Understanding the Symbolism in The Yellow Wallpaper through Close Reading

Understanding the Symbolism in The Yellow Wallpaper through Close Reading

In Harriet Gilman’s essay, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the author explores the Grade-A symbolism presented within the 19th-century story. Through a close reading of the text, Gilman showcases the mental imprisonment of the narrator, whose perspective is cleverly hidden behind the literal and metaphorical wallpaper. By using symbols such as the wallpaper, the woman trapped within it, and the notion of “escape,” Gilman effectively sheds light on the societal marginalisation of women and the detrimental effects it has on their mental health.

The Yellow Wallpaper” presents a duality of themes, such as the juxtaposition of freedom and confinement. The wallpaper itself serves as an indicator of the narrator’s declining sanity, as she becomes emotionally and mentally entangled within the pattern. The lengthy and repetitive descriptions of the wallpaper’s design and its changing features create a sense of unease and oppression, mirroring the narrator’s own deteriorating mental state.

One of the most prominent symbols in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the woman behind the wallpaper. As the story progresses, the woman’s presence becomes more pronounced and haunting. She embodies the oppression and unhappiness that the narrator feels as a result of societal expectations placed upon women during the 20th century. The woman serves as a champion for the narrator’s liberation, highlighting the need for women to break free from the confines of patriarchy and find their own salvation.

The comparison between the narrator and the woman in the wallpaper also plays a significant role in understanding the symbolism within the story. The narrator’s fixation on the wallpaper stems from her own feelings of entrapment and longing for freedom. As she identifies with the woman in the wallpaper, she realizes the injustice of her own situation and seeks to escape it. This desire for “escape” serves as a metaphor for the female struggle for independence and autonomy in a society that oftentimes denies their agency.

Furthermore, the use of symbols such as the “daylight” and the “nursery” within the wallpaper supports the theme of the woman’s desire for freedom. The daylight symbolizes a chance for clarity, a break from the darkness and oppression. The nursery represents a place of innocence and growth, which the narrator yearns for but is denied. These symbols show the emotional impact of societal expectations and the toll they take on a woman’s mental wellbeing.

Key Themes in “The Yellow Wallpaper”

The short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman explores several key themes that are symbolically represented through the narrator’s obsession with the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom.

Entrapment and Liberation

One of the main themes in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the idea of entrapment and liberation. The narrator is confined to the room with the yellow wallpaper, which symbolizes her confinement in societal expectations and the limitations placed upon women in the 19th century. As the story progresses, the narrator’s obsession with the wallpaper becomes a symbol of her desire to break free from these limitations and find liberation.

Madness and Sanity

Another important theme in the story is the exploration of madness and sanity. The narrator’s descent into madness is depicted through her obsession with the wallpaper and her changing perceptions of it. This theme challenges the stereotype of women being prone to madness and questions the perception of what is considered “sane” in society.

Female Oppression and Rebellion

“The Yellow Wallpaper” also addresses the theme of female oppression and rebellion. The narrator’s husband, John, represents a controlling figure who restricts her freedom and dismisses her concerns. The exploration of the wallpaper and the narrator’s ultimate rebellion against John’s commands symbolize the protagonist’s fight for her own autonomy and liberation.

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Gender Roles and Societal Expectations

Gender roles and societal expectations are strongly portrayed in the story. The narrator, being a woman, is expected to fulfill traditional gender roles and conform to societal expectations. The yellow wallpaper is a reflection of these expectations, symbolizing the restrictions placed on women’s roles and aspirations in the late 19th century.

An Exploration of Symbolism

One symbol that stands out is the yellow wallpaper itself. Initially described as “repellent”, the grade and unorthodox patterns upon the wallpaper mirror the emotional and psychological state of the protagonist. As the narrator becomes increasingly obsessed with the wallpaper, the yellow color becomes a crucial indicator of her deteriorating mental state. The trapped woman behind the pattern represents the societal marginalization and subjugation of women, as well as the protagonist’s yearning for liberation.

The bridge mentioned in the story also holds symbolic significance. Descriptions of the rickety bridge can be seen as a metaphor for the fragile state of the protagonist’s mind. Just like her own mental stability, the bridge is in a state of disrepair and its crossing becomes a perilous experience. This symbolizes the narrator’s struggle to maintain a sense of normalcy and sanity within a restrictive and oppressive society.

Another symbol worth exploring is the owl, which the protagonist encounters during her moments of solitude. The owl itself can represent wisdom and knowledge, but in the context of the story, it serves as a reminder of the protagonist’s own entrapment and loneliness. The owl’s presence highlights the lack of understanding and empathy she receives from her peers and society at large.

Examining Symbolism in relation to Realism and Feminism

By examining the symbolism in “The Yellow Wallpaper”, readers can gain a deeper understanding of the story’s themes and the feminist context in which it was written. The use of symbolism allows Gilman to convey her ideas and critique the societal expectations placed upon women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The yellow wallpaper, the bridge, and the owl all serve as powerful symbols that illustrate the effects of societal influence and the desire for liberation.

