The Yellow Wallpaper: Summary and Analysis

July 16, 2023

Reading this “The Yellow Wallpaper” summary and analysis will help students gain a solid understanding of a canonical short story. In this article, we’ll analyze the historical and biographical relevance, characters, symbols, themes, and more. We’ll also consider the story from several critical lenses. By the end, readers will be peeling back layers of meaning as if stripping away sheets of wallpaper to reveal multiple, even paradoxical interpretations.

But first, if you haven’t already done so, read “The Yellow Wallpaper.” It’s just over 6,000 words and can be read in one afternoon. Once you’re finished, step back into 19th-century New England for a little historical context.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” Summary: The Author

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, born in Connecticut a year before the Civil War, had an unusual upbringing. Her father abandoned her family in her infancy, and her mother relied on the help of her husband’s sisters. These women made a pretty incredible lineup. They included suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker, author Harriet Beecher Stowe, and educationalist Catharine Beecher. Gilman’s impressive aunts influenced her understanding of what a woman could accomplish. Her mother, on the other hand, forbade reading fiction. Despite receiving only four years of formal schooling, Gilman enrolled in classes at the Rhode Island School of Design. In this era, most women didn’t attend college at all, and settled instead for marriage.

Around this time, Gilman met Martha Luther, and the two became extremely close. Their friendship evolved into a romance, one constrained by society’s codes and anti-gay laws. Yet she married Charles Walter Stetson at 24. A year later, she suffered postpartum depression after the birth of her daughter. As this depression deepened, her doctor, Silas Weir Mitchell, prescribed a “rest cure.” The treatment involved long, frequent naps, a focus on childcare, and a particular caveat: Charlotte should “never touch pen, brush or pencil” for as long as she lived. For someone passionate about poetry, this rest cure was a death sentence.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” Summary (Continued)

Luckily for Gilman, her depression subsided after she and Stetson divorced—another unusual choice for a woman at this time. We find echoes of these autobiographical events in her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” New England Magazine published Gilman’s story in 1892. While Gilman went on to publish books of poetry and give lectures on topics including suffrage and social reform, “The Yellow Wallpaper” remains her chef d’oeuvre, and has been anthologized in various collections.

Progressive or Problematic Feminist?

Unfortunately, we can’t revisit Gilman without acknowledging her unsavory beliefs. Yes, she championed social reform, and yes, she was related to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the abolitionist author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Yet Gilman’s views on race appear convoluted and misguided at best. A deeper look into her writing reveals blatant racism. Though not a supporter of slavery, Gilman adopted a eugenicist stance, claiming that Anglo-Saxons belonged to a purer class of people. These dangerous and abhorrent views complicate the history of women’s rights in America—a movement that owes much of its success to black suffragists.

Though we may study Gilman’s work through a feminist lens, we certainly should not mistake her for a hero. She’s a complex figure, a champion of women’s rights, and an ignorant member of the white elite, blinded by privilege. In fact, the paradoxes in her biography point to a bigger entanglement of class, power, gender, and race in America. Thus, we shouldn’t ignore her problematic views when reading her work. Rather, we ought to incorporate and critique them as part of our analysis of “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

“The Yellow Wallpaper” Characters

A slim cast of characters appears in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” We first encounter the narrator, an unnamed woman, and her husband John, a physician. They appear as “people like John and myself.” This immediate coupling of the two main characters creates a false sense of companionship. Yet as the story progresses, the reader will notice a strange dichotomy. John’s opinions on his wife’s health, and his power to impose his opinions, are at odds with her real mental and physical needs.

The narrator could be called “unreliable.” As her mental health deteriorates, the reader becomes less capable of differentiating between what the narrator sees and reality. This distorted point of view allows for an interesting ambiguity and multiple interpretations. For example, among our list of characters we must consider those that don’t exist. The narrator writes, “I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths,” though John claims they don’t exist.

