“The Yellow Wallpaper” examines the role of women in 19th-century American society, including the relationship between husbands and wives, the economic and social dependence of women on men, and the repression of female individuality and sexuality. The Victorian era had a profound impact on social values in the United States, stressing that women were to behave demurely and remain within the domestic sphere. Suffering from postpartum depression after the birth of her son, the protagonist is advised by her husband and doctor to get complete bed rest, despite her suggestions that she write and read. While she does secretly write in a journal, it is made clear that her husband is the final decision maker and that her role is to be a charming wife and competent mother. In fact, John often treats her like a child, calling her his “little girl” and “blessed little goose.” When the narrator has a “real earnest reasonable talk” with John, during which she asks him if she can visit some relatives, he does not allow her to go.
Because of its first-person description of mental illness, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is also considered a work of psychological fiction. Gilman addresses such Themes as madness, depression, despair, and self-worth by presenting a realistic and shocking account of the stages of mental breakdown. Because the narrator has nothing to occupy herself and because she has no say in her treatment, she comes to project all of her pent-up feelings onto the yellow wallpaper until she eventually believes that there is a woman trapped within its pattern. This trapped figure symbolizes the narrator’s emotional and intellectual confinement. Left with no real means of expression or escape, the narrator represses her anger and frustration and succumbs to insanity. Greg Johnson emphasized this theme in an essay for Studies in Short Fiction, in which he noted that the story “traces the narrator’s gradual identification with her own suppressed rage, figured as a woman grasping the bars of her prison and struggling frantically to get free.”
The story also addresses how physicians-specifically world-famous neurologist S. Weir Mitchell-viewed mental illness in female patients at the end of the 19th century. Psychologists frequently dismissed serious illnesses like depression as nothing more than hysteria or a “case of the nerves.” Mitchell and his proteges advised their patients to get complete bed rest, believing that intellectual activity was detrimental to women’s mental health. In 1935 Gilman explained the importance of this theme in her autobiography: “The real purpose of the story was to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and convince him of the error of his ways…. Many years later, I met someone who said he had told them that he had changed his treatment of nervous prostration since reading ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’ If that is a fact, I have not lived in vain.”
Of the few Characters in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the most important one is the unnamed narrator, a new mother and the wife of a doctor. She suffers from depression, or “nervous prostration,” and is confined to a room that used to be a nursery in a country house that she and John have rented for a holiday. While John does not allow her to read, write, or engage in any other mental stimulation, she secretly keeps a journal. The story itself is a transcription of these journal entries. Bored and restless, the narrator is driven to distraction by the yellow wallpaper that decorates the room, eventually suffering a complete mental breakdown after imagining that she sees in the wallpaper’s pattern women who are trying to escape. Because the narrator is completely dependent on her husband and is allowed no other role than to be a wife and mother, she represents the secondary status of women during the 19th century.
The husband of the unnamed narrator is a doctor who believes in the rest-cure for women suffering from hysteria. John displays the 19th-century attitude that women were to behave demurely and remain within the domestic sphere, aspiring only to be competent mothers and charming wives. Jennie is the narrator’s sister-in-law. She helps to take care of the narrator and, more importantly, her newborn baby. She is described as “a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper,” personifying the 19th-century view of women as homemakers and caretakers of children.