"The Yellow Wallpaper" Characters

Charlotte Perkins Gillman managed to create a compelling short story with well-developed characters while using only 4 characters in The Yellow Wallpaper.
Marissa L.
10
min read
Jun 7, 2021

While the narrator’s thoughts and actions make up 90 percent of the story, her husband, her sister-in-law, and a servant play minor but significant roles that help develop the story. 

The Narrator

The narrator is a woman that has recently given birth to a baby boy and suffers from a condition that her physician husband calls “temporary nervous depression”. Her family moves to a summer house so that she can get complete rest. Though she is creative and sensitive, her husband forbids her from doing any work, both physical and mental. 


The narrator immediately hates the ugly yellow wallpaper in her bedroom, but when she voices her concerns to her husband, he laughs them off, the way he laughs off most of her ideas and thoughts. She considers following her husband’s wishes as a normal part of a marriage, but rebels against her husband’s instruction to do no writing when she starts maintaining a secret journal. 


She feels ashamed for not being a good wife and being too sick to take care of her baby. The lack of stimulation and the guilt causes her to fall deeper into depression until she starts losing touch with reality. She starts forgetting things she’s done, wondering why her dresses have yellow marks on them and why the walls have new scratches. Slowly, her hatred of the yellow wallpaper changes to fascination as she starts seeing mysterious but intriguing patterns within it.

Her journal entries get more erratic as the story progresses. Contrary to her husband’s recommendation to do no imaginative work, her lack of mental stimulation has made her desperate. She remembers being an imaginative child, creating nighttime monsters in her head that would terrify her. She starts hallucinating people walking around the garden and gets paranoid, thinking that her husband is trying to hurt her. She becomes convinced that there are people trapped in the wallpaper and that the patterns move. 


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As she loses more of her sanity, her overall health seems to improve, but she admits in her journal that it’s because she is excited about unlocking the secrets of the yellow wallpaper, not because she’s actually getting better. She becomes convinced that there is a woman trapped in the wallpaper and that she creeps around at night. This could be her entering a manic phase as she continues losing touch with reality. 


As their stay in the house ends, the narrator becomes obsessed with the woman in the yellow wallpaper and vows to find out the truth and let the woman out. In a climactic finale, she loses touch with reality completely and locks herself in the bedroom, scratching and tearing at the wallpaper. Her husband breaks down the door to see the narrator creeping around the room, believing that she herself is the woman in the yellow wallpaper who is finally free. She tells him that she is finally free from him and Jane, possibly the name of the narrator herself, implying that she has completely embodied the woman in the wallpaper. She continues to creep around and over her husband’s body as he faints. 


The narrator is a victim of the times. She represents the attitudes of the era towards women, and her mental deterioration is in a way, an act of rebellion. She sees herself as trapped and relates it to an imaginary character she creates in the yellow wallpaper, eventually breaking free by losing her sanity. 


The Yellow Wallpaper Characters List

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John

John is the narrator’s husband, a well-respected doctor who believes in logic and science and dismisses emotions. He fits the classic archetype of the domineering husband. As a doctor, he believes himself to know what’s best for his wife’s recovery and refuses to listen to her worries and suggestions. 


John ignores his wife’s requests to change rooms or to visit people because he believes he knows what’s best for her as a doctor. He is unable to understand his wife’s emotional needs because he himself is a man of logic. He frequently leaves her for days at a time for work, further highlighting the inequality of the times and making the narrator feel even more trapped without and mental stimulation. 


He is never portrayed as angry, mean, or abusive. In fact, he is caring and attentive and uses loving words. In the mind of the narrator, he is the villain of the story, but John is a victim of the times as much as his wife is. He believes that men are supposed to work and make decisions and women are fragile and meant to take care of the household. His actions don’t stem from malice but from the societal norms of the time. 

Jennie

Jennie is the narrator’s sister-in-law, the sister of her husband John. Jennie comes to manage the household. Jennie seems perfectly happy to take care of all the domestic work that a good woman of the era is supposed to and is a constant reminder to the narrator that she is a failure. As the narrator’s paranoia intensifies, she starts believing the Jennie is in collusion with John and that she is trying to stop her from discovering the secrets of the wallpaper. 

Mary

Mary is the caretaker that looks after the narrator’s baby. Of all the characters in The Yellow Wallpaper, she is the most minor, the narrator only saying that “she is good with the baby”. During the time the book is set it was normal for upper-class families to hire nannies to help take care of the children. Still, though she doesn’t have a major role in the story, she is another reminder to the narrator that she is not fulfilling her duties as a 19th-century woman, adding to her guilt and eventual mental deterioration. 

To Sum Up

The Yellow Wallpaper is considered an important early work in American feminist literature because of the inequalities in society it highlights. Even more than a hundred years after it was first published, the story is still relevant and relatable. The archetypes of the obedient, nervous housewife and the strong-willed, dominating husband are still reflected in society today. The narrator’s account of someone dealing with mental issues and the reactions of medical professionals and family around her are also still very topical. 


This The Yellow Wallpaper characters breakdown should give you an idea of the narrator’s descent into madness as well as how the other 3 characters influenced her mental state. It’s a short book and a fascinating read, so give it a try! If you need help with an assignment on The Yellow Wallpaper, or with any homework in general, reach out to the experts at Studyfy. 

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