If we took the narrator’s words at face value, we would believe that her husband is kind and loving, that she really is physically ill...and that women really do get trapped in wallpaper.
This is part of the fun of first person narration—you’re never quite sure if the narrator’s perceptions actually reflect what’s going on, or whether the narrator has a screw or two loose. The narrator's tone also clues us in to her character: her uncertainty and hesitation at the start of the story, and her determination towards the end.
When "The Yellow Wallpaper" first came out, the public didn’t quite understand the message. The piece was treated as a horror story, kind of like the 19th Century equivalent to The Exorcist. Nowadays, however, we understand "The Yellow Wallpaper" as an early feminist work.
Gilman never intended "The Yellow Wallpaper" to be a Gothic horror, but as a cautionary tale about what supposed rest cures could do to the mental stability of patients. As Gilman stated in "Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper," the story "was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked."
As such, we think it always was a work of literary fiction...but people back in the 19th Century wanted to dismiss it as shocking schlock.
The title refers to the (you got it—yellow) wallpaper in the room where the protagonist spends pretty much all of her time. Since she's essentially trapped in her room with nothing to do, she spends her time staring at the pattern of the wallpaper, becoming more and more obsessed with the paper.
But that's not all. The protagonist also imagines a woman trapped behind this fugly yellow wallpaper. This transforms the symbolism of the wallpaper—and the story's title—from simple bad taste in terms of interior decoration to something much more sinister: the idea of being trapped. Both the women in the wallpaper and the narrator held in the solitary confinement of the "rest cure" are held captive.
Sorry, guys: this isn't one of those "they get married and live happily ever after!" endings.
In "The Yellow Wallpaper," the (by now super-mentally ill) narrator has stripped off all the wallpaper in her room and is creeping around when her husband shows up at the door. She tells him that she’s free and that she’s liberated herself. He faints and she continues to creep around the room.
Some critics have argued that John’s faint demonstrates a moment of feminine weakness in the character of the story’s otherwise quintessential man. This provides a degree of balance to the story. The narrator attains liberation; John turns into a woman.
But...is the narrator really liberated? We’re inclined towards saying "no," given that she’s still creeping around the room and that her psyche is broken.
The setting of "The Yellow Wallpaper" reinforces all of the intangible feelings and attitudes expressed in the story.
What do we mean by this? Let’s start with this passage:
[The house] is quite alone standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the village. It makes me think of English places that you read about, for there are hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses for the gardeners and people.
It’s a fancy house, yes, but it stands back away from the road and contains many "locks" and "separate little houses." This is a super-isolated (and isolating) place. It’s separate from the road and therefore separated from society; the house itself is described as a place that binds and restricts.
Now think about the narrator’s emotional position: isolated and restricted. Her emotional position mirrors the house’s physical set-up.
Within the house itself, the narrator is primarily confined to a "big, airy room... with windows that look all ways." In keeping with the themes of isolation and restriction, the windows that look out everywhere are barred, preventing any sort of escape. The narrator is able to see, but not participate in, what happens outside her room.
There's yet another connection to draw between the narrator and her physical setting, however. Do you notice how John tends to infantilize his wife? Calling her his "blessed little goose" is only the least of it. He treats her more like a child than an adult; it comes as no surprise that the narrator’s bedroom used to be (gasp!) a nursery.
Lastly, don’t forget that the story was written in the late 19th Century, which anchors it in a very specific historical moment in terms of women and their (erroneously) perceived lack of abilities. Except for the wallpaper madness at the end, the narrator’s story would have been rather typical at the time of publication.
Over the course of the story, we witness the narrator gradually losing her mind.
In the beginning, she can offer calm and logical descriptions of her surroundings. Soon, however, she attempts to have a rational conversation with her husband but ends up crying and pleading. By the end of the story, she's convinced that the wallpaper is moving, as a woman trapped inside attempts to break free.
