The Yellow Wallpaper

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The Mysterious Figure Symbol Analysis

The Mysterious Figure Symbol Icon
As the story progresses, the narrator begins to imagine that, in a certain light, a mysterious figure appears within the wallpaper. Eventually this figure takes on the form of a woman, and she seems to be trapped within the wallpaper. The narrator keeps this mysterious figure’s existence a secret from her husband, John, and in the story’s climax seeks to free her by destroying the wallpaper. The woman behind the wallpaper seems to represent the narrator’s own sense of confinement and being oppressed, and she eventually identifies herself entirely with this mysterious figure.

The Mysterious Figure Quotes in The Yellow Wallpaper

The The Yellow Wallpaper quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Mysterious Figure. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Mental Illness and its Treatment  Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin edition of The Yellow Wallpaper published in 2009.
Sixth Entry Quotes

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.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Wallpaper, The Mysterious Figure
Page Number: 175
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, as the narrator's mental conditions continues to worsen and she descends into her paranoid obsession with the wallpaper, there is a definite clue to the wallpaper's symbolic importance in the text—and to the reasons behind the narrator's mental illness. There is a mysterious figure trapped within the wallpaper—and a woman, nonetheless! The identity of this mysterious figure will not be resolved until the end of the tale, and even then it remains open to question. It may be a past inhabitant of this room, another mentally unstable and institutionally oppressed woman, or a reflection of the narrator herself, who is, after all, a woman imprisoned by the walls of her society and room. The explicit reference to bars is the clearest allusion to prison yet, and it's clear that the narrator does, in fact, feel as though she were stuck in prison, trapped in this room without an ally in the world aside from the diary in which she confides her secret depression and thoughts of rebellion against her husband and society. 

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Eighth Entry Quotes

There is a very funny mark on this wall, low down, near the mopboard. A streak that runs round the room. It goes behind every piece of furniture, except the bed, a long, straight, even SMOOCH, as if it had been rubbed over and over. I wonder how it was done and who did it, and what they did it for. Round and round and round—round and round and round—it makes me dizzy!

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Wallpaper, The Mysterious Figure
Page Number: 178
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote reveals another facet of the narrator's room, which suggests a sinister past while foreshadowing a dangerous future for the sick woman. The mysterious mark along the wall suggests an obsessive scratching at the wallpaper—something that the narrator herself might have done without being conscious of her action, or which the room's previous inhabitant, driven to a madness similar to the narrator's, may have created. In either case, the narrator is now misunderstanding something which the reader has reason to second guess, undermining her own reliability as a narrator. She does not, in fact, have perfect knowledge of the room's past—or even of her own present mental condition.

The motion suggested by the streak is an endless, circular pacing, the action of a caged animal, an idea that fits the mental state of the narrator in this moment. The repetition of "round and round and round" illustrates this mental state, as the narrator is sinking further into her obsession with the wallpaper, and has no means to escape the prison of forced idleness. Instead, she is forced to look at the same wallpaper, day after day, a boring task which has driven her to build out fantastical explanations for its odd patterns. 

Ninth Entry Quotes

And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Wallpaper, The Mysterious Figure
Page Number: 178
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, the mysterious figure returns to haunt the narrator. Instead of fear, however, there is now sympathy in the way that the narrator discusses the figure—like her, the mysterious figure is trapped by the strangling pattern of the wallpaper. In fact, the similarities between the mysterious figure trapped within the wallpaper and the narrator herself foreshadow the story's climax, when the narrator seemingly morphs into the mysterious figure herself.

The wallpaper has by now been transfigured into a malevolent, hydra-like creature in the narrator's mind (the hydra was a many-headed monster from Greek myth). Its strangling pattern, which entraps the mysterious figure and the narrator all at the same time, is a symbol of the many-headed monster of mental illness and societal oppression that has restricted the narrator's choices for so long, and led her down the path toward this dark, unhealthy obsession. The many heads, though, carry a sad as well as a scary connotation, since they also represent the many victims that have been strangled by this pattern. The narrator's situation is specific to her, but the illness from which she suffers, and the injustice that she faces as a woman, have affected countless others as well, who are now similarly frozen in the "wallpaper." 

Twelfth Entry Quotes

I suppose I shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard!
It is so pleasant to be out in this great room and creep around as I please! I don't want to go outside. I won't, even if Jennie asks me to.
For outside you have to creep on the ground, and everything is green instead of yellow.
But here I can creep smoothly on the floor, and my shoulder just fits in that long smooch around the wall, so I cannot lose my way.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Jennie
Related Symbols: The Wallpaper, The Mysterious Figure
Page Number: 181
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, the narrator begins to identify herself as the mysterious figure behind the wallpaper, as the story reaches its climax and spills into horror. There are still remnants of the narrator's identity intact—she seems to know who Jennie is, for example, which suggests that this new personality is more than just the ghost of a past resident of the room—but she has been taken over by a second personality, that of the woman behind the wallpaper. This woman seems to be a figment of the narrator's madness, a creature whose only instinct is to "creep" around and around.

