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Symbols in The Yellow Wallpaper

“The Yellow Wallpaper” has long been dissected by literary scholars for its abundant use of symbols. Many literary scholars consider the titular wallpaper a symbol of patriarchy that the narrator attempts to tear down. The nursery room with barred windows serves as a symbol for her imprisonment and isolation. Finally, the narrator’s mirror image in the wallpaper works as a symbol for the narrator’s repressed self who desires to be set free from domicility and female oppression.

Symbols Examples in The Yellow Wallpaper:

The Yellow Wallpaper

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"Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard...."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

Here, Gilman creates a symbolic moment in which the narrator’s mirror image shakes the bars of the window. The mirror image—whom readers should now recognize as the narrator herself—attempts to break free from her confinement in the nursery. She wishes to break free from this room, and on a larger thematic scale, the bonds of patriarchy and marriage.

"It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw—not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things...."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

When readers think of the color yellow, they might picture “buttercups,” sunlight, or other bright, pleasant images. However, here Gilman subverts the meaning of yellow, instead associating it with sickness, decay, and death. The narrator does not explicitly delineate all the “bad yellow things,” but readers can likely imagine some of the grotesque things she might be envisioning.

"At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candle light, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be...."   (The Yellow Wallpaper)

Throughout the story, the narrator descends further into madness. Conversely, the image in the wallpaper becomes clearer. As the moonlight casts its glare onto the windows, the narrator finally perceives in the wallpaper an image of a woman behind bars. By now, readers should understand that the narrator is not seeing another woman but a reflection of herself in the yellow wallpaper. The narrator’s mirror image serves as a symbol for her own repressed self who desires to break free from the bars of forced subservience.

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