What Does the Yellow Wallpaper Symbolize? Exploring the Meanings Behind the Iconic Literary Imagery

When it comes to literary classics, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is one of the most intriguing and thought-provoking stories out there. It’s not just a story about a woman’s descent into madness, but also a scathing critique of patriarchal oppression and the medical establishment of the time. However, one of the most fascinating aspects of the story is the titular wallpaper that seems to slowly drive the protagonist insane. So what does the yellow wallpaper actually symbolize?

At first glance, the wallpaper might seem like a mundane detail in the story. But as the protagonist’s obsession with it grows, it becomes clear that it’s much more than that. The wallpaper serves as a metaphor for the oppressive forces that keep women trapped and powerless in a patriarchal society. The protagonist describes the wallpaper as “repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow,” much like the way society sees women who don’t conform to their narrow standards.

However, the symbolism of the wallpaper goes much deeper than that. The protagonist becomes obsessed with the pattern on the wallpaper, which seems to shift and change in bizarre ways. This symbolizes the way that the more the protagonist tries to resist the patriarchal forces that hold her down, the more confusing and disorienting the world becomes. The yellow wallpaper represents the societal norms that force women into a narrow, restrictive role, and the mental toll that such oppression takes on them.

Feminine Oppression

In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman uses the symbol of the wallpaper to represent feminine oppression. Throughout the story, the unnamed narrator is trapped in a room with yellow, peeling wallpaper that she finds increasingly oppressive and haunting. This wallpaper symbolizes the societal restrictions placed upon women during the time period in which the story was written.

  • Women during this time were expected to be submissive to men and conform to societal norms.
  • The narrator’s husband, John, dismisses her concerns and assumes she cannot make decisions for herself because she is a woman.
  • The room itself represents the confines society has placed upon women, leaving them little room for personal growth or self-discovery.

The wallpaper itself represents the social forces that confine women and prevent them from achieving their full potential. The narrator sees the figure of a woman trapped behind the wallpaper, trying to break free, just as the narrator herself is trapped by societal expectations. The patterns of the wallpaper also symbolize the repetitive nature of women’s lives during this time period, as they were expected to perform the same mundane tasks day after day.

The story ultimately shows the devastating effects of feminine oppression, as the narrator’s mental state declines to the point of insanity due to her confinement. Gilman uses the wallpaper symbol to depict the societal limitations placed upon women during this time period and the damaging effects they had on women’s mental health and well-being.

Mental Illness

One of the central themes of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the portrayal of mental illness. Specifically, the story focuses on the narrator’s descent into madness, which is symbolized by the gradual deterioration of her mental state and the increasing importance of the wallpaper. The story highlights the lack of understanding and empathy that society had towards mental illness during the time period the story was written in.

  • The narrator’s husband, who is also her physician, dismisses her feelings and opinions, believing that he knows better.
  • The narrator’s brother, who is also a physician, dismisses her illness, claiming that she is simply experiencing “female hysteria.”
  • The narrator is confined to a room with no stimulation and no social interaction, which only exacerbates her condition.

The yellow wallpaper can be seen as a metaphor for mental illness itself. The wallpaper is peeling, stained, and torn, much like the narrator’s mental state. The more the narrator becomes obsessed with the wallpaper, the more her mental state deteriorates. The wallpaper is also described as having a “spectral” quality, which further emphasizes its association with mental illness.

Furthermore, the way the narrator describes herself and her surroundings highlights her unstable mental state. She becomes increasingly paranoid and convinced that the wallpaper is alive, watching her, and attempting to communicate with her. These delusions are symptomatic of mental illness, and the story portrays the devastating effects that mental illness can have on an individual.

Signs of mental illnessExamples from “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Delusions and hallucinationsThe narrator becomes increasingly convinced that the wallpaper is alive and trying to communicate with her.
ParanoiaThe narrator becomes increasingly paranoid and convinced that the people around her are conspiring against her.
Emotional instabilityThe narrator experiences extreme emotional highs and lows throughout the story, often feeling elated or despondent for no apparent reason.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” serves as a poignant reminder of the historical mistreatment and misunderstanding of mental illness. The story highlights the importance of empathy, understanding, and proper treatment for individuals struggling with mental illness.

