The Yellow Wallpaper

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Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Yellow Wallpaper, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Gender Roles and Domestic Life Theme Icon

Alongside its exploration of mental illness, The Yellow Wallpaper offers a critique of traditional gender roles as they were defined during the late nineteenth century, the time in which the story is set and was written. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a prominent feminist, who rejected the trappings of traditional domestic life and published extensively about the role of women in society, and saw the gender roles of the time as horribly stifling.

The story’s family unit falls along traditional lines. John, the husband, is rational, practically minded, protective, and the ultimate decision maker in the couple. He infantilizes his wife, referring to her as his ‘little girl’ and brushing off her complaints. However, John is not purely the irredeemable villain of the story. Rather, we see how his ability to communicate effectively with his wife is constrained by the structure of their gender roles. This is an important point: John’s happiness is also ruined by the strictures of traditional domestic life.

The narrator, his wife, is confined to the home, not allowed to work (or to write), and considered by her husband to be fragile, emotional, and self-indulgent. Differing readings of the text’s sarcasm lead to different interpretations of her voluntary submission to this role, but it is clear that her forced inactivity was abhorrent to her. The diary becomes a symbol of her rebellion against John’s commands. The willingness of John’s sister, Jennie, to submit to her domestic role in the home only increases the narrator’s guilt at her own dissatisfaction.

The mysterious figure of a woman trapped behind the yellow wallpaper becomes a symbol for the ways in which the narrator herself feels trapped by her role in the family. The narrator’s urgent desire to free this woman, and to hide her existence from John and Jennie, leads to her raving final breakdown as she tears the paper, ‘creeping’ around the room and over her husband – who, in a reversal of their traditional roles as strong protector and fragile child, has fainted in shock at the sight of his wife.

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Gender Roles and Domestic Life ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Gender Roles and Domestic Life appears in each section of The Yellow Wallpaper. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Gender Roles and Domestic Life Quotes in The Yellow Wallpaper

Below you will find the important quotes in The Yellow Wallpaper related to the theme of Gender Roles and Domestic Life.
First Entry Quotes

John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), John
Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote the narrator explains how John, her husband and de facto doctor, mocks her worry about the house they have rented for the summer. In laughing at his wife's concerns, John reveals how lightly he values her judgment, a disregard that will extend to his condescending belief that he understands her anxiety and mental illness better than she does. Because he is unable to take the inner life of his wife seriously, John seriously misunderstands the extent and cause of her illness, belittling the narrator in a way that only further isolates her.

The quote also connects John’s belief about his wife's "silliness" to society’s perception of women in the nineteenth century, as the narrator makes clear with her admission that "of course" any woman should expect such treatment in a marriage. While one might read the narrator's quote here as resigned or accepting—that's just the way life and marriage is for women—it is also possible to read the line as sarcastic, in which case her sarcasm would signal that the narrator is more resistant to the unfair restrictions put on her because she is a woman than it may at first appear from her seemingly polite treatment of John. This potential sarcasm, along with the diary itself, which she is hiding it from the husband who has expressly forbidden her from keeping any sort of journal, can therefore be seen as rebellions against those sexist restrictions and the unfair treatment of women.


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John is a physician, and PERHAPS—(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)—PERHAPS that is one reason I do not get well faster.
You see he does not believe I am sick!
And what can one do?

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), John
Related Symbols: The Diary
Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:

These lines are the first clue that the narrator is sick in some way, and signal that what we are reading is a secret diary. There is a dark humor in the suggestion that the reason the narrator remains sick is that her husband is a doctor. This is a bitter joke criticizing doctors, and particularly male doctors who misunderstand (or condescendingly refuse to trust or believe) their female patients. Here, again, John is shown as being incapable of taking his wife’s mental illness seriously, believing her sickness to be the result of her "fancy" and fragility as a woman and not an actual illness. The narrator’s helplessness in the face of her doctor-husband’s judgment reveals how little agency women had over their own lives at the time, and suggests that this lack of control is in fact what is causing her sickness (in part, at least). This jab at doctors also begins Gilman’s attack on her own, real-life doctor, Dr. Weir Mitchell, who prescribed to Gilman a "rest cure" similar to the forced idleness enforced upon the narrator in this short story. 

