Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” – Short Summary & Literary Analysis

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper, short summary, literary analysis, themes, characters, symbols, setting, short story
A book cover of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Gilman showcases a variety of themes, symbols, and characters linked to feminist ideas about the narrator’s condition in the setting of this captivity narrative. (Image: Public Domain)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” depicts themes, characters, symbols, and a setting that surround the thoughts and activities of the narrator. As shown in the short summary and brief literary analysis below, the short story deals with the narrator’s confinement, her thoughts about it and her situation, and the opposition from other people, especially her husband. The yellow wallpaper symbolizes the societal constraints that oppress women. In this case, the character of Gilman’s narrator represents women who are confined and oppressed into social roles that men subjugate. Also, the short story’s setting reflects the limitation of women. The various thematic concepts of “The Yellow Wallpaper” are linked to the characters, the setting, and the symbols expressed throughout the plot. As a feminist piece of literature, this short story showcases Gilman’s perspectives and arguments against the oppression of women, and sheds light on the negative consequences of this oppressive sexist condition.

Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” relates to stories from other authors, such as William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” In particular, these literary works exhibit similar themes, such as the theme of sex discrimination, and the theme of death. In this regard, Gilman’s short story is representative of the body of literature that promotes awareness regarding such themes and related literary symbolism.

Brief Summary of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”

The narrator describes her stay in a colonial mansion, which John has secured through a three-month rental. She says that she is sick. However, she notes that her husband and her brother, both of whom are physicians, do not believe that she is sick and dismisses her case as nervous depression. Her husband, John, isolates and confines her in the mansion for a rest cure treatment. He tells her to keep resting in the upstairs nursery that has the hideous yellow wallpaper. The narrator’s writing alternates between her experiences regarding the yellow wallpaper and being in the room, and her experiences in relating with John and his sister, Jennie.

The narrator explores the yellow wallpaper. She tells John that she wants to socialize. She also tells him about the peculiarity of the wallpaper. He dismisses her ideas about the wallpaper, and insists that she should rest in confinement. Over time, she notices a pattern in a different shade of yellow behind the wallpaper’s front design. She determines that the sub-pattern is a woman who creeps and shakes the yellow wallpaper’s front pattern, as if the latter is behind bars. The narrator sees the woman creep outside the mansion during the day and remain behind the wallpaper’s front pattern at night. In her last days of confinement, the narrator locks herself inside the nursery and tears the wallpaper to get the woman out. The narrator thinks about going back into the wall behind the yellow wallpaper’s front pattern, but says that it is so pleasant that she can creep around the room as she pleases. John arrives but the door is locked. The narrator creeps around and does not open the door. When he finally opens the door, he faints after seeing her creeping. The narrator continues creeping around, along the room’s walls. In each round, she creeps on her unconscious husband.

Brief Literary Analysis and Explanation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”

Themes. There are several themes in Gilman’s short story. All of these themes are linked to the narrator’s character, which is central to the plot of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Some of the themes are explicit, and others are implicit or implied through various literary elements and devices. The following are the main themes expressed in Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”:

Characters. The narrator is the main character and protagonist of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The other characters are significant in developing the plot and the themes contained in this captivity narrative. These other characters are involved in the narrator’s confinement. Gilman characterizes them and the narrator in such as a way that draws the reader’s attention to the societal issues that the short story presents. They contribute to the narrator thoughts and the ideas or concepts presented in this piece of literature. The following are the characters of “The Yellow Wallpaper”:

  • The narrator
  • The woman in the yellow wallpaper
  • John
  • Jennie
  • Unseen characters: The narrator’s brother, Weir Mitchell, and Henry and Julia

Symbols and Symbolism. Symbolism enriches the meanings and interpretations of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Gilman uses symbols to make sense of the characters and scenes of the short story. In addition, symbolism makes the story’s themes stand out. For example, through the symbol of the yellow wallpaper, the theme of sex discrimination is emphasized. The following symbols are most notable in “The Yellow Wallpaper”:

  • The yellow wallpaper
  • The colonial mansion
  • The narrator
  • John
  • Jennie and others characters

Setting. Gilman’s short story revolves around the setting of the colonial mansion. Most of the scenes happen inside the nursery with the yellow wallpaper. However, the setting also includes the rest of the property. For example, the narrator sees the woman creeping outside in daylight. Still, the setting of “The Yellow Wallpaper” focuses on the nursery where the narrator is confined. This significance of this part of the setting is emphasized through the yellow wallpaper on its walls and the narrator’s activities in the room. Gilman also presents this setting as symbolic of the oppressive treatment of women in general, especially during the author’s time.

Works Cited and References

  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman speaks on duties to humanity at Universalist church.” 1902. Geneva, New York. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 1 Dec. 2002.
  • Gilman, Charlotte Perkins (Charlotte Perkins Stetson). “The Yellow Wallpaper.” New England Magazine, Jan. 1892, pp. 647-657.
  • Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “Why I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper?” Advances in Psychiatric Treatment 17.4 (2011): 265-265.
  • Haney-Peritz, Janice. “Monumental feminism and literature’s ancestral house: Another look at ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 12.2 (1986): 113-128.
  • Hume, Beverly A. “Gilman’s ‘interminable grotesque’: The Narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” Studies in Short Fiction 28.4 (1991): 477.
  • Johnson, Greg. “Gilman’s Gothic Allegory: Rage and Redemption in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” Studies in Short Fiction 26.4 (1989): 521.
  • Martin, Diana. “Charlotte Perkins Gilman and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” American Journal of Psychiatry 164.5 (2007): 736-736.
  • Núñez-Puente, Carolina. “The Yellow Hybrids: Gender and Genre in Gilman’s Wallpaper.” DQR Studies in Literature 49.1 (2012): 139.
  • Shumaker, Conrad. “‘Too terribly good to be printed’: Charlotte Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.” American Literature 57.4 (1985): 588-599.