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The Yellow Wallpaper Study Guide

by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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The Yellow Wallpaper Literary Analysis

Table of contents

  1. Conflict
  2. Setting
  3. Point of View
  4. Tone
  5. Symbolism
  6. Imagery
  7. Foreshadowing
  8. The Yellow Wallpaper
    The Locked Room
    The Bed
    The Moonlight

Conflict

The conflict in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" is both internal and external. The protagonist of the story, the unnamed narrator, is struggling with her own mental health issues, while also facing external conflicts with her husband, John, and societal expectations of women during the time period in which the story is set.

The internal conflict the narrator faces is primarily driven by her declining mental health. She is suffering from what is likely postpartum depression, but her husband and brother, both doctors, have diagnosed her with a "temporary nervous depression" and have prescribed her the rest cure, which involves complete inactivity and isolation. The narrator's mind becomes increasingly fixated on the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom, which she sees as a symbol of her own entrapment. As she descends further into madness, she becomes more obsessed with the wallpaper and begins to see a woman trapped behind it. This symbolizes the narrator's own trapped and deteriorating state of mind.

The external conflict the narrator faces is primarily with her husband, John. While he is well-intentioned in trying to help her, he is also controlling and dismissive of her concerns. He condescends to her, infantilizes her, and disregards her wishes. He forbids her from working, writing, or doing anything other than resting, despite the fact that these activities might be beneficial to her mental health. His control over her is symbolized by the fact that he holds the key to the room where she is confined, and the narrator's inability to escape this confinement represents her lack of agency in her own life.

Additionally, the external conflict is also driven by societal expectations of women during the time period in which the story is set. The narrator is expected to be a submissive wife and mother, and any deviation from this role is seen as a threat to the social order. This is exemplified by the narrator's brother, who is also a doctor, and who believes that women's mental health issues are simply a result of their "nerves" and that they need to be kept in line by their husbands. The narrator's own struggles with her mental health are dismissed as hysteria, and she is not allowed to take control of her own treatment.

Overall, the conflict in "The Yellow Wallpaper" is driven by the narrator's internal struggles with her own mental health, as well as the external conflicts she faces with her husband and societal expectations of women. The story is a commentary on the treatment of women during the time period in which it was written, and it highlights the ways in which women's voices were silenced and their agency was taken away.

Setting

The setting in "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman plays a crucial role in conveying the story's themes and establishing the atmosphere of the narrative. The setting of the story is confined to one room in a summer house, which serves as a symbol of the protagonist's confinement and isolation from the outside world. The room with the yellow wallpaper becomes an increasingly oppressive and sinister presence as the story progresses, reflecting the protagonist's deteriorating mental state.

The physical setting of the room with the yellow wallpaper is described in detail, emphasizing its stark and austere nature. The protagonist describes the room as having "barred windows" and "rings and things" in the walls, which suggest that the room was once used as a prison or asylum. This setting immediately creates a sense of confinement and isolation, as the protagonist is trapped in this room without any form of meaningful activity or human interaction.

The yellow wallpaper in the room serves as a symbol of the protagonist's deteriorating mental state. The wallpaper is described as having a "repellant, almost revolting" pattern, which the protagonist fixates on as she becomes increasingly obsessed with her surroundings. The pattern of the wallpaper is compared to "strangled heads" and "bulbous eyes," suggesting a sense of horror and oppression that reflects the protagonist's deteriorating mental state. The wallpaper becomes a physical manifestation of the protagonist's confinement and isolation, as she becomes increasingly fixated on it and sees patterns and images that others do not.

Moreover, the setting of the summer house and the surrounding environment also play an important role in the story. The protagonist's confinement to the summer house and the surrounding grounds creates a sense of isolation and detachment from the outside world. The setting is described as "quite alone, standing well back from the road," emphasizing the protagonist's isolation from society and the world at large.