The fact that the story in our hands is a secret diary also creates a close relationship between reader and narrator, since we are privileged to see critical parts of her thinking that other characters in the story cannot. In one sense, then, the distinction between “living souls” and “dead paper” is a false one, since we, as readers, are essentially a living audience for the narrator—we are "living souls" who are hearing what she has to say through the "dead paper" upon which she writes. The use of the phrase "dead paper," which in fact might be described as a kind of living connection between the narrator and the reader, also foreshadows the yellow wallpaper of her room—more "dead paper" that seems to become inhabited with a mysterious "living soul."

He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.

I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day; he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more.
He said we came here solely on my account, that I was to have perfect rest and all the air I could get.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), John
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, the narrator describes her husband John's "careful" treatment of her. From her summary of this treatment, it is clear that every moment of her life is strictly controlled by John in his capacity as doctor and head of the household. This control seems stifling, and yet John sees it as a loving exercise, driven by concern for his fragile wife, whose judgment does not figure into his decisions about her treatment. This controlled idleness is what would have been called a "rest cure" in the author's time, and is something that Gilman herself was prescribed by Dr. Weir Mitchell. It seems to be worsening the narrator's condition—and, insidiously, her depression is only increased by the guilt she feels at not appreciating the assigned cure. 

The narrator's tone may again be read as at least partly sarcastic here, since she is clearly suffering as a result of her husband's "special direction." In any case, the narrator's own feelings about her treatment are hidden from her husband, or he is fundamentally unable to understand them—possibly because his society and profession do not value the opinions of women very highly. 

Second Entry Quotes

John is away all day, and even some nights when his cases are serious.
I am glad my case is not serious!
But these nervous troubles are dreadfully depressing.
John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no REASON to suffer, and that satisfies him.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), John
Page Number: 169
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, the narrator writes in her diary about her worsening loneliness and boredom. Her husband is neglecting her in favor of his more "serious" patients, and here the potential sarcasm in the narrator’s exclamation that she is glad that her own case is not "serious" comes through more clearly. Whether or not the narrator is aware that her condition is in fact becoming more
"serious," the reader, at least, is warned that her state is deteriorating. John, meanwhile, has entirely failed to understand the severity of his wife’s condition. Driven by sterile reason, a stereotypically male quality, he refuses to give credit to his wife’s feelings of depression, assuming that they are merely a product of her own fancy or "hysteria." Unfortunately this dismissal of the narrator's suffering does nothing to reduce its harmful effects. 

There comes John's sister. Such a dear girl as she is, and so careful of me! I must not let her find me writing. She is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession. I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me sick!

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), John, Jennie
Related Symbols: The Diary
Page Number: 171
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is the reader's first introduction to John's sister, Jennie, who is helping to run the house while the narrator is sick in bed. The narrator hides the diary at the sound of her approach, underlining the conspiratorial, secretive nature of this writing, and reinforcing the idea that her writing is an act of rebellion against her husband's expectation that she rest in complete idleness, giving up on any idea of more ambitious work. Writing, the narrator's secret ambition, is not fit work for a woman—according to societal expectations of the time. Meanwhile, Jennie's willing and even enthusiastic acceptance of the traditionally female domestic role in the home gives the narrator still more reason to feel guilty at her own rebellious instincts and depression. She is isolated even from another woman in her ambition and her mental illness, and has begun to hide her true self from the rest of the house. 

Fourth Entry Quotes

Dear John! He loves me very dearly, and hates to have me sick. I tried to have a real earnest reasonable talk with him the other day, and tell him how I wish he would let me go and make a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia.
But he said I wasn't able to go, nor able to stand it after I got there; and I did not make out a very good case for myself, for I was crying before I had finished.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), John
Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, the narrator describes another desperate attempt on her part to communicate to her husband how unendurable this "rest cure" really is—but John promptly refuses her request to leave the house and visit their family elsewhere. As the male head of the household, and the physician in charge of the narrator's treatment, John's word is final, and the narrator is powerless to resist. This powerlessness no doubt contributes to her tearful sense of despair, but the tears that she cries as she attempts to convince her husband to listen to her only further discredit her in his eyes, since they signal her status as a fragile, fanciful, emotional woman. The misunderstanding between the narrator and John deepens further, even as she recognizes that he loves her dearly (or thinks he does, at least). He is still fundamentally unable to see that this stifling rest cure is what is causing, or at least worsening, her mental illness.

If we had not used it, that blessed child would have! What a fortunate escape! Why, I wouldn't have a child of mine, an impressionable little thing, live in such a room for worlds.
I never thought of it before, but it is lucky that John kept me here after all, I can stand it so much easier than a baby, you see.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, the narrator references her baby, who is rarely mentioned in the story. Speaking about the baby gives the narrator a chance to reaffirm the terror that the room has caused her in terms of what has been spared their child. This is another hint that the room was never a nursery, or a schoolroom, as the torn walls suggested earlier in the tale.  

Although the narrator is separated from her child, and has expressed that thinking about the child is part of what has driven her nerves to begin with—suggesting that she may be suffering at least in part from postpartum depression—she still feels an urge to protect the baby. This also suggests that she feels very honestly threatened and oppressed by her prison-like room, and increasingly so. It is as if she is engaged in a battle of wills with the wallpaper, which represents her own illness, and the only comfort she can find in this struggle is that at least her child is spared from it.

Fifth Entry Quotes

Of course if you were in any danger, I could and would, but you really are better, dear, whether you can see it or not. I am a doctor, dear, and I know. You are gaining flesh and color, your appetite is better, I feel really much easier about you.

Related Characters: John (speaker), The Narrator
Page Number: 174
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, John speaks to his wife directly to reject her plea that they leave the house early, and he reassures her that she is, in fact, recovering under his care in this summer home. The reader has a privileged view of the narrator’s inner life, since she has been confiding her despair and paranoia in the diary, and hiding this rebellious act from John. Meanwhile, John is totally blind to the harmful effects of this illness, both because of his inability to communicate with his wife, and because he, as a purely rational male doctor who routinely rejects his wife’s complaints as fanciful or emotional, is completely self-assured, certain that his wife is well on her way to recovery. This is an ultimate example of the arrogance of the medical field as Charlotte Perkins Gilman herself experienced it; John presumes to know the narrator’s feeling and condition much better than she herself ever could. In the face of this blind—and condescending—assurance, the reader sympathizes with the narrator’s inability to make herself understood. John’s position is in some ways equally pitiful—it is society’s common perception of women as fragile, infantile beings that has led him to this absolute misunderstanding of his wife’s condition.

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. 

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 am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be admirable exercise, but the bars are too strong even to try.
Besides I wouldn't do it. Of course not. I know well enough that a step like that is improper and might be misconstrued.

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

In this quote the narrator reveals an instinct toward self-harm or suicide that is wrapped in delusion. Her desperate need to escape this prison of a room is increasing, but escape seems impossible. By describing the act of jumping out the window as "admirable exercise," the narrator demonstrates just how restless and unhappy she has become. The bars on the windows are further evidence that the room has a dark past, and that the narrator's initial rosy description of her chamber might have left out some important details. As she has been throughout the story, the narrator is again utterly powerless to escape the restrictions placed upon her by her gender and illness, and as her frustration mounts her paranoia increases. 

The understatement of the second half of the quote, which admits that jumping out the window is a step that is "improper and might be misconstrued," emphasizes the extent to which the narrator's biggest struggle in this entire process has been an inability to make herself understood. Restrained by her gender and notions of propriety, the narrator has been pushed to the brink of suicide in her desperation to escape the literal and figurative confines of her situation. 

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.