think for herself. Each time she poses this question, the narrator cannot come up with an answer. In this environment—secluded in the nursery of a Gothic home on rest cure—the narrator cannot formulate her thoughts. Thus she is forced to repeatedly ask the same futile questions.

"he does not believe I am sick..."   (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.

""What is it, little girl?"..."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

Notice how the language John uses when speaking to the narrator reveals the patronizing way in which he treats her. Addressing her as “little girl” bolsters 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.

"I used to lie awake as a child..."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

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 could be part of a larger pattern of troubles.

"he hates to have me write a word..."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

One of the major themes of "The Yellow Wallpaper" is silence and the way that women's voices are silenced. There's no physical reason for the narrator not to be allowed to write, but under her rest cure, it is prohibited to her. Her husband is very controlling in the enforcement of her treatment, preventing her voice from being heard.

"and even some nights..."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

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.

"nervous condition..."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

While Gilman's narrator has been diagnosed with hysteria, that was frequently used as a "catch-all" for a variety of different diagnoses. Most likely, she is suffering from postpartum depression and resultant psychosis. In the late 19th and early 20th century doctors didn't recognize postpartum depression as an illness and didn't take a woman's mental health very seriously, which resulted in many cases of misdiagnosis.

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