Patriarchal Societal Norms

The concept of patriarchal societal norms is explored in depth in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which was written in 1892. The story is a commentary on the oppression of women in a society that is dominated by men. It highlights the inequalities that women face in a patriarchal society and the psychological toll that these inequalities can take on them.

The narrator of the story is a woman who is suffering from postpartum depression. Her husband, who is also her physician, prescribes a “rest cure” that involves isolating herself in a room with yellow wallpaper. The room becomes a symbol of the societal norms that are trapping her, and the yellow wallpaper is a symbol of the psychological distress that she is experiencing.

Here are three ways in which the yellow wallpaper symbolizes patriarchal societal norms:

  • Control: The wallpaper represents the control that men had over women during this time period. The narrator’s husband tells her that she cannot leave the room and that she must rest. She has no say in her treatment, and her husband makes all of the decisions for her. The wallpaper, with its intricate patterns and designs, serves as a metaphor for the complexity of patriarchal societal norms that restrict women’s actions and thoughts.
  • Imprisonment: The wallpaper also represents the feeling of imprisonment that women experience in a patriarchal society. The narrator is trapped in the room, just as women were trapped in their roles as wives and mothers during this time period. She feels as though the wallpaper is closing in on her, symbolizing the suffocating nature of societal norms that restrict women’s lives.
  • Madness: Finally, the wallpaper is a symbol of the madness that results from patriarchal societal norms. The narrator becomes increasingly obsessed with the wallpaper, seeing patterns and designs that others cannot see. This represents the psychological toll that societal norms take on women, and the ways in which these norms can lead to mental breakdowns and other psychological disorders.

The yellow wallpaper in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a powerful symbol of the oppression that women faced in a patriarchal society. It represents the control, imprisonment, and madness that women experienced as a result of societal norms that restricted their lives. By exploring these themes, Gilman sheds light on the psychological toll of patriarchy and the need for women to break free from its constraints.

The Power of Symbolism

Symbolism is a powerful literary device that is used to add depth and meaning to a story. In the case of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” symbolism is used to represent the oppression and confinement of women during the time period in which it was written.

  • The Yellow Wallpaper: The bright yellow hue of the wallpaper in the protagonist’s room is a symbol of her deteriorating mental state. Initially, she describes it as “repellent” and “smoldering,” which mirrors her feelings of being trapped and confined. As her mental state declines, she begins to see patterns in the wallpaper and becomes fixated on it, ultimately hallucinating that there is a woman trapped behind the pattern.
  • The Room: The narrator’s room is symbolic of her lack of agency and control. She is confined to the room by her husband, who is also her physician, and is not allowed to engage in any activity that may stimulate her mind. The room has bars on the windows and a locked door, representing the narrator’s imprisonment.
  • The Woman Behind the Wallpaper: The image of a woman trapped behind the yellow wallpaper represents the oppression of women during the time period in which the story is set. The narrator sees the woman trying to escape the wallpaper, just as women of that time were trying to escape societal norms and restrictions placed upon them.

Overall, the symbols in “The Yellow Wallpaper” serve as a commentary on the patriarchal society in which the protagonist lives. They represent the ways in which women were oppressed and confined, and how this confinement ultimately led to their mental and emotional breakdowns.


Symbolism plays a crucial role in literature, allowing authors to convey deeper meanings and themes through imagery and metaphor. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the use of symbolism is particularly effective in highlighting the oppression and confinement of women during the time period in which it was written. Through the use of symbols such as the yellow wallpaper, the room, and the woman behind the wallpaper, the author is able to convey the devastating effects of patriarchal society on women’s mental health and wellbeing.

The Yellow WallpaperRepresents the deterioration of the protagonist’s mental state
The RoomSymbolic of the protagonist’s lack of agency and control
The Woman Behind the WallpaperRepresents the oppression of women during the time period

In short, the power of symbolism cannot be underestimated. It allows writers to convey complex ideas and emotions in a way that is both memorable and thought-provoking, and in the case of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” it serves as a powerful commentary on the effects of patriarchal society on women’s mental health.

