Study Guide

The Yellow Wallpaper Themes

By Charlotte Perkins Gilman

  • Freedom and Confinement

    The narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper" is essentially confined to a single room in a large house. Conversely, her husband frequently spends his nights in town as part of his duties as a big-shot doctor. This dichotomy is the overwhelmingly dominant theme of the story, as the narrator’s attempts to cope with isolation wind up being the engine driving the plot forward.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. Is the narrator truly liberated at the end of the story? Why or why not?
    2. Who is responsible for the narrator’s confinement? How can you tell?
    3. To what extent is the narrator responsible for her own confinement?
    4. To what extent is the narrator aware of her own imprisonment?

    Chew on This

    The narrator is not liberated at the end of the story. Rather, she has simply fallen deeply into mental illness.

    The narrator has successfully liberated herself by the end of the story.

  • Madness

    Thanks to the narrator’s confinement, she begins losing her sanity. And throughout "The Yellow Wallpaper," we see the narrator’s descent into madness through her eyes. Readers stay with the narrator as her mind grows more chaotic and as she begins seeing shapes in the wallpaper.

    This is the ultimate example of showing, not telling. We have to deduce from her frantic writing style that there isn’t actually a woman trapped in the wallpaper; the narrator just thinks there is because she’s losing her grip on reality.

    Questions About Madness

    1. At what point in the story has the narrator truly descended into madness?
    2. When is the narrator considered mentally ill by her husband and incapable of making her own decisions? Does this intersect with your answer to the first question at all? How does being considered insane interact with actual point of madness in this story?
    3. Why does the narrator become mentally ill?

    Chew on This

    In "The Yellow Wallpaper," the narrator’s rich imagination might have found a productive and healthy outlet in her writing, but being forced to repress her imagination instead leads her to madness.

  • Gender

    The reason for the narrator’s confinement is her gender. Although explicit references to either gender in the text are rare, there is certainly a gendered subtext, especially given what we know about the period in which Gilman was writing (late 1800's—not the best time to be a woman).

    The women we meet in "The Yellow Wallpaper" are meant to find fulfillment in the home, while the men hold positions as high-ranking physicians. The narrator’s lack of a name also reinforces the notion that she is speaking as the voice of women collectively, rather than as an individual.

    Questions About Gender

    1. To what extent does the narrator articulate the position and experience of womanhood at large? (Hint: think about women of color, poor women, etc.)
    2. How are women represented in the story? What about men? What positions does each gender hold in terms of occupation, power, etc.?
    3. Are there aspects of the narrator’s story that are still legitimate critiques of today’s gender relations?

    Chew on This

    Although women today are no longer prescribed "rest cures," the broader concept of women being imprisoned by societal mores remains a highly relevant concept.

    "The Yellow Wallpaper" critiques only the life of wealthy white women and excludes the plight of low-income and women of color.

  • Literature and Writing

    In "The Yellow Wallpaper," writing is a healthy means of self-actualization denied to the narrator. The narrator portrays writing positively in the story, believing that it will help her depression.

    Others around her, however, heavily disapprove of her writing, believing it to be a tiring activity. (Because going insane while staring at some ugly wallpaper is so much more restful.)

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. Can you read the text as a personal diary? How does this reading affect the way you interpret the story?
    2. What is the narrator’s attitude towards her writing? What are other people’s attitudes towards her writing?
    3. Is there a connection between the narrator’s writing and the idea that she is reading the paper on the wall?

    Chew on This

    In "The Yellow Wallpaper," the narrator’s rich imagination might have found a productive and healthy outlet in her writing, but being forced to repress her imagination instead leads her to madness.

  • Society and Class

    The story and message of "The Yellow Wallpaper" are rooted in a very specific class and societal dynamic. The narrator's a member of the upper class; she and her husband are wealthy enough to take a summer off and have servants cater to their every need.

    In this fashion, the narrator’s story may be critiqued for limiting itself to the troubles of wealthy women. The society described in "The Yellow Wallpaper" concerns not only a certain class, but also a certain type of society, in which women play limited roles.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Are there aspects of the narrator’s story that are particularly class-based? Which? Remember that work is not a necessity for her. Are there aspects of her story that are timeless and apply to all women, regardless of class or race?
    2. What is the effect of the narrator identifying herself and her husband as "mere ordinary people"?
    3. To what extent is the narrator conscious of her own place in society?

    Chew on This

    Working-class women can identify with the narrator’s story of women’s oppression by men.

    Working-class women may have trouble identifying with "The Yellow Wallpaper" because the narrator’s story deals very specifically with the problems experienced by women of the upper class.