We considered this one for a long time: is the woman behind the wallpaper, a woman whom our narrator is probably imagining, really a character? Our thinking is: the narrator comes to think of the woman behind the wallpaper as a separate woman, and since the narrator is telling us the story, we're willing to take the woman behind the wallpaper on the narrator's terms (at least, to start).
So, when does this woman emerge, and what characteristics does she have? Obviously, she's strongly entwined with the narrator, so this analysis is also, in some ways, going to be an extended look at the narrator herself, and at the narrator's madness. But pretty much nothing in "The Yellow Wallpaper" isn't about the narrator, so we can't avoid coming back to her.
Let's begin with the wallpaper from whence the creeping woman comes. If the title — "The Yellow Wallpaper" — doesn't tip you off that the wallpaper is going to be a central factor in the story, the narrator's lengthy paragraphs of description should convince you. The paper's pattern is both "dull enough to confuse the eye in following" and "pronounced enough to constantly irritate" (5); the color is "repellant, almost revolting" (5). The wallpaper traps the narrator's attention by being simultaneously too irregular to ignore and too ugly to enjoy.
In a weird way, the wallpaper has human characteristics right from the start, because it's acting as a kind of foil for John: if the wallpaper traps the narrator's mind, John confines her physically. The inverse relationship between the two begins with the introduction of the wallpaper, when the narrator comments: "There comes John, and I must put this away, – he hates to have me write a word" (5). John's refusal to give the narrator anything to do drives her to the wallpaper for some kind of intellectual activity — even exhausting, damaging activity.
The narrator's ongoing, oddly passive conflict with John over her treatment gives shape to the wallpaper's personality:
It is so discouraging not to have any advice and companionship about my work. When I get really well, John says we will ask Cousin Henry and Julia down for a long visit; but he says he would as soon put fireworks in my pillow-case as to let me have those stimulating people about now.
I wish I could get well faster.
But I must not think about that. This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!
There is a recurrent spot where the patter lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down. (7)
The wallpaper starts to take on human characteristics, "looking" at the narrator with its staring "bulbous eyes." But what's really animating the wallpaper's "vicious" nature? The narrator's discouragement at her own loneliness and lack of stimulation. And she's pretty clear about the cause: John, who refuses to allow her company she craves in the name of getting the narrator "really well." By placing John's patronizing behavior right next to complaints about the wallpaper's vicious character, the narrator is implying criticism of John's character — criticisms that she is too well-bred (or repressed) to express openly, even to the "dead paper" of her own journal.
As the narrator sleeps in her nailed-down bed and hides her writing from John and Jennie, we finally start to see the emergence of the creeping woman behind the wallpaper: "I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design" (8). So, the "front design," the actual squiggles and zigzags of the wallpaper, now appears to be concealing someone skulking behind, someone "strange" and "provoking." But — isn't the narrator kind of strange and provoking? She's definitely annoying John and Jennie with her persistent refusal to get well, and we don't think anyone would argue against "strange."
The narrator has constructed a clever series of parallels between John, the pattern of the paper, and imprisonment — but what is a prison without a prisoner? We know who John's prisoner is (the narrator), but only by implication; the narrator seems unable to articulate her own resentment and claustrophobia directly. Instead, her desperation finds form behind the wallpaper's design, as a "woman stooping down and creeping about behind that paper" (11).
As the narrator grows more and more desperate, she decides that the "dim sub-pattern" (13) is a woman who, by daylight, is "subdued, quiet" (13). This woman's silence, the narrator guesses, comes from being caught in the pattern of the paper, and "it keeps [the narrator] quiet by the hour" (13). As John steps up his campaign to make the narrator rest (driving her to acknowledge that she is "getting a little afraid of John"), the woman in the wallpaper becomes clearer to both the narrator and the reader. The woman is trapped and quiet — by daylight, when the narrator is being kept napping against her will, when she wants to be active.
The wallpaper becomes a kind of illness spreading throughout their home: Jennie scolds the narrator for getting yellow stains on all of her clothes and John's, and the narrator observes a curious, musty smell to the paper that "creeps all over the house" (14). Here is the first hint we get that the paper's function as a prison is not limited to the room where the narrator is often trapped; the paper/prison permeates the narrator's environment. While this particular paper may have been the focus of her fantasies, perhaps she would have been no better in a different house, with a different attic room. After all, John is her prison, not the wallpaper.
So, things are definitely coming to a head, and we are aware of this because that woman behind the wallpaper becomes increasingly physical: "the woman behind [the wallpaper] shakes it!" (15), our narrator observes, strengthening the parallel between the paper's pattern and prison bars once again. The woman is "trying to climb through" but the wallpaper "strangles so" (15).
The narrator's identification with the woman behind the wallpaper is pretty much established by now, but Gilman wants to underline and basically surround this idea with stars and exclamation points. Once the narrator informs us that, "I always lock the door when I creep by daylight" (16) we really know things are not all well in Narratorland.
During the day, when she (they?) is (are?) left alone, both the narrator and the woman move silently, secretly about the house — guiltily, for fear of being caught. This need for quiet reminds us of all of those times when the narrator had to hide her writing from John and Jennie for fear that they would scold her; her speculations about the wallpaper become distorted, funhouse mirror versions of the kind of imaginative release the narrator used to get from writing freely. And nighttime appears to be lockdown, for both the narrator and for the woman.
And now, we're at the end! And it's a doozy: the narrator's "I" gives way at last to the "I" of the woman in the wallpaper, who comes out of the wallpaper and observes, "It is so pleasant to be out in this great room and creep around as I please!" (18). Ruh roh!
Gilman has carefully built the foundation of this complete submersion of the narrator into the identity of the creeping woman. Because the narrator is unable to speak about her own imprisonment, the only way that she can express her frustration with her situation is on the slant, with pity and horror for the woman behind the bars of the wallpaper pattern. Because the narrator has no means to free herself from her submissive relationship with John, she finds a kind of liberty in tearing at the wallpaper to release her counterpart in the walls.
By submerging herself in the woman behind the wallpaper — and by giving herself completely over to madness — the narrator manages (in a kind of negative, unfortunate way) to defeat John. She's "'got out at last […] in spite of you and Jane'" (19), the creeping woman tells John triumphantly. How can John, as a physician dismiss her symptoms now? How can he belittle the seriousness of the narrator/woman's condition as she's creeping "smoothly on the floor" (18)? She has, at last, proved all his patronizing dismissals of her fears about her emotional state wrong — but at the cost of her own sanity.
OK, so, there's plenty of evidence in the text that the narrator's illness and frustration drives her to create a second version of herself (the woman in the wallpaper) as an expression of negative feeling that she can't otherwise express. Probably, there isn't really a woman in the wallpaper with a burning desire to possess unsuspecting women. However, the mounting sense of claustrophobia and suspense in "The Yellow Wallpaper" could also make this work as a straight tale of supernatural horror. We've even seen "The Yellow Wallpaper" published in some anthologies of horror stories.
Why push the madness angle? The thing is — pretty much all horror is really about some other social anxiety. Like, zombies in that movie Dawn of the Dead might represent concerns about mob action and mass culture. Slasher movies like the Friday the 13th and Halloween franchises do seem to be about punishing teen sexuality. And one popular reading of Dracula is that Bram Stoker is making real blood-suckers out of the metaphorical exploitation of the lower classes by the old European aristocracy.
So, "The Yellow Wallpaper" works as both horror (we totally shuddered when the woman finally appears in the flesh at the end, there) and as social commentary — just as the woman behind the wallpaper works as both a literal monster and figurative projection of the narrator's own repressed rage.