Domesticity vs. creativity

One of the major themes of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the conflict between domesticity and creativity. The protagonist of the story, who is also the narrator, is confined to her domestic role as a wife and mother and is discouraged from pursuing her artistic ambitions. This conflict is represented by the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom, which symbolizes the societal constraints placed upon her creative expression.

  • The protagonist’s domestic duties are emphasized throughout the story, as she is expected to fulfill her role as a wife and mother, despite her desire to write. Her husband dismisses her writing as a mere hobby, and her family members view her artistic pursuits as a form of rebellion.
  • The yellow wallpaper embodies this conflict, as it represents the protagonist’s desire to break free from the domestic role that society has assigned to her. The wallpaper also symbolizes the potential danger of repressing one’s creativity, as the protagonist’s mental state deteriorates as the story progresses.
  • The conflict between domesticity and creativity is also portrayed through the protagonist’s relationship with her husband, who embodies traditional gender roles and dismisses her artistic aspirations. The protagonist’s frustration with her husband’s view of her as a mere housewife is evident throughout the story, as she is not allowed to express herself freely.

The significance of this theme extends beyond the confines of the story, as it reflects the societal constraints placed upon women during the time period in which the story was written. Women were expected to fulfill their roles as wives and mothers, and pursuing careers or artistic endeavors was often viewed as unacceptable. This theme remains relevant today, as women continue to struggle for equality in a society that often places limitations on their creative expression.

Traditional gender rolesBreaking free from societal constraints
Restrictions on career and artistic pursuitsExpressing oneself freely
Repression of individualityCultivating individuality

The conflict between domesticity and creativity is a powerful theme in “The Yellow Wallpaper” that continues to resonate today. By portraying the struggle of the protagonist to express herself freely, the story highlights the importance of cultivating individuality and breaking free from societal constraints to pursue one’s passions.

The Role of Women in the 19th Century

The 19th century was a time of great social and political change for women. During this period, women began to question and challenge the traditional roles and expectations that had been placed upon them. The idea of “separate spheres” was the dominant ideology at the time, which held that men belonged in the public sphere of work and politics, while women were relegated to the private sphere of the home. Women were seen as delicate and emotional creatures whose primary duties were to care for their families and maintain the household.

  • At the beginning of the 19th century, women had virtually no legal rights. They were not allowed to vote, own property, or have any say in political or legal matters.
  • Education was also restricted for women during this time. It was believed that too much education could be dangerous for a woman, as it might lead her to question her traditional roles and duties.
  • Women were expected to marry and have children, and their worth was often judged by their ability to fulfill these roles.

The feminist movement began to gain momentum in the mid-19th century, with women actively seeking to challenge the social and political norms that had been holding them back. The publication of “The Yellow Wallpaper” in 1892 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a testament to this struggle.

Through her story, Gilman highlights the oppression and confinement that women were subjected to during this time. The yellow wallpaper in the story represents the societal expectations and limitations placed upon women. The protagonist’s inability to escape the yellow wallpaper reflects the powerlessness and lack of agency that women experienced in their everyday lives.

Traditional Female RolesNew Opportunities for Women in the 19th Century
Caretakers of the homeAccess to education and the workforce
Child-rearing and marriageAbility to own property and control finances
Restricted legal rightsInvolvement in social and political activism

The yellow wallpaper symbolizes the societal limitations placed upon women in the 19th century. Through literature and activism, women began to challenge these traditional roles and expectations, ultimately leading to significant changes in social and political rights for women. The fight for gender equality continues to this day, as women continue to advocate for equal pay, reproductive rights, and access to education and political power.

Importance of the Domestic Setting

One of the significant aspects of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the importance of the domestic setting in the story. The author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, uses the setting as a medium to portray the protagonist’s mental state and emotions.

