The Yellow Wallpaper

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The Wallpaper Symbol Analysis

The Wallpaper Symbol Icon
The yellow wallpaper of the ‘nursery’ gives this story its title, and becomes an obsession of the narrator, who begins to view it as a living entity. Its significance shifts as the story progresses, but it is most importantly a symbol of the narrator’s worsening mental state. It is partly a puzzle that confounds interpretation, a challenge to be overcome, and partly a malevolent, all-pervasive force that keeps her from resting soundly. Since the narrator is unable to convince her husband, John, to change the wallpaper, it also represents her impotence in the household and his dismissal of her concerns.

The Wallpaper Quotes in The Yellow Wallpaper

The The Yellow Wallpaper quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Wallpaper. 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.
First Entry Quotes

The paint and paper look as if a boys' school had used it. It is stripped off—the paper—in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Wallpaper
Page Number: 168
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote describes the narrator's room at the top of the house, and introduces the titular yellow wallpaper to the reader for the first time. Here, again, in the stripped, torn paper, is a clue that the house hides a dark and mysterious past behind its grand exterior—this would also help explain why the vacationing couple were able to acquire it so cheaply. The narrator’s explanation that a “boy’s school” may have used it in the past is thrown into question by what happens later in the story, as she begins to tear the wallpaper herself; there is thus the implication that this room may have once housed a mentally ill woman like the narrator. This suggests that the plight of the narrator is not just her own, but that of many women in her time. The narrator’s misinterpretation of the stripped paper creates suspense in the reader, for whom the torn paper foreshadows the violence of the breakdown to come. Even if the room is, in fact, a former schoolhouse, the fact that it has now become the narrator’s isolation chamber continues to drive home the idea that women are treated as infants by society, fanciful and fragile creatures with no control over their own lives.

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Third Entry Quotes

But, on the other hand, they connect diagonally, and the sprawling outlines run off in great slanting waves of optic horror, like a lot of wallowing seaweeds in full chase.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Wallpaper
Page Number: 172
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, the narrator begins to fixate on the yellow wallpaper, seeing her own illness reflected in its horrid patterns (not unlike a Rorschach psychological test, or "inkblot test"). The organic, overwhelming, chaotic images that the narrator selects hint at her own confused inner life. She feels deeply disturbed by the wallpaper's pattern, whose horror chases her every waking moment as she lies idle and alone in this isolated room. The wave imagery, in combination with the reference to wallowing seaweed, gives the impression that the narrator is underwater in this room, drowning in her illness and frustration. She attempts to interpret the seemingly patternless paper, reading meaning into the random, "sprawling outlines." This desperate act of interpretation echoes the reader's quest to take meaning from the patterns of the narrator's diary entries, perceiving hints of secret horror underneath the surface of the narrator's polite tone. 

Of course I never mention it to them any more—I am too wise,—but I keep watch of it all the same.
There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will ...

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Wallpaper
Page Number: 174
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, the narrator's obsession with the wallpaper takes a more sinister turn. Here, she confides in her diary that there are secrets within the wallpaper that she is keeping from John and Jennie. Her decision to deceive them is definite now—she is "too wise" to let on about her watchful vigil over the wallpaper, since she knows that neither of them will credit her feeling. John has already proven that he will disregard any complaint she has, and so the narrator begins to construct an isolating barrier between herself and the people around her, retreating deeper into her illness and this diary.

Given the Gothic features of this story, and the ominous clues that the house has a sinister past life, the reader might be led to believe that there is, in fact, a haunted life within this room and this wallpaper. At the very least, the illness and oppression that the narrator feel are deeply real, and the wallpaper comes to symbolize these horrifying features of her life. 

Sixth Entry Quotes

On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind… You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back-somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you. It is like a bad dream.

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

In this quote, the narrator’s fixation with the wallpaper’s mystifying pattern takes on new power. She personifies the pattern, assigning to it a string of violent actions that express the ways in which her struggle to interpret this wallpaper—really a struggle to understand her own illness and oppression—have left her broken and haunted. Although she still thinks of herself as a "normal mind," it is clear by this point that her environment has taken a serious toll on her mental health. This growing obsession with the wallpaper, which is "like a bad dream," signals a troubled mind, and her choice of imagery to describe the paper cast it as an assaulting force, something which she must confront in complete isolation, misunderstood by everyone around her and confined to this menacing chamber. 

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. 

Eighth Entry Quotes

It used to disturb me at first. I thought seriously of burning the house—to reach the smell. But now I am used to it. The only thing I can think of that it is like is the COLOR of the paper! A yellow smell.

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

In this quote, the narrator continues her obsessive description of the insidious wallpaper. The blending of senses here—sight and smell—seems to signal a further shift in the narrator's mental condition. The intensity of her inner turmoil is such that she has considered burning down the house, an offhand admission that gives the reader a frightening glimpse of just how far the narrator has slipped into her illness since the early entries, when her writing was measured and polite. The fact that the wallpaper has taken on a smell for the narrator now also suggests that its influence is completely inescapable—she cannot even close her eyes to evade its effects. The shift in her reaction to his invasion, from disturbance and distaste to acceptance, also suggests that she has ceased fighting against her dangerous fantasies, and has moved further still into her illness, continuing to distance herself from the reach of John or Jennie, entirely isolated in her struggle with the wallpaper. 