The setting also serves as a reflection of the societal expectations and restrictions placed on women during the late 19th century. The summer house is described as a place of rest and recovery for women suffering from "temporary nervous depression," which was a common diagnosis for women at the time who were struggling with mental health issues. The rest cure prescribed for the protagonist reflects the societal expectations that women should be passive and submissive, and that their mental and emotional struggles were often dismissed or ignored.

In conclusion, the setting of "The Yellow Wallpaper" plays a crucial role in conveying the story's themes and establishing the atmosphere of the narrative. The room with the yellow wallpaper serves as a symbol of the protagonist's confinement and isolation, while the surrounding environment reflects the societal expectations and restrictions placed on women during the late 19th century. The oppressive and sinister nature of the setting reflects the protagonist's deteriorating mental state and highlights the devastating consequences of denying women their autonomy and agency.

Point of View

The point of view in "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is first-person limited, as the story is told from the perspective of the protagonist, who is also the narrator. The use of this point of view is significant, as it allows the reader to experience the protagonist's mental deterioration and empathize with her struggles.

The use of first-person limited point of view allows the reader to see the world of the story through the protagonist's eyes, and to experience her thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. The reader is privy to the protagonist's internal struggles, including her increasing sense of isolation and detachment from the outside world, her obsession with the yellow wallpaper, and her growing sense of despair and hopelessness. This point of view allows the reader to feel a strong connection with the protagonist and to understand the depth of her suffering.

The first-person point of view is also significant in conveying the themes of the story, including the oppressive nature of societal expectations and gender roles, the devastating consequences of denying women their autonomy and agency, and the importance of self-expression and freedom. By experiencing the story through the protagonist's perspective, the reader is able to fully understand the extent to which the protagonist is confined and constrained by societal expectations and gender roles. The reader also witnesses the devastating consequences of denying women their autonomy and agency, as the protagonist's mental state deteriorates under the weight of her confinement and isolation.

The point of view also highlights the importance of self-expression and freedom, as the protagonist's struggle to express herself and assert her autonomy is at the heart of the story. Through the protagonist's internal monologue and the detailed descriptions of the yellow wallpaper, the reader sees the importance of self-expression and creative freedom as a means of maintaining mental health and emotional well-being. The protagonist's increasing obsession with the wallpaper reflects her growing desire for self-expression and agency, and her eventual triumph over the oppressive forces that have confined her is a testament to the importance of these values.

Finally, the use of first-person point of view is significant in creating a sense of tension and suspense throughout the story. As the protagonist's mental state deteriorates, the reader becomes increasingly invested in her plight and eager to see how she will escape her confinement. The use of this point of view allows the reader to experience the full impact of the story's twists and turns, and to fully appreciate the protagonist's eventual triumph over her oppressive circumstances.

In conclusion, the use of first-person limited point of view in "The Yellow Wallpaper" is significant in conveying the protagonist's internal struggles and highlighting the themes of the story. This point of view allows the reader to experience the story through the protagonist's perspective, creating a strong sense of empathy and investment in her plight. The use of this point of view also creates a sense of tension and suspense, making the story a gripping and powerful work of literature.

Tone

The use of tone in "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is crucial to the overall impact and meaning of the story. Through the use of a complex and shifting tone, Gilman is able to create a sense of psychological tension and emotional intensity that is essential to the story's themes and effects.

At the beginning of the story, the tone is somewhat neutral and detached, as the protagonist describes the setting and her initial impressions of the house. However, as the story progresses, the tone becomes increasingly ominous and unsettling, reflecting the protagonist's growing sense of anxiety and disorientation. The protagonist's descriptions of the yellow wallpaper are particularly significant in this regard, as the tone shifts from detached observation to feverish obsession, mirroring the protagonist's own mental state.

The use of a shifting tone is also important in highlighting the story's themes, particularly the theme of oppression and confinement. The neutral and detached tone at the beginning of the story reflects the protagonist's initial acceptance of her situation, as she believes that her confinement is necessary for her health. However, as the story progresses, the tone becomes increasingly oppressive and suffocating, reflecting the protagonist's growing sense of confinement and powerlessness. The use of this shifting tone highlights the insidious nature of oppression and confinement, and the devastating effects that they can have on a person's mental and emotional well-being.