Jennie, John’s sister, lingers at the story’s periphery, taking care of household chores and the baby. This baby remains offstage, for the narrator feels too nervous to care for him. (“Jennie” is a nickname for “Jane,” which also appears in the story.) Other offstage characters include Gilman’s real-life physician, Weir Mitchell, and a brother, also a physician. While their roles seem minimal, these authority figures work to further dissolve the narrator’s credibility. We also hear of cousins Henry and Julia, whom the narrator isn’t allowed to visit. She does briefly see her mother and Nellie (perhaps a sister), and Nellie’s children. Lastly, the narrator mentions someone named “Mary,” who may be a servant. (From a critical race lens, we might ask if Mary is black. This would explain why her presence appears inconsequential to a white, upper-class narrator.)

“The Yellow Wallpaper” Summary

Much of what occurs in “The Yellow Wallpaper” takes place in the narrator’s mind. The story begins with the narrator’s first secret journal entry. She describes a summer house they’ve rented, which she finds “queer,” and “haunted.” John dismisses these impressions. He prefers rational ideas. He forbids the narrator from daydreaming, as well as writing, or performing any stimulating work. In fact, because of her condition, which John calls a “temporary nervous depression,” the narrator cannot have “society and stimulus.” Rather than pick a pretty room, she must sleep in an eerie nursery covered in garish strips of yellow wallpaper.

The stifling atmosphere of “The Yellow Wallpaper” only worsens. Work takes John away most days. The narrator’s strength has weakened, so she cannot write in her journal for two weeks, nor care for her baby. Describing the room in greater detail, we learn that the floor is “scratched and gouged and splintered.” The wallpaper’s pattern appears to crawl with “absurd, unblinking eyes.” Occasionally, the narrator spots “a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure” there.

Next, Jennie takes on more housekeeping responsibilities. The narrator writes infrequently, recounting her exhaustion, despite enforced naps. John refuses to leave early, though his wife feels worse and cries all the time. Nevertheless, John insists she’s improving. She investigates the figure in the wallpaper and determines she’s a woman. This woman crawls about and shakes the bars that form a pattern on the wallpaper. Determined to discover the wallpaper’s secret, the narrator waits until John is out. Then she locks herself in the nursery and strips off large swaths of paper. When John finds her, she’s creeping about the room, just like the women who creep in the paper and along the hedges. John faints—and the narrator continues to creep right over his prone body!

“The Yellow Wallpaper” Summary: Symbols

The wallpaper serves as the story’s title and primary symbol. The wallpaper becomes the narrator’s obsession, and thus reflects and represents her mental instability. Yet this symbol has layers. Not only does it represent an impenetrable wall where rational thought ends and madness begins. It also offers up a surface on which the narrator can project her own fantasies. In this way, the yellow wallpaper becomes a multi-layered symbol of creative freedom, repression of that freedom, and the madness that ensues.

Within the wallpaper, the narrator finds various images. These images, too, serve as symbols. For example, we might interpret the eyes in the pattern as a sort of watchfulness. They could represent the gaze of society, keeping an eye on the narrator. Reversely, we could interpret these eyes as belonging to the woman, or women, trapped below the paper. In this sense, their eyes reflect an inability to speak. They can look, but they cannot express their imprisonment. Likewise, the bars in the wallpaper point to the repression of women. The narrator describes these bars as an outside pattern, which a woman beneath shakes to no avail.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” Summary: Irony

Besides symbolism, “The Yellow Wallpaper” employs an array of literary devices. Irony pervades the entire story and allows for double interpretations. For example, the narrator writes, “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.” The reader can read this at face value. In this case, the narrator suggests that marriage simply involves harmless laughter. Read ironically, the reader will see that the narrator is stating that a wife is not expected to be taken seriously. Irony reveals that John patronizes his wife (or “little girl”). He “cares” for her through a combination of absence and prohibition, denying her any liberty. He contradicts himself, telling his wife she’s fine one moment, then convincing her she’s sick when it suits him.


The nursery room carries an allusion to a very different sort of room. The more the narrator describes this room, the more it sounds like it may have been used to restrain someone. (The bed is nailed to the floor.) Here Gilman invites her readers to recollect Charlotte Brontë’s famous madwoman in the attic, the character Bertha from Jane Eyre. Readers who make this connection may wonder if John insisted on keeping his wife here for the same reason Mr. Rochester hid Bertha. Through allusion, the nursery takes on an even more sinister appearance.

