The Yellow Wallpaper Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1892

Type of work: Novella

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: The late nineteenth century

Locale: New England

Characters DiscussedThe narrator

The Yellow Wallpaper, Thenarrator, 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

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

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

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.

BibliographyGilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. One of the premier critical works on nineteenth century women writers. Includes a discussion of The Yellow Wallpaper linking the pattern in the wallpaper to patriarchal text patterns that women writers had to escape.Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper.” Forerunner 4 (1913): 271. A one-page article in which Gilman explains that her main reason for writing The Yellow Wallpaper was to save other women from fates similar to her own under the rest cure.Golden, Catherine. The Captive Imagination: A Casebook on “The Yellow Wallpaper.” New York: Feminist Press, 1992. This indispensable compilation includes the text of The Yellow Wallpaper with the original illustrations, useful biographical and background information, well-selected critical essays, and a solid introduction.Kolodny, Annette. “A Map for Rereading: Or, Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts.” New Literary History 11, no. 3 (1980): 451-467. In this article, Kolodny argues that Gilman’s contemporaries did not understand the implications of The Yellow Wallpaper because they did not have the context to understand her point.Meyering, Sheryl L., ed. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Woman and Her Work. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1989. An important collection of critical essays on Gilman and her works, including one by Linda Wagner-Martin focusing on The Yellow Wallpaper.
Categories: Characters