In addition to creating a sense of psychological tension and highlighting the story's themes, the use of tone is also significant in creating a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty. Throughout the story, the reader is never quite sure what is real and what is imagined, and the shifting tone contributes to this sense of ambiguity. The reader is forced to question whether the protagonist is really experiencing the events of the story or whether they are all in her mind. The use of tone is crucial in creating this sense of uncertainty, as it reflects the protagonist's own confusion and disorientation.

Finally, the use of tone is significant in creating a sense of emotional intensity and impact. The story's final scenes are particularly powerful, as the protagonist breaks free from her confinement and embraces her own autonomy and agency. The tone shifts from oppressive and suffocating to triumphant and empowering, reflecting the protagonist's own sense of liberation and empowerment. The use of tone in these final scenes is essential in conveying the emotional impact of the story, and in leaving a lasting impression on the reader.

In conclusion, the use of tone in "The Yellow Wallpaper" is crucial to the overall impact and meaning of the story. Through the use of a shifting and complex tone, Gilman is able to create a sense of psychological tension and emotional intensity that is essential to the story's themes and effects. The use of tone also contributes to the story's sense of ambiguity and uncertainty, and is essential in creating a sense of emotional impact and leaving a lasting impression on the reader.

Symbolism

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a story that is rich in symbolism. From the wallpaper to the locked room, the story is full of images that serve as powerful symbols of the protagonist's mental and emotional state. In this section, the major sources of symbolism in The Yellow Wallpaper are explained in detail.

The Yellow Wallpaper

The most obvious and powerful symbol in the story is the yellow wallpaper itself. At first, the protagonist describes the wallpaper as "repellent, almost revolting," and she is initially repulsed by it. However, as she becomes more and more obsessed with it, the wallpaper takes on new meaning. The wallpaper comes to represent the protagonist's own confinement and oppression, as she is trapped within the room just as the figure in the wallpaper is trapped within the pattern. The wallpaper also represents the protagonist's own mental and emotional state, as the twisting, chaotic pattern mirrors the protagonist's own increasingly fragmented and disturbed psyche.

The smell is also an important element of the yellow wallpaper symbolism in the story. The protagonist describes the smell as "fungus" and "musty," which are both unpleasant and potentially dangerous. The smell of the wallpaper represents the protagonist's own deteriorating mental and emotional state, as she becomes increasingly obsessed with the wallpaper and begins to lose touch with reality.

The Locked Room

The locked room is also one of the most powerful symbols in The Yellow Wallpaper. The room represents the protagonist's own confinement and isolation, as she is cut off from the rest of the world and denied any agency or autonomy. The room also represents the patriarchal society that the protagonist is trapped within, as she is prevented from exercising her own will or making her own decisions.

The Bed

The bed is another important symbol in the story. The bed represents the protagonist's own entrapment and confinement, as she is forced to spend most of her time lying in bed. The bed also represents the protagonist's own submission to patriarchal authority, as she is forced to rely on her husband and the "rest cure" that he has prescribed for her.

The Moonlight

The moonlight that shines through the window is a symbol of hope and freedom. The protagonist describes the moonlight as "barred" and "shut out," just like she is. However, as the story progresses and the protagonist becomes more and more determined to break free from her confinement, the moonlight takes on new meaning. The moonlight comes to represent the protagonist's own desire for freedom and autonomy, and her determination to break free from the oppressive forces that have been holding her back.

In conclusion, "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a story that is full of powerful symbols that serve to deepen the story's themes and impact. From the yellow wallpaper to the moonlight, each symbol in the story has its own unique significance and contributes to the overall meaning of the story. Through the use of these symbols, Gilman is able to create a powerful and haunting portrait of a woman struggling against the forces of oppression and confinement.