The couple’s baby acts as another allusion, this time to postpartum depression, which Gilman herself suffered from. Doctors at the turn of the century understood very little about postpartum depression. They dismissed it as hysteria, a catch-all phrase to explain away female ailments.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” Summary: Foreshadowing

*Trigger warning: this subsection discusses mental health in relation to suicide, and may be distressing to readers.

Foreshadowing appears in the story as well. When describing the wallpaper, the narrator talks of curving lines that “suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles…” Later, she describes “a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside-down.” A third reference to suicide appears when the narrator states that “to jump out of the window would be admirable exercise.”

Yet Gilman’s narrator remains alive at the end of the story. These planted hints of coming death have a different end goal. They ask the reader to take women, and women’s artistic endeavors, seriously. Gilman herself spoke of suicide during her “rest cure,” when she wasn’t allowed to produce art. The sculptor Camille Claudel and, decades later, writer Virginia Woolf both attempted suicide by jumping from a window. Through this foreshadowing, “The Yellow Wallpaper” warns against a greater societal tragedy taking place across the centuries.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” Analysis: Theme 1

Taken together, these literary devices allow readers to better understand several underlying themes. The first involves the suffering and subordination of women in society. This larger social commentary becomes particularly evident when the narrator begins to see “a great many women” behind the bars of the wallpaper. Through a critical feminist perspective, we might say that the narrator seems to intuit the past repression of other women just like her. She senses that she’s part of a larger, systemic problem. Other details in the story point to this system. Jennie, presumably well-educated and belonging to the upper class, has no prospects other than serving her brother as a housekeeper.

Theme 2

The second theme involves the danger of rest cures. While “resting” sounds innocuous enough, being forced to do nothing can turn into torture. In fact, this lifestyle resembles prison life—no wonder the wallpaper appears to have bars. In the late 19th century, rest cures were prescribed to women who suffered real ailments, including depression. These rest cures backfired, enhancing symptoms of depression. They corralled women into a position of uselessness, just like the narrator state in this story. Deprived of friends, work, hobbies, and exercise, and unable to speak of this deprivation, women were reduced to the role of mother, or worse: a birthing instrument.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” Analysis: Theme 3

The third theme involves creative power as emancipation. While writing wearies the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” it also offers her rare moments of autonomy and agency. The narrator states, “I must say what I feel and think in some way—it is such a relief!” In Gilman’s time, society and medicine reinforced the theory that education would overstimulate women’s brains and lead to hysteria. Today we know that women’s and men’s brains function the same way. Women are equally capable of creative output. In fact, studies show that creative outlets allow people to heal faster. Gilman and many others knew of the benefits of working. In fact, many men in her time did too. Yet those who wished to uphold a strictly patriarchal system forbid women from expressing their opinions. They feared that these opinions would undermine men’s superior positions.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” Analysis and Conclusions

As we’ve seen from “The Yellow Wallpaper” summary, this short story must be read at multiple levels. Various perspectives, from a biographical standpoint to a feminist lens to a critical race lens allow readers to peel back layers of meaning. So what can we make of the ending?

The story ends with the narrator believing she herself has emerged from the wallpaper. Most analyses commonly state that this ending depicts her descent into a full-fledged psychosis. And yet, readers may also come to an inverse conclusion. If the women behind the wallpaper’s bars represent female suppression, we can interpret the narrator’s final act as one of defiance and emancipation.

Rather than throw herself out the window, as a tragic female heroine might, the narrator disobeys her oppressive husband and locks the door. Just as divorce allowed Gilman to overcome her depression, Gilman’s narrator breaks the bonds of her condition by defying her husband. In doing so, she gains autonomy. Merging with the woman in the wallpaper, she frees the woman trapped behind it. In this interpretation, we can conclude that by harnessing her imagination, the narrator finally sets herself free.

Additional Resources 

For more literature-related content, look no further than the following links: