Self-expression can be a key to self-discovery.

Throughout the course of the story, John, Jennie, and the isolation of the nursery prevent the narrator from engaging with the world around her in a meaningful way. Her husband frequently ignores her requests and opinions, such as which room to stay in or even the validity of her illness, and Jennie’s presence removes any need for the narrator to engage with others. This forced silence drives the narrator to record her thoughts in a secret journal, the text of which makes up the entirety of the story. Being able to express her truest thoughts, uninhibited by social expectations, plays a key part in opening her mind to just how oppressive her situation truly is. 

Right from the beginning, the narrator makes it clear that she privately “disagree[s] with [John’s] ideas” about how to treat her illness and hides her writing to avoid “heavy opposition” from him. This level of secrecy, along with the fact that John believes writing will exacerbate her restless condition, establishes women’s self-expression as something punishable due to the threat it poses to patriarchal power structures. Continuing to write in her journal, however, is only the first rebellious step in the narrator’s journey to self-discovery. As her days trapped in the nursery drag on, her depression worsens and her imagination awakens. The act of writing, in addition to offering her some psychological relief, allows her to identify the images in the wallpaper more clearly and process the concepts they represent. The self-expression she achieves through her journal eventually translates into physical self-expression, tearing down the yellow wallpaper in an ironically manic moment of self-discovery.

Patriarchal systems and perspectives restrict women's opportunities.

Patriarchal values, or structures which position men as primary figures of authority at the expense of women, dominate the narrator’s world. This dynamic becomes evident almost immediately as the reader discovers that John has complete control over the treatment of her illness. He assumes that he knows what is best for her, and this point of view oppresses her sense of personal agency. The narrator even goes so far as to ask “But what is one to do?” in response to her husband’s strict instructions, suggesting that the male-centered structures of her culture have conditioned her to feel powerless to change her situation. The guilt she feels regarding her inability to effectively carry out the roles of mother and caretaker, which she expresses when mentioning her baby, also reflects her internalization of the Victorian notion that those are the only opportunities available to women. 

The way in which John speaks to the narrator throughout the story also highlights the pervasiveness and oppressiveness of patriarchal values. Almost every time he speaks to her, he does so in an infantilizing way, talking down to her as if she was beneath him. He calls her “a blessed little goose” and “[gathers her] up in his arms” to carry her upstairs to her bed like a child. This attitude, along with the symbolic fact that John forces the narrator to stay in the house’s nursery, highlights the way in which an imbalance of power can stunt growth and personal development. The narrator remains like the helpless child John views her as until the end of the story where she dismantles the wallpaper in the nursery and, symbolically, reclaims her agency.

Outward appearances do not always reflect reality.

As “The Yellow Wallpaper” progresses, John and Jennie believe that the narrator’s condition is improving. She often sleeps during the day, and she presents a calmer outward demeanor around others. This appearance, as the reader knows from the narrator’s journal, is merely a front that she puts on for her husband. In reality, her mind continues to spiral, her obsession with the wallpaper growing more and more intense. Gilman’s use of dramatic irony to highlight the disconnect between the narrator and her husband also works to illuminate Victorian misunderstandings regarding mental illness. In an era which readily labeled women who strayed from social norms as hysterical, disparities between public perception and reality ran rampant, harming women like the narrator in the process.

The misunderstanding between the narrator and John begins almost immediately as he trivializes her illness. His refusal to genuinely acknowledge her condition, which is most likely a form of postpartum depression, reflects the assumption that outward appearances are in fact an accurate representation of reality. The gendered power dynamics at play in their relationship further exacerbates the damage which this assumption inevitably causes. John’s prescription of the “rest cure,” while putting the narrator in a position to appear more at ease, does the opposite and aggravates her more. By the end of the story, the effects of John’s dismissiveness, long apparent to both the narrator and the reader, finally express themselves outwardly. The narrator’s manic acts of destruction, which are also a manifestation of her own internal misconceptions, reveal the true suffering that her calm façade once hid.