Imagery

"The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a short story that is celebrated for its use of imagery to portray the psychological deterioration of the protagonist. The story is set in a secluded country house where a woman suffering from a nervous condition is confined by her physician husband to a single room. As the story progresses, the protagonist becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper in her room, and the imagery associated with it takes on a symbolic significance that reflects the character's descent into madness.

One of the most striking images in the story is the yellow wallpaper itself. At first, the protagonist sees the wallpaper as merely "dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study." However, as she becomes more fixated on it, she sees a woman trapped behind the pattern, desperately trying to escape. This imagery of a trapped woman becomes a metaphor for the protagonist's own imprisonment and feelings of helplessness.

Another important image is the pattern of the wallpaper, which the protagonist describes as "an interminable string of toadstools, budding and sprouting in endless convolutions." The use of the word "interminable" emphasizes the oppressive nature of the pattern, which seems to go on endlessly and without purpose. The toadstools themselves are a symbol of decay and madness, which are themes that permeate the story.

The imagery of the barred windows in the protagonist's room also contributes to the overall sense of imprisonment and confinement. The windows serve as a physical reminder of the character's isolation and helplessness, and the protagonist often compares herself to a prisoner trapped in a cell.

The use of imagery in "The Yellow Wallpaper" is powerful because it allows the reader to see the world through the protagonist's increasingly distorted and fragmented perspective. The images of the wallpaper, the toadstools, and the barred windows all contribute to a sense of claustrophobia and entrapment that is central to the story's themes of confinement and madness.

Overall, the use of imagery in "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a crucial aspect of the story's effectiveness. Through vivid and powerful descriptions of the wallpaper, the toadstools, and the barred windows, the author creates a world that is suffocating and oppressive, and the reader is drawn into the protagonist's increasingly unstable mind. Ultimately, the imagery serves to underscore the story's critique of the medical establishment and its treatment of women, and highlights the ways in which social norms and gender roles can contribute to mental illness.

Foreshadowing

"The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a haunting short story that effectively uses foreshadowing to build tension and create a sense of dread. Foreshadowing is a literary device that hints at what will happen later in the story, and "The Yellow Wallpaper" is rich with examples of foreshadowing that contribute to the story's overall mood of psychological horror.

From the beginning of the story, the protagonist's nervous condition and her confinement to a single room are ominous signs that something is not right. The fact that her husband is a physician who believes he knows what is best for her, despite her protests, sets the stage for the eventual breakdown that the protagonist will experience. This early foreshadowing hints at the story's critique of the medical establishment and its treatment of women, and suggests that the protagonist's eventual madness is the result of her confinement and the lack of agency she is allowed.

As the story progresses, the protagonist's growing fixation on the yellow wallpaper in her room becomes increasingly troubling. She describes the wallpaper as "repellant, almost revolting," and the fact that she is so drawn to it is a clear indication that she is not well. The narrator's repeated descriptions of the wallpaper's pattern as "slanting waves" and "creeping" also hint at the story's eventual climax, in which the protagonist sees a woman trapped behind the pattern and becomes convinced that she must free her.

Another example of foreshadowing in The Yellow Wallpaper is the narrator's growing sense of paranoia and fear. As she becomes more obsessed with the wallpaper and more isolated from the outside world, she begins to imagine that the room is haunted and that there are other people watching her. Her fear and paranoia foreshadow the story's eventual descent into madness and delusion.

Finally, the use of the word "creeping" to describe the wallpaper's pattern is significant because it is also used to describe the protagonist's own mental state. The creeping wallpaper becomes a metaphor for the creeping madness that is slowly overtaking the protagonist, and the use of this word throughout the story is a clear indication of what is to come.

In conclusion, "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a masterful example of the use of foreshadowing to create tension and build suspense. From the story's opening scenes, the reader is given hints of what is to come, and the growing sense of unease and dread is palpable throughout. By using foreshadowing to hint at the story's eventual descent into madness and horror, Charlotte Perkins Gilman creates a powerful and unforgettable work of psychological horror.

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