The story takes place in a large, isolated house, which was a popular trend in the 19th-century upper-class society. The protagonist, a young woman, is trapped in the nursery room with yellow wallpaper and barred windows. The domestic setting in this story symbolizes the protagonist’s confinement and restrictions imposed on her as a woman in that era.

  • The confinement of the room – The barred windows and the locked door symbolize the protagonist’s isolation from the outside world. She is confined to this room against her will, and the only escape route is through her imagination.
  • The yellow wallpaper – The yellow wallpaper in the room symbolizes the protagonist’s mental state. As the story progresses, the protagonist begins to hallucinate and see patterns in the wallpaper that represent her shifting emotions and unstable mental state.
  • The house – The large, isolated house represents the societal expectations imposed on women. Women were expected to be submissive, obedient, and fulfill all the expectations of their husbands and families. The protagonist’s confined space within the house represents her lack of freedom and control over her life.

Furthermore, the domestic setting in the story reflects the limited opportunities that women had access to in that time period. Women were expected to be homemakers and were not encouraged to pursue any career or interests that were outside their domestic duties. The house represented the protagonist’s inability to participate in the outside world and the activities that took place outside her confined space.

In conclusion, the domestic setting in “The Yellow Wallpaper” plays a crucial role in symbolizing the protagonist’s mental state, the societal expectations on women, and the limited opportunities that women had in that time period. The setting helped to develop the story’s themes and provided a context for understanding the protagonist’s plight.

The color yellow in literature

Yellow is a color that has been used in literature to symbolize various meanings. From happiness to madness, it has been used to add depth and meaning to the text. One of the most famous works in which yellow is used as a symbol is “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In this short story, the color yellow takes on many different meanings, adding to the complexity of the story and the protagonist’s character.

  • The color of happiness and optimism: In many cultures, yellow is associated with happiness and optimism. It is often used to signify the beginning of a new day, the arrival of spring, and other positive events. In literature, yellow can be used to represent these same ideas. For example, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” yellow is used to describe the luxurious, carefree lifestyle of the wealthy.
  • The color of decay and illness: However, yellow can also be used to represent negative emotions and situations. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the color yellow is used to describe the fading wallpaper in the protagonist’s room, which is symbolic of her own mental state. As she becomes more and more obsessed with the wallpaper, her mental health deteriorates and she becomes increasingly ill.
  • The color of madness: Yellow is also often associated with madness and insanity. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the protagonist’s obsession with the yellow wallpaper is symbolic of her descent into madness. The color is used to represent the insanity that is taking hold of her, and the deteriorating mental state that she finds herself in.

Overall, the use of yellow in literature can bring added depth and meaning to the text. Whether it is used to represent happiness and optimism or decay and madness, the color adds another layer to the story and helps to bring the characters and their emotions to life.

Below is a table that summarizes the different meanings that yellow can represent in literature:

Barred WindowsConfinement, isolation
Yellow WallpaperMental state, shifting emotions
Large, Isolated HouseSocietal expectations on women, lack of freedom
Happiness and optimism“The Great Gatsby”
Decay and illness“The Yellow Wallpaper”
Madness“The Yellow Wallpaper”

By understanding the different meanings that yellow can represent in literature, readers can gain a better understanding of the text and the emotions that the characters are experiencing.

Gender Roles

Gender roles play a significant role in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” symbolized through the protagonist’s limited agency and confinement to domestic duties. The story depicts a patriarchal society where the narrator’s husband, John, is the authority figure who decides what is best for his wife, disregarding her wishes and desires. Her intellectual curiosity and creativity are suppressed under the guise of her fragile mental state, as she is prescribed rest and isolation. This mirrors typical gender expectations during the late 19th century when women were expected to prioritize their domestic duties above their own aspirations.

  • The protagonist’s confinement to the nursery room represents society’s limited view of women’s roles, with the room being “nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium,” limiting her to maternal and recreational activities.
  • The yellow wallpaper symbolizes the societal expectations placed on women, with its conventional design and pattern reflecting the traditional expectations of women, and its creeping stains and chaotic design, symbolizing the protagonist’s own experience of attempting to break free from those expectations.
  • The narrator’s obsession with the wallpaper represents her frustration and dissatisfaction with her limited role in society, as she longs to live a more fulfilling life.

