The story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman features three active characters and several others that are only mentioned. The active characters are the narrator, her husband John, and her sister-in-law. The narrator is the most detailed character, followed by John whose actions help construct his characterisation.

The narrator is an unnamed woman, which might be symbolic of the commonness of her situation: many women during that time could have gone through similar feelings of feeling entrapped by domestic life. It is also possible that her name is Jane, as she might be referring to herself at the end. However, this does not necessarily change the original interpretation as Jane is also a very common name, suggesting once again the commonness of depression and feelings of confinement among women.

John is a secondary, flat character in the short story. He does not change as result of the action and is presented through his attitude, speech, and interactions with his wife and sister. His name (which is very common) and his characterisation suggest that John is a symbol of patriarchal oppression of women in 19th century society. He represents men who want docile domestic wives, disregard their wives’ wishes, and believe they know best.

The sister-in-law only appears occasionally, and the story gives few details about her. She is John’s sister and acts as a house keeper at the mansion. She is described as being a bland person, with no ambition: “a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession.” This suggests that she is a stereotypical character who represents women who are submissive to men and content to have a domestic lifestyle. Note that we do not know if she is the “Jane” the narrator refers to at the end. If she is, this suggests that the narrator sees her as equally responsible for confining her: “Jennie wanted to sleep with me – the sly thing! but I told her I should undoubtedly rest better for a night all alone”.

You can read characterisation of the narrator and her husband John in the next pages. 

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