Furthermore, the occurrence of these symbols within a realistic setting adds to the impact of the story. The wallpaper and the bridge, for example, are tangible objects that readers can visualize, making their symbolic meanings all the more palpable. The realism of these symbols also emphasizes the everyday nature of the issues faced by women in society.

Questions and Answers

An exploration of symbolism in “The Yellow Wallpaper” naturally raises questions. Why does the narrator feel such a strong connection to the wallpaper? How does the bridge symbolize the protagonist’s mental and emotional state? What is the significance of the owl? These questions invite readers to delve deeper into the text and consider the multiple layers of meaning within the story.

While different readers may have varying interpretations of the symbols, the answers lie within Gilman’s own intentions and the context of the time. Through close reading and analysis, students and scholars can engage in meaningful discussions and gain a more profound appreciation for the themes and messages conveyed in “The Yellow Wallpaper”.

Symbolism in “The Yellow Wallpaper”
SymbolDescriptionRelated Themes
The Yellow WallpaperUnorthodox grade and patterns, yellow colorGender oppression, mental health, liberation
The BridgeRickety, fragile statePsychological instability, societal constraints
The OwlPresence in solitudeLoneliness, lack of understanding

The Importance of Close Reading

In The Yellow Wallpaper, reality becomes elusive, as the narrator’s identity is gradually stripped away. The image of the barred windows reinforces the idea of being trapped, while the yellow wallpaper itself symbolizes the narrator’s deteriorating mental state. Through close reading, the reader can observe the narrator’s descent into madness and her struggle to find a cure for her condition.

The narrator’s mind becomes a fortress, impenetrable to the outside world. Close reading reveals the significance of the purple stain on the wallpaper, which represents the narrator’s defiance and resistance against her oppressors. The repetitive action of tearing down the wallpaper becomes a form of empowerment for the narrator, as she tries to break free from the confines of her societal role as a woman.

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Close reading also allows the reader to uncover the injustice faced by women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By examining the narrator’s perceptions and experiences, one can see how she is marginalized and silenced by her peers and husband. The owl in the story serves as an indicator of the narrator’s suppressed voice, as it is often associated with wisdom and insight.

Furthermore, close reading highlights the theme of confinement in The Yellow Wallpaper. The narrator’s obsession with the wallpaper serves as a metaphor for her own imprisonment within a stereotypical role of wife and mother. By critically analyzing the passages relating to the wallpaper, readers can better understand how the narrator’s perception of herself changes throughout the story.

In addition, close reading reveals how the narrator’s emotional state is conveyed through rhetorical devices such as repetition and symbolism. The use of vivid language and descriptive passages by Gilman creates an unsettling atmosphere, reflecting the narrator’s deteriorating mental condition. The juxtaposition of daylight and darkness further emphasizes the narrator’s sense of isolation and helplessness.

Close reading of The Yellow Wallpaper helps to uncover the subtext of the story and shed light on the feminist themes presented by Gilman. By examining the nuances of the text, readers can challenge societal norms and champion the empowerment of women. Through critical analysis, the reader is able to navigate the layers of meaning in Gilman’s powerful portrayal of the struggles faced by women in a male-dominated world.

The Narrator’s Descent into Madness

As the story progresses, it becomes evident that the narrator’s condition is not improving, but rather deteriorating. Her mental state is mirrored by the deteriorating condition of the room she is confined to, which is described as having peeling wallpaper with a “repellent, almost revolting” pattern. The yellow wallpaper becomes the focus of the narrator’s obsession and gradually becomes a symbol of her descent into madness.

Impact of the Wallpaper

The wallpaper serves as a constant reminder of the narrator’s confinement and marginalization. It is her only company and she identifies with the trapped woman she sees behind the patterns. The narrator’s fascination with the wallpaper grows over time, leading her to believe that there are other trapped women within the wallpaper’s pattern. This belief further fuels her descent into madness and reflects the overall theme of women’s oppression and the struggle for liberation.

The wallpaper becomes a physical embodiment of the narrator’s own deteriorating mental state. The longer she stays in the room, the more she becomes absorbed by the patterns and begins to see things within them. The wallpaper’s effect on the narrator is particularly evident when she mentions “the girls”, which refers to the other trapped women she believes she sees. This occurrence horrifies her and solidifies her madness.

Societal Impact on Madness

In addition to the wallpaper, societal expectations and the narrator’s personal experiences also contribute to her descent into madness. The narrator is constrained by her role as a wife and mother, which limits her freedom and independence. Throughout the story, she is constantly belittled and doubted by her husband, who dismisses her concerns and does not take her condition seriously. This constant marginalization and invalidation further exacerbate her deteriorating mental state.

The story also raises questions about the validity of the “rest cure” as a treatment for mental illness. The narrator is a firm believer in her husband’s expertise, but his prescription ultimately fails to help her. Instead, it worsens her condition and pushes her further towards madness. This challenges the traditional beliefs of the time and questions the credibility of the medical establishment.