Furthermore, the narrator’s lack of agency is perpetuated by her husband’s insistence on controlling every aspect of her life. John represents the patriarchal structures that dominate society and limit women’s autonomy. Despite claiming to have her best interests in mind, John’s disregard for his wife’s opinion illustrates the oppressive nature of gender roles during the period.

The Nursery RoomLimited view of women’s roles in society
The Yellow WallpaperSocietal expectations of women and the protagonist’s frustration and attempted liberation
JohnRepresentation of patriarchal structures that oppress women

The symbolism of gender roles in “The Yellow Wallpaper” highlights the oppressive societal expectations that women experienced during the late 19th century. The protagonist’s struggle to break free from these limitations illustrates the frustration and dissatisfaction of a woman who desires to liberate herself from domestic expectations.

Metaphors in literature

Metaphors in literature are powerful tools used by authors to convey deeper meanings and emotions in their writing. A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes an object or idea by comparing it to something else, without using the words “like” or “as.” Through metaphors, authors can create a vivid image in the reader’s mind and allow them to connect with the story on a deeper level. One famous example of a metaphor in literature is the use of the yellow wallpaper in the eponymous short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

What does the yellow wallpaper symbolize?

  • Imprisonment: The narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is confined to a room with yellow wallpaper, which she describes as trapping her, much like she is trapped in her life due to the expectations of society at the time.
  • Madness: The narrator becomes severely mentally ill throughout the course of the story, and the yellow wallpaper symbolizes her descent into madness. The pattern on the wallpaper becomes almost like a hallucination to her.
  • Oppression: The yellow wallpaper can also be seen as a symbol of the societal oppression of women during the time period in which the story was written. The narrator feels trapped and powerless, much like many women during this time.
The yellow wallpaperImprisonment, madness, oppression
The green light in “The Great Gatsby”Hope, yearning, unattainable goals
“Life is a journey”The idea that life is a journey with ups and downs, obstacles, and destinations to reach

Overall, metaphors in literature allow authors to convey complex emotions and ideas in a way that resonates with readers. Through the use of powerful symbols like the yellow wallpaper in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” authors can create a rich and meaningful reading experience that stays with readers long after they finish the book.

What does the yellow wallpaper symbolize?

Q: Why is the yellow wallpaper important in the story?
A: The yellow wallpaper is important because it symbolizes the narrator’s deteriorating mental state.

Q: What does the pattern on the wallpaper represent?
A: The pattern on the wallpaper represents the trapped and restricted life the narrator leads.

Q: Why does the narrator become obsessed with the wallpaper?
A: The narrator becomes obsessed with the wallpaper because it is a reflection of her own personal mental struggles.

Q: What does the yellow color of the wallpaper represent?
A: The yellow color of the wallpaper represents sickness and decay.

Q: How does the wallpaper symbolize the oppression of women in society?
A: The wallpaper symbolizes the oppression of women in society because it represents the restrictions placed on women during the time the story was written.

Q: What does the narrator’s final actions with the wallpaper represent?
A: The narrator’s final actions with the wallpaper represent her liberating herself from her mental struggles and the patriarchal constraints placed on her.

Q: What is the overall message conveyed through the yellow wallpaper?
A: The yellow wallpaper conveys the message of the damaging effects of patriarchy and the importance of individual liberation and self-expression.

Closing Thoughts on What Does the Yellow Wallpaper Symbolize

Thank you for taking the time to learn more about the symbolism behind the yellow wallpaper in this classic tale. Through the yellow wallpaper, the author sheds light on the oppressive societal norms that were placed on women at the time. The wallpaper serves as an allegory for the narrator’s own mental struggles and her eventual journey towards self-discovery and liberation. While the story may be a work of fiction, its message remains relevant today and highlights the importance of individual expression and the dangers of confining societal expectations. We hope you enjoyed reading and invite you to visit us again soon for more literary insights and discussions.