Imagery in "The Yellow Wallpaper"


Intro to Literature I


Dr. Roger Easson


1 June 2004



Insanity is a phenomenon not often written about in literature. However, there is a piece of fiction written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman which brings to life the disease of insanity. She is best known for her 1892 short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper." Like the main character, Gilman underwent a type of rest treatment after suffering from bouts of severe depression following the birth of her daughter. This type of "rest cure" was popularized by the well known physician S. Weir Mitchell. The story is the tale of a woman who goes mad after being prescribed a "rest cure" to relieve her of her desire to write. Coincidently, this is after the birth of her child as well. "The Yellow Wallpaper" actually chronicles the process of going insane. One of the qualities which makes the story so good is the fact the author knows very much about this process due to her own experiences. Oddly, the main character is unnamed, and this is perhaps because the experience she is undergoing robs her of her identity. She is alone in a yellow, wallpapered nursery with barred windows and is treated like the an inmate and a child. She is denied her writing which gives her peace and meaning in her life, as well as companionship which could distract her from her preoccupation with her surroundings. In "The Yellow Wallpaper," Gilman gives much attention to several types of female oppression in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through detailed visual imagery, strong personification, and an overwhelming amount of metaphoric expressions.


Through detailed visual imagery, Gilman gives us an extremely vivid mental picture of the main character’s surroundings. Having a solid image of these surroundings helps readers better understand what the woman in the story is going through. It is through her eyes that we see the house, the grounds, the room, and of course the yellow wallpaper. The house, with all it’s metaphoric value, plays a great role in this story. Traditionally, when a house is used in fiction as a setting, it is a sacred place. It is an image of the universe from top to bottom, because it can represent heaven, earth, and hell depending on the story. In "The Yellow Wallpaper," Gilman’s detailed description of the house begins outside of it. "The most beautiful place! It is quite alone, standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the village...for there are hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate houses for the gardeners and people" (Gilman 329). With this small passage, we get a good sense from the narrator of how large the estate is. In her description of the outside, the narrator makes a reference to "gates." This is an important symbol in the story because it represents a place of great significance, as is the case in most fiction. We see another gate when the author describes her room. These gates outside the house and her room are both locked, and this symbolizes being trapped which is what our main character is, as well as women of Gilman’s time. The visual imagery of "The Yellow Wallpaper" is strongest during Gilman’s descriptions of the color and pattern of the wallpaper. Right away the color is dull, lurid, and sickly. She uses several passages to describe how inconsistent the nature of the wallpaper is. According to the narrator, it moves and changes; sometimes it has a pattern and sometimes it does not. Unfortunately, it has no definite color or pattern. Through this imagery, Gilman conveys the message of the irrational and unjust treatment of women by men in her time.


In addition to visual imagery, the author portrays the confusion of the narrator, caused by the wallpaper, through very strong personification. Throughout the story the narrator writes passages about the wallpaper which she cannot plainly describe. As the story progresses we begin to notice that as she tries to become more detailed she actually becomes more insane. At first, she tries to figure the paper out through its visual appearance, however she slowly digresses and begins to feel as though the paper is taunting her. This is how the author