“The Yellow Wallpaper” is an example of a first-person narrative because it is told exclusively from the viewpoint of the unnamed protagonist, and the reader is given access only to her thoughts and emotions. However, since she is suffering a mental breakdown, she is also considered an unreliable narrator, as the reader cannot be certain if she is accurately relating the events of the story. This adds emotional impact to the narrative because the reader is given an intimate account of the protagonist’s growing feelings of despair and confusion.
Since the story is, in part, a transcription of a journal in which the narrator secretly writes, her writing style and the way it changes as the story progresses give the reader clues to her deteriorating mental condition. For example, over time, the narrator’s sentences become shorter and more curt, with paragraphs consisting of only one or two sentences. This helps convey her distraught mental state and inability to think clearly. The overall tone of her writing also changes. At the beginning of the story, she writes with humility, stating that while she does not agree with her treatment, her husband probably knows better than she what is good for her. By the end of the narrative, however, a tone of complaint and rebellion takes over her account. When she locks the door of the nursery, for example, she declares: “I don’t want to go out, and I don’t want to have anybody come in, until John comes. I want to astonish him.”
The most important symbol in the story is the yellow wallpaper. Most critics have concluded that the wallpaper represents the state of mind of the protagonist. In a more general sense, the wallpaper also symbolizes the way women were viewed in 19th-century society. It is described as containing “pointless patterns,” “lame uncertain curves,” and “outrageous angles” that “destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.” Despite the narrator’s detailed description of the wallpaper, it remains mysterious to the reader. Hedges wrote in the afterword to the 1973 edition that “the paper symbolizes [the narrator’s] situation as seen by the men who control her and hence her situation as seen by herself. How can she define herself?”
Other important symbols in “The Yellow Wallpaper” are the nursery, the barred windows, and the nailed-down bed. The nursery is said to represent 19th-century society’s tendency to view women as children, while the barred windows symbolize the emotional, social, and intellectual prison in which women of that era were kept. Finally, the bed is viewed by some critics as a symbol of repressed female sexuality.
The story is considered part of the genre of psychological realism because it attempts to portray the mental deterioration of the narrator. It is also considered realistic in that it depicts the way life was for women during the 19th century. Gilman deliberately tried to make the narrator typical of that time period: she is economically dependent on her husband; she is not allowed to make her own decisions; she is discouraged from engaging in intellectual activity; and she is frequently treated like a child. Further, Gilman did not romanticize the character of John. While she could have depicted him sympathetically, she instead painted him as controlling, inconsiderate, and emotionally inaccessible.
Critics have also identified numerous conventions of gothic fiction in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” including horror, dread, dreams, suspense, and the supernatural. The story takes place on an estate that has fallen into disrepair, three miles from the nearest village. This sense of isolation is frequently used in gothic stories to create a foreboding tone. The narrator is also struck with the “strangeness” and “ghostliness” of the place. E. Suzanne Owens argued in Haunting the House of Fiction that “to a reader familiar with the Gothic, the events of the story suggest possession as much as they do hallucination.”