As the story unfolds, however, the prose remains very crisp and factual. We can ascertain the narrator’s listlessness as she lies in bed and follows the pattern of the wallpaper. As her delusions increase and she becomes more convinced that a woman is trapped within the paper, the prose becomes more urgent and more secretive.
It’s definitely not a coincidence that the woman in the wallpaper is trapped behind a pattern. We can conceive of societal norms and mores as types of patterns that metaphorically restrict our movements. The woman who the narrator imagines she sees trapped behind a pattern is simply a more direct embodiment of that metaphorical restriction.
Scholars have made much of the fact that the narrator starts referring to the wallpaper as "the paper." Given that the narrator has a repressed literary bent, it is no great stretch of the imagination to posit that the (wall)paper becomes her text. Her intellect restrained from reading and writing, the narrator’s mind instead turns to her surroundings and settles upon the wallpaper as an intellectual challenge.
In "The Yellow Wallpaper," moonlight represents a time for the feminine. During the day, the narrator writes that the woman trapped in the wallpaper is motionless and immobile. As moonlight strikes the wall, however, the woman begins to move or, perhaps more accurately, to creep. This pattern mirrors the narrator’s own daily movements. During the day, she sleeps; at night she lies awake, alert, and invested in the intellectual activity that she must suppress during the day while her husband is watching.
See Setting for a complete discussion.
It’s big, heavy, and chained down to the floor. Some critics argue this represents repressed female sexuality, probably because a bed is where people have sex, and chains are a repressive measure.
This is a tough perspective when the narrator is slowly sinking into madness.
Is there really a woman creeping around outside in the bushes? Probably not. Is there really a woman trapped in the wallpaper? Definitely not. But is the pattern of the wallpaper interesting and confusing? Probably yes.
The author’s use of the first person to convey the story allows readers to go along for the ride into madness and cultivates a certain amount of sympathy for the narrator and her plight. The constant use of "I" puts us right in the narrator’s head and allows us to empathize with her.
Do you sense the beginning of a horror story? We do: a woman moves into the house; the house is spooky; the woman has serious misgivings; etc. We also learn in this stage that the narrator’s husband makes all the decisions for her, telling her when she is sick and what she is suffering from. This is part of the initial situation as it highlights a certain path that the story may follow.
The narrator tries to express her own opinion to her husband, but is overruled on every count. This is conflict, yes, but note its one-sided nature: John doesn’t take his wife seriously. In other words, this conflict results in the narrator’s repression.
Forced to lie in bed all day and rest, the narrator becomes completely entranced by the wallpaper and is drawn into trying to decode its design. This adds a layer of complication to the story as the narrator’s vibrant mind deals with repression by focusing on her surroundings.
This is the ultimate moment of rebellion for the protagonist as she takes action towards freedom. She is finally upsetting the status quo and declaring her own sense of agency. This all adds up to one heck of a climactic moment.
All of this upsetting of the status quo comes with a certain amount of backlash. When John comes home to find the door to his bedroom locked, he begins freaking out. The uncertainty of the narrator’s fate leads us to conclude that this is the moment of suspense.
The narrator’s actions are so extraordinary and so shocking that her husband faints. This is the denouement because it answers our questions about how John will react to his wife’s craziness. Rather than bullying her or trying to talk to her, he simply faints.
This is the conclusion of the story because it’s how we leave the scene of the story. It functions a bit oddly as a conclusion, however, because it doesn’t exactly wrap up loose ends. For instance, we’re wondering if the narrator ever gets her sanity back. Does her husband regain consciousness? Does she get tired of creeping? Wait a minute. This doesn’t seem like a conclusion at all!
The narrator and her husband arrive at a country estate for a "rest" vacation. She is bothered by their room’s ugly yellow wallpaper.
Stuck in the room with orders to do nothing but rest, the narrator becomes more obsessed with the wallpaper and less trusting of her husband. She begins to sense a "yellow smell" in the room.
Convinced there’s a woman stuck behind the wallpaper, she strips it off the walls in order to free her. She then declares that she has escaped from the paper, and her husband faints when he finally sees how insane she has become.
Weir Mitchell (3.4)