Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The Wallpaper

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is driven by the narrator’s sense that the wallpaper is a text she must interpret, that it symbolizes something that affects her directly. Accordingly, the wallpaper develops its symbolism throughout the story. At first it seems merely unpleasant: it is ripped, soiled, and an “unclean yellow.” The worst part is the ostensibly formless pattern, which fascinates the narrator as she attempts to figure out how it is organized. After staring at the paper for hours, she sees a ghostly sub-pattern behind the main pattern, visible only in certain light. Eventually, the sub-pattern comes into focus as a desperate woman, constantly crawling and stooping, looking for an escape from behind the main pattern, which has come to resemble the bars of a cage. The narrator sees this cage as festooned with the heads of many women, all of whom were strangled as they tried to escape. Clearly, the wallpaper represents the structure of family, medicine, and tradition in which the narrator finds herself trapped. Wallpaper is domestic and humble, and Gilman skillfully uses this nightmarish, hideous paper as a symbol of the domestic life that traps so many women.

The Color Yellow

While the pattern of the nursery wallpaper often takes precedence in discussions of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” its color is no less important when it comes to symbolic value. The color yellow typically carries a positive connotation, evoking feelings of brightness and happiness. This wallpaper, however, is “a smouldering unclean yellow” that the narrator describes as “repellent, almost revolting.” The fact that this supposedly cheerful color has taken on a more unsettling hue works to add tension to the atmosphere of the story by highlighting a disconnect between expectation and reality. This type of disconnect will come into play thematically, as the reader will eventually discover, as the narrator struggles to accept the roles which her culture deems suitable for women.

Another symbolic aspect of the repulsive yellow color involves its relationship to the wallpaper’s smell. As the narrator becomes more invested in interpreting the wallpaper, she notes its distinct smell, emphasizing that it smells like “the COLOR of the paper.” She can only describe it in that moment as a “yellow smell,” but combining this detail with her earlier description of the color as a “sickly sulphur tint” introduces the possibility that it may be reminiscent of rotten eggs, or the smell of sulphur. This connection and the notion of rotten eggs work together to symbolize the narrator’s failure to fulfill what her culture would deem a woman’s primary purpose: to bear and raise children. In the same way that the smell of the wallpaper haunts the narrator and follows her wherever she goes, she experiences constant guilt over her inability to care for her newborn and husband. The sickly, yellow color of the wallpaper ultimately symbolizes her inability to willingly adhere to patriarchal gender roles.