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

Then I peeled off all the paper I could reach standing on the floor. It sticks horribly and the pattern just enjoys it! All those strangled heads and bulbous eyes and waddling fungus growths just shriek with derision!

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

In this quote the narrator describes the beginning of her assault on the yellow wallpaper, demonstrating a further slide into madness. In her mind the inanimate wallpaper laughs mockingly at her desperate attempts to tear it down. The narrator tries to evade her illness's corrupting influence, but is only met with derision from the "strangled heads" of the wallpaper's previous victims. Fungus appears here as a symbol of madness and sickness, an unclean, infecting organism. 

This tearing of the wallpaper is further evidence that earlier clues in the narrator's diary entry (specifically, her observations that someone has been tearing the wallpaper) have a secret significance. At first, the narrator had interpreted these tears as a remnant of the schoolroom that may have occupied this chamber before her, but now it seems increasingly obvious that the room has imprisoned another woman (or several women) like her. The streaking scratch that circles the room is potentially another sign of these past inhabitants, but the possibility that the narrator herself created the tear without being aware of her actions remains possible as well. 

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 Wallpaper Symbol Timeline in The Yellow Wallpaper

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Wallpaper appears in The Yellow Wallpaper. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
First Entry
Mental Illness and its Treatment  Theme Icon
Outward Appearance vs. Inner Life Theme Icon
Self-Expression, Miscommunication, and Misunderstanding Theme Icon
...on the window to prevent children from falling. She objects only to the room’s yellow wallpaper, which she finds irritating, repellent, and full of contradictions and outrageous angles. (full context)
Second Entry
Gender Roles and Domestic Life Theme Icon
The narrator has tried unsuccessfully to convince John to change the wallpaper, but he laughed at her silliness and refused to renovate the house for their short... (full context)
Mental Illness and its Treatment  Theme Icon
Outward Appearance vs. Inner Life Theme Icon
The narrator’s focus shifts to the wallpaper. She says it looks as though it ‘KNEW what a vicious influence it had.’ She... (full context)
Outward Appearance vs. Inner Life Theme Icon
Self-Expression, Miscommunication, and Misunderstanding Theme Icon
...kindly this time; it is ravaged, with gouged and splintered floors, large tears in the wallpaper, and a great heavy bed that was the only piece of furniture present when they... (full context)
Mental Illness and its Treatment  Theme Icon
Gender Roles and Domestic Life Theme Icon
Outward Appearance vs. Inner Life Theme Icon
...describes her as a ‘perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper.’ The narrator’s attention then returns to the wallpaper, in which, when the light is just right, she can see a mysterious figure that... (full context)
Third Entry
Mental Illness and its Treatment  Theme Icon
Outward Appearance vs. Inner Life Theme Icon
Self-Expression, Miscommunication, and Misunderstanding Theme Icon
...away, the narrator walks in the garden or lies in her room, staring at the wallpaper. She feels determined to find some sort of rhyme or reason behind its ‘pointless pattern.’... (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
...living in the nursery: it means that her baby is not exposed to the horrible wallpaper, and can be happy and well. She has stopped mentioning the wallpaper to her husband... (full context)
Fifth Entry
Outward Appearance vs. Inner Life Theme Icon
Self-Expression, Miscommunication, and Misunderstanding Theme Icon
...argument is over, the narrator lay awake for hours staring at the pattern in the wallpaper. (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
The narrator dwells on the irritating lack of regularity in the wallpaper, which defies her ‘like a bad dream,’ resembling a fungus. She explains the wallpaper’s secret:... (full context)
Mental Illness and its Treatment  Theme Icon
Self-Expression, Miscommunication, and Misunderstanding Theme Icon
...narrator is beginning to distrust both John and Jennie, and suspects that it is the wallpaper’s fault. The narrator once caught Jennie with her hand on the wall, and she believes... (full context)
Seventh Entry
Mental Illness and its Treatment  Theme Icon
Outward Appearance vs. Inner Life Theme Icon
Self-Expression, Miscommunication, and Misunderstanding Theme Icon
...is feeling an improvement in her mood. She says the change is due to the wallpaper, although John doesn’t know that and she ‘has no intention of telling him.’ She is... (full context)
Eighth Entry
Mental Illness and its Treatment  Theme Icon
Outward Appearance vs. Inner Life Theme Icon
...She sleeps during the day, and stays up at night watching for ‘developments’ in the wallpaper. Its foulness continues to disturb her, its color and also now its smell. It seems... (full context)
Mental Illness and its Treatment  Theme Icon
Self-Expression, Miscommunication, and Misunderstanding Theme Icon
...is ‘a yellow smell.’ She has also noticed a long, straight even streak in the wallpaper that runs all the way around the room, ‘as if it had been rubbed over... (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 it is the... (full context)
Eleventh Entry
Mental Illness and its Treatment  Theme Icon
Outward Appearance vs. Inner Life Theme Icon
Self-Expression, Miscommunication, and Misunderstanding Theme Icon
The narrator is determined to remove the top pattern of the wallpaper from the one she sees underneath. She has discovered something that she won’t tell the... (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
...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 it the next morning, the... (full context)
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
...bites at one corner in frustration. She tears off whatever she can reach, and the wallpaper seems to shriek with laughter at her attempts. She writes that she is angry enough... (full context)
Mental Illness and its Treatment  Theme Icon
Gender Roles and Domestic Life Theme Icon
Outward Appearance vs. Inner Life Theme Icon
...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 she pleases, and... (full context)