The Yellow Wallpaper: Character Profiles
The Narrator (possibly “Jane”)
We can infer from the story that the Narrator is a young married woman of the upper-middle class suffering a “nervous condition” after the birth of her first child. At the start of the story she and her husband arrive at a run-down estate they have rented for the summer in order to accelerate her recovery. Her husband, also her physician, proscribes a “rest” treatment to calm his wife’s nerves. The “rest” treatment, however, has the opposite effect and forces her active imagination and quick mind to seek freedom first through a surreptitious journal (the entries in which create the story) and finally through insanity. At the end of the story she cries out to her husband: “I’ve got out at last…in spite of you and Jane.” Some critics have assumed that the name “Jane” is simply a misprint in the original text for “Jennie” (see below). Others, however, have posited the theory that in the Narrator’s deranged condition she names herself as an antagonist.
The Narrator is meant to be similar in every respect to the author whose own experience with depression following the birth of her daughter nearly drove her insane after undergoing a “rest” cure under the care of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell.
The Narrator’s husband, John is an accomplished physician whose practice keeps him very busy and often away for entire days and nights. We learn that he is a man of science, with no patience for superstition or anything that he cannot quantify. He is incapable of taking his wife’s opinion seriously. He is also genuinely concerned for his wife’s health and having decided upon the “rest” cure developed by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, he commits himself to enforcing it wholeheartedly with disastrous results.
The Narrator’s sister-in-law, Jennie embraces the domestic world of nineteenth century women with the same vigor that the Narrator rejects it. As the Narrator slips further into her “nervous condition”, Jennie comes to assume more of the household’s domestic duties until she is essentially running the house under her brother’s authority. In this way she becomes akin to a jailer and spy in the Narrator’s mind.
Though only mentioned once in the story, Mary is the baby’s nurse who also serves as its mother due to the Narrator’s inability to be in the presence of her own child. Some critics have pointed to the name Mary as a clear reference to the Virgin Mary a strong symbol of love and motherhood.