The narrator used the word "creep" to describe her own action earlier in the tale, again suggesting that this second personality has been present behind the scenes (or in the narrator's subconscious) for some time now—perhaps since the first time that the narrator saw the mysterious figure within the wallpaper's confusing patterns. Furthermore, the "smooch" along the wall that the narrator was puzzling over in an earlier diary entry is perhaps explained by this description of the groove in which her shoulder fits as she circles the room. It seems likely that the narrator has been unconsciously giving herself over to this "second personality" for some time now without being aware of its influence (or else she is just succumbing to a similar kind of madness as the room's previous inhabitant). The narrator's attitude and diction have also been transformed, suggesting a complete mental breakdown. Rather than any hope of escape or recovery, this new narrator's only ambition is to creep endlessly around the "pleasant" room, enjoying its yellow color and repeating her every action in an obsessive cycle. 

"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!"
Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), John, Jennie
Related Symbols: The Wallpaper, The Mysterious Figure
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, the narrator speaks to John directly, in the voice of the mysterious figure from the wallpaper. This is the first mention in the story of anyone named "Jane'"—some readers have suggested that this is a typo (or the narrator misspeaking), and the narrator is referring to Jennie, while others believe that Jane could be the name of the narrator herself, who is not otherwise named in the story. From her triumphant speech, it is clear that the narrator has slipped into madness primarily as a last resort attempt to escape the clutches of her husband and sister-in-law, who, along with society more generally, restricted her self-expression and identity. 

John faints here, in an interesting reversal of gender roles that has him taking on the more feminine, fragile action while the narrator triumphs over him. This suggests that the trauma of his wife's breakdown might have shaken his strict adherence to these traditional roles, which blinded him to the true severity of her condition. It also suggests that he, too, is a victim, in a sense, of society's gender expectations, and of the medical practice of the time. He is completely shocked by his wife's breakdown, since his principles as a doctor and a man led him to ignore her complaints early in the story, and to reject any attempt at communication that she made. And yet his actions were ultimately motivated by love for his wife, and it was misunderstanding on a structural as much as a personal level that brought about her descent into madness. 

The story ends with the frightening image of the narrator's persistent, creeping, circling motion, as she steps over the prone body of her husband again and again. 

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The Mysterious Figure Symbol Timeline in The Yellow Wallpaper

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Mysterious Figure appears in The Yellow Wallpaper. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Second Entry
Mental Illness and its Treatment  Theme Icon
Gender Roles and Domestic Life Theme Icon
Outward Appearance vs. Inner Life Theme Icon
...the wallpaper, in which, when the light is just right, she can see a mysterious figure that ‘seems to skulk’ in a sub-pattern. Jennie’s approach on the stairs interrupts her musing,... (full context)
Fourth Entry
Mental Illness and its Treatment  Theme Icon
Gender Roles and Domestic Life Theme Icon
Outward Appearance vs. Inner Life Theme Icon
Self-Expression, Miscommunication, and Misunderstanding Theme Icon
...Jennie, but she watches it more and more closely. She can make out the dim figure behind the pattern more clearly now: it is the repeated shape of a woman, stooping... (full context)
Fifth Entry
Mental Illness and its Treatment  Theme Icon
Outward Appearance vs. Inner Life Theme Icon
...crept in the windows. She lay awake watching the light on the pattern, seeing the figure seem to move behind it, and then got up to feel if it had in... (full context)
Sixth Entry
Mental Illness and its Treatment  Theme Icon
Gender Roles and Domestic Life Theme Icon
Outward Appearance vs. Inner Life Theme Icon
...as the light changes. At night, the pattern becomes bars, and she sees the mysterious figure of a woman behind them. The figure puzzles and intrigues her, as she lies in... (full context)
Ninth Entry
Mental Illness and its Treatment  Theme Icon
Gender Roles and Domestic Life Theme Icon
Outward Appearance vs. Inner Life Theme Icon
The narrator has made a discovery: the front pattern does move, because the mysterious figure of the woman shakes it by crawling around fast and shaking the bars formed by... (full context)
Tenth Entry
Mental Illness and its Treatment  Theme Icon
Outward Appearance vs. Inner Life Theme Icon
Self-Expression, Miscommunication, and Misunderstanding Theme Icon
The narrator confides in the reader that she has seen the mysterious woman escape the wallpaper during the day, creeping along on the shaded lane. The narrator knows... (full context)
Twelfth Entry
Mental Illness and its Treatment  Theme Icon
Outward Appearance vs. Inner Life Theme Icon
Self-Expression, Miscommunication, and Misunderstanding Theme Icon
...overnight. As soon as the moon appears, she begins her attempt to free the mysterious figure, peeling yards of the wallpaper away in a strip around the room. When Jennie sees... (full context)
Mental Illness and its Treatment  Theme Icon
Gender Roles and Domestic Life Theme Icon
Outward Appearance vs. Inner Life Theme Icon
Here, the perspective shifts. The narrator begins to speak as though she were the mysterious woman behind the wallpaper, just escaped. She can creep around in the room as much as... (full context)