The Symbolic Meaning of the House

The house can be seen as a fortress, representing the protagonist’s confinement and imprisonment within her own mind. As her mental state worsens, the house becomes a physical representation of her deteriorating sanity. The creeping wallpaper becomes an indicator of her descending into madness.

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Furthermore, the house symbolizes the expectations imposed on women in the 19th century. The protagonist, often referred to as “the wife,” is trapped within the confines of her marriage and society’s expectations. The house becomes a prison in which she is confined, unable to escape her role as a dutiful wife.

Through close reading, we learn that the house is not only a physical structure, but also a reflection of the protagonist’s perception and emotions. The house reflects her feelings of melancholy and her sense of being trapped. It becomes an embodiment of her emotional and mental state.

Moreover, the house can be seen as a metaphor for the patriarchal society in which the protagonist exists. The controlling and domineering presence of her husband, John, is represented by the house. The fact that he dismisses her concerns about the wallpaper and her own mental well-being is symbolic of the dismissive attitude towards women’s emotions and experiences during this time.

In addition, the house can be seen as a symbol of the protagonist’s own self-perception. As she becomes more fixated on the wallpaper and its patterns, the house becomes a reflection of her own inner turmoil. Her obsession with the wallpaper mirrors her own descent into madness.

Overall, the symbolism of the house in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a powerful tool for exploring themes of confinement, perception, and the role of women in society. By closely examining the house’s symbolic meaning, readers can gain a deeper understanding of the story’s feminist message and the protagonist’s struggle for self-expression and liberation.

Unveiling the Narrator’s Journey

The story begins with the unnamed narrator, a young woman in the late 19th century, who is trapped within the confines of her own mind. The vivid descriptions of the yellow wallpaper create a sense of entrapment and the appearance of bars that symbolize the restrictions imposed on women during this time period.

As the narrator’s mind becomes more unstable, her perceptions and mood-tone shift. The use of rhetorical and ironic passages enhances the overall impact of the tale, conveying the emotional and psychological effects of her condition. The duality between sanity and madness becomes blurred, leading to a sense of ambiguity and unease.

The anonymous woman behind the wallpaper serves as a metaphor for the narrator’s own suppressed desires and creative spirit. The white figure that she sees represents her own potential for liberation and empowerment. The central motif of the wallpaper becomes a symbol of the societal norms that confine and limit women, stifling their creativity and independence.

Throughout her journey, the narrator feels a deep connection to the madwoman’s plight. The lengthy quotes and descriptions of the wallpaper reflect her own desire for freedom and escape from her oppressive surroundings. As the story progresses, the room becomes a metaphor for her own mind, a tangled mess of thoughts and emotions.

By the end of the story, the narrator’s journey takes a dark turn. She embraces her madness as a form of rebellion against the oppression she has experienced. However, this empowerment comes at a price, as she becomes fully consumed by her own madness.

Overall, the symbolism in “The Yellow Wallpaper” serves as a powerful tool for conveying the emotional and psychological journey of the narrator. Through close analysis of the text, readers gain insight into the effects of societal expectations and the struggle for personal liberation.


What is the symbolism in “The Yellow Wallpaper”?

The symbolism in “The Yellow Wallpaper” represents the confines and restrictions of Victorian society and the oppression of women.

How does the close reading of “The Yellow Wallpaper” help in understanding the symbolism?

Close reading of “The Yellow Wallpaper” helps in understanding the symbolism by allowing the reader to analyze the text at a deeper level, paying attention to details, imagery, and language choices that convey the symbolic meaning.

What is the significance of the yellow wallpaper in the story?

The yellow wallpaper symbolizes the narrator’s deteriorating mental state and her confinement within patriarchal society. It represents the oppressive and controlling nature of marriage and the way society tries to suppress women’s desires and creativity.

Why does the narrator feel that doing nothing would be best for her in the beginning of the story?

In the beginning of the story, the narrator feels that doing nothing would be best for her because she has been prescribed the “rest cure” by her husband and the rest of the society. She believes that by following this prescribed rest, her nervous condition and melancholy will improve, but soon realizes that it only exacerbates her mental state.

How does the yellow wallpaper symbolize the narrator’s struggle for freedom?

The yellow wallpaper symbolizes the narrator’s struggle for freedom by representing her attempt to escape from the societal constraints and expectations placed upon her, as well as her attempt to break free from her own trapped and oppressed mental state. As she becomes more obsessed with the wallpaper, she sees it as a way to liberate herself from her confined existence.

Alex Koliada, PhD

By Alex Koliada, PhD

Alex Koliada, PhD, is a well-known doctor. He is famous for studying aging, genetics, and other medical conditions. He works at the Institute of Food Biotechnology and Genomics. His scientific research has been published in the most reputable international magazines. Alex holds a BA in English and Comparative Literature from the University of Southern California, and a TEFL certification from The Boston Language Institute.