The Yellow Wallpaper

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Self-Expression, Miscommunication, and Misunderstanding Theme Analysis

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.
Self-Expression, Miscommunication, and Misunderstanding Theme Icon

Alongside questions of gender and mental illness in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the simple story of a woman who is unable fully to express herself, or to find someone who will listen.

The narrator’s sense that the act of writing, which she has been forbidden to do, is exactly what she needs to feel better suggests this stifled self-expression. Since she is unable to communicate with her husband, this diary becomes a secret outlet for those thoughts that would cause him to worry or become upset. The conversations recorded in the diary reveal the extent to which her husband John misunderstands her inner life, and the reader’s ability to see this miscommunication creates dramatic irony, which arises when the reader knows more about what’s going on than the characters. The reader can see both how the narrator’s relationship to her husband changes dramatically over the course of her stay in the room with the yellow wallpaper, and how John is blind to this growing distance. Able to see this but, being a reader, able to do nothing about it, the reader comes to inhabit a similar position as the narrator in her isolation – of being able to perceive things but completely unable to then share them in a meaningful or impactful way.

There are also moments of misunderstanding within the diary itself, small clues that signal the house’s darker past. These markers create another kind of dramatic irony, since here it is the narrator herself whose knowledge is incomplete. The reader is kept in suspense as these small details, such as the gnawed bedposts or the barred windows, reveal new information about the rented house, which we know has stood empty for a long period, and was acquired inexpensively for the summer. There is an implication that the upper room has served before as a sanatorium (rather than as a nursery), and perhaps that the house is indeed haunted, as the narrator jokingly suggests in the opening diary entry. These details create an awareness of the author behind the character of the narrator, who has crafted this story to maximize its horror, and in so doing has linked the horror of a traditional gothic tale with what the author sees as the horror of the way her society treats women faced with mental illness.

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Self-Expression, Miscommunication, and Misunderstanding ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Self-Expression, Miscommunication, and Misunderstanding appears in each section of The Yellow Wallpaper. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Self-Expression, Miscommunication, and Misunderstanding Quotes in The Yellow Wallpaper

Below you will find the important quotes in The Yellow Wallpaper related to the theme of Self-Expression, Miscommunication, and Misunderstanding.
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. 

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.

Third Entry Quotes

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. 

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.

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.

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. 

Eleventh Entry Quotes

I have found out another funny thing, but I shan't tell it this time! It does not do to trust people too much.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Diary
Page Number: 179
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, the narrator turns completely inward, rejecting even the previously comforting audience of her diary as untrustworthy. Her paranoia has mounted to the point that she is even suspicious of her own writing, which had been the only outlet for her inner turmoil. This "funny thing" that the narrator has found out creates a mystery for the reader, and a frightening one, given the narrator's deteriorating mental state—it seems likely that she will come to some harm without any means of escaping the downward spiral she has entered into. 

This secret half-confession underlines how completely the narrator has transformed over the course of her isolation in the room. She has learned to trust no one, and partly with good cause—since the person she ought to be able to trust most, her husband John, is a major cause of her current harmful state of imprisonment, essentially acting as her jailer. While in the beginning of the story the narrator seemed to make every effort to interpret John's actions kindly and to think the best of the people around her, she has now become so paranoid that everyone in her life is a potential enemy.

John knows I don't sleep very well at night, for all I'm so quiet!
He asked me all sorts of questions, too, and pretended to be very loving and kind. As if I couldn't see through him!

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), John
Page Number: 180
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote the narrator reveals a shift in her attitude toward John, while also cluing the reader in to her insomnia—no doubt a contributing factor in her continuing mental deterioration. Instead of attributing love and kindness to John’s questioning, as she did at the beginning of the story, the narrator is now convinced that John is only pretending to care about her. In her paranoia, she sees their relationship as a sort of subtle battlefield, full of espionage and deception.

The image of the narrator’s sleepless, silent nights is a disturbing one, as she lays still in an attempt to convince John that she is actually sleeping. She is in a constant state of alert, watching out for John’s surveilling eye, as he checks in with her as both his patient and his wife. It is this sense of surveillance, this oppressive male gaze, that truly imprisons the narrator, and not merely the walls of her room upstairs. At the same time, the fact that John is finally asking her more questions suggests that he may at long last be noticing her accelerating illness, and so the reader’s privileged knowledge of this illness is intensely frustrating; we are unable to intervene in this relationship, and John has already ruined any chance of earning enough trust from his wife for her to reveal her increasingly alarming delusions to him.

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.