A seemingly harmless, reasonably well-to-do woman obsesses over the interior design of the house she and her husband are renting. How that becomes the basis for a gripping story is anyone's guess. Yet Gilman accomplishes something pretty amazing: she actually freaks us out over something as random as wallpaper, while getting us to understand a woman's isolation and eventual madness – all, by the way, in very few pages.
Perhaps the most difficult thing about "The Yellow Wallpaper" story is the fact that it tries to scare us for a very important reason. The story uses Gothic effects (a haunted house, a narrator who sees a woman in the wallpaper) so that it can get us to see the narrator as not just mentally ill, but crazed because of the "rest cure" her male doctors have prescribed. Gilman wants us to make a connection between the "cure" and the illness so that we can criticize the "cure" and the male doctors who prescribe it. Still, if we didn't read Gilman's rational explanation "Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper," would we be able to make that link so easily? Maybe, maybe not…
The narrator makes it hard for us to sympathize with or understand her, in part because she isn't consistent. Her feelings toward her confinement change: one day she's worried about being cooped up, the next day she decides that she kind of likes it.
As a result, the ending of the story is hard to decipher: it seems as if the narrator is experiencing a moment of freedom, but what kind of freedom is she feeling? It's not like she's just broken out of imprisonment because she's still in her bedroom (plus, she was never really locked up by her husband). In fact, we get the eerie feeling that whatever freedom she might feel comes from crawling over her husband's prostrate body – a brief, twisted role reversal between a wife and her husband. Gilman leaves us feeling ambiguous about what happened: is the wife really free? What did she want to be free from in the first place?