Notions of Irony in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper

Updated on February 22, 2013

One element of irony which runs consistently through Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper is how the ill narrator’s treatment has adverse effects on her health and plays a role in her seemingly inevitable descent into insanity. The irony of this situation is highlighted by the fact that her husband is a doctor. However, he is never referred to as a doctor, rather as a physician. I think that the significance of this word choice is to emphasize the “physical” focus of doctors at the time during which the story takes place. They were most concerned with what they could physically touch and analyze, measure and quantify and were correspondingly hesitant to deal with the less certain realm of psychological distress. The worsening of the narrator’s mental illness is thus the result of her husband’s emphasis on treating his wife on a physical, rather than psychological level.

An example of how emphasis on the physical, rather than mental, is detrimental is apparent when John forbids his wife to write lest she become fatigued and worsen her condition. As the narrator says, it is a mental relief to write things down, but this is something her strictly physical husband can not understand. Ironically, the effort of writing in secret and keeping it hidden tires her more than the writing itself. In effect, she would be better off if she were allowed to write in the first place.

We have another case of improper treatment when the narrator longs for the company of others, particularly her socially stimulating cousins. John assures her that it would worsen her condition, and it is best for her to rest alone in her room. Of course, John is unable to see the mental threat of his wife having to spend all of her time focussing on the wallpaper, slipping into madness. The irony continues in the sense that John’s physical protection of his wife from social interaction only works to worsen her psychological distress.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman c. 1900

There is much irony in the use of environment as a means of treating the narrator. The nursery where John makes her stay is on an upper floor, out of the way of the main house (again, the negative effects of social isolation). Of course, there is also the issue of the wallpaper in the room, with which she develops a psychotic relationship. However, John does not sense this in the slightest and finds the room well-fitting for his ill wife because of the extra fresh air she will have from all the windows and high altitude of the room. The irony here is that the fresh air offers a very minimal physical benefit compared to the extreme mental harm caused the narrator by the isolation and the wallpaper.

Another irony regarding the room is that the narrator finds comfort in occupying the room as it means that her newborn son is spared of it. Ironically, her son would likely be far better off in the nursery than she. The baby would not experience the mental torment that the narrator does as a result of the wallpaper because it is for her conflated with her existing mental distress. In any case, much evidence supports the idea that infants have very poor vision beyond several feet, and that they grow to tune out familiar stimuli. Therefore, a baby would not be able to see the wallpaper well enough to dwell on the pattern and design and would also lose interest after it became familiar.

One final instance of irony comes at the end. This again ties into the idea of men as empirical and objective as well as the strong feminist message of the story. In the end, when John finds his wife circling the room in an advanced stage of psychosis, his mind is unable to process the mental phenomenon before him and he simply shuts down and faints. Ironically, the masculine need (in the context of the story) to measure and quantify turns out to be his grave weakness in the end as it becomes his downfall... literally! This ending shows how the thinking of men in the story’s time was insufficient to deal with problems of the mind and was therefore a weakness in need of reform.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)