The Yellow Wallpaper
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Tools of Characterization
Both the narrator’s husband and her brother are physicians, corroborating the idea that men in the story enjoy greater freedom of movement and more fulfilling work lives. The narrator is prevented from being either a housewife or mother, as other, more appropriate women fill those roles. With the exception of the narrator, then, everyone tends to be the stereotypical embodiment of her occupation. The doctors are rational and frown on superstition. The nanny and the housekeeper are nurturing and refuse to look beyond their assigned societal roles. Only our narrator, who lacks a truly accepted occupation, has undefined character traits. She’s at first the submissive and proper wife, but this soon gives way to rather different characteristics.
The most significant name in the story is, in fact, the narrator’s lack of a name. Really, who doesn’t name the central narrator of a story? (Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man, for one.) When it happens, this deliberate omission can actually draw greater attention to the narrator and can elicit all sorts of interesting speculation as to why he/she doesn’t have a name. In Invisible Man, the narrator is meant to speak in a disembodied voice. In "The Yellow Wallpaper," the narrator serves a similar function, as a disembodied voice speaking for a collective. More pertinent to the story’s feminist undertones, though, is the idea that the narrator is defined only in relation to her husband. She lacks a concrete identity of her own.
Wait. There’s this quote here: "‘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!’" Are you thinking what we’re thinking? Who the heck is Jane? Scholars have argued that Jane is actually the name of the narrator. Other scholars argue that "Jane" is simply a typo. Since the typo argument is a way less nuanced and interesting, let’s talk about this Jane business. When the narrator says she’s been freed "in spite of you and Jane," we might understand her to admit to her own complicity in being trapped and repressed. "Jane" is partly responsible for her own captivity. The name also provides a neat counterpoint to the name "John," which is a nifty literary device.
So who is the narrator really, by the end of the story? A new, liberated woman who’s shed the old "Jane" behind? What’s in a name anyway?