Author: Charlotte Perkins Gilman
First published: 1892
Locale: New England
Plot: Social realism
Time: The late nineteenth century
The narrator, unnamed, who also is the protagonist. She is an imaginative, creative woman living in a society that views women who exhibit artistic and intellectual potential as anomalies, misfits, or, as in this story, ill. The narrator, having recently borne a child, apparently suffers from an ailment now identified as postpartum depression. Her husband, John, who is a doctor, misidentifies her condition and prescribes a “rest cure” made popular by the well-respected physician Weir Mitchell. The rest cure assumes that intellectual stimulation damages a woman physically and psychologically, so John requires the narrator to stop all writing, all reading, and essentially, all higher-level thinking. The narrator, however, cannot deny her creative imagination, so she writes in secret the document that is the novella, through which readers can trace the harmful psychological effects of the rest cure. She develops a fascination with the yellow wallpaper in their room. Her mental illness becomes more pronounced, until, finally, she openly displays madness.
John, the narrator's husband, a physician. He differs from his imaginative wife in that he believes only in what he can see and touch. In his physical evaluation of his wife, he finds nothing wrong, so he believes she creates her own illness, that she is a hypochondriac. He enforces restrictions on his wife's conduct in an attempt to end her disturbing behavior and cure her “nervous condition.” He seems to enjoy this control over her life, for his efforts extend far beyond limiting her intellectual stimulation. He chooses in which room she will live, whom she may see, and how she spends her time. He counters every desire his wife expresses with a measure keeping her from fulfilling her wish. He places himself in a superior, paternal position from which he denies the validity of the narrator's perception of her own experiences and well-being. His medical practice keeps him away from home for sufficient time to allow the narrator to develop a subversive routine of writing and, eventually, obsessive rituals centered on the yellow wallpaper in their room.
Jennie, John's sister, who serves as housekeeper and helps John observe and limit the narrator's behavior. Jennie appears bound by her brother's concrete view of the world, though she is the only person in the story besides the narrator who actually looks at the wallpaper, seemingly in an attempt to understand the fascination it holds for the narrator. Although Jennie ultimately aligns herself with her more rational brother, her willingness to explore the possibility of irrational explanations for the narrator's behavior makes her a slightly more sympathetic character than John.
Weir Mitchell, the doctor who popularized the rest cure, only briefly referred to in the story but significant nevertheless. This character was not a literary invention but a real figure in the author's life. In 1887, S. Weir Mitchell treated the author for a “nervous condition” at his Philadelphia sanatorium; the treatment was unsuccessful and harmful.