Almost every aspect of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is ironic in some way. Irony is a way of using words to convey multiple levels of meaning that contrast with or complicate one another. In verbal irony, words are frequently used to convey the exact opposite of their literal meaning, such as when one person responds to another’s mistake by saying “nice work.” (Sarcasm—which this example embodies—is a form of verbal irony.) In her journal, the narrator uses verbal irony often, especially in reference to her husband: “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.” Obviously, one expects no such thing, at least not in a healthy marriage. Later, she says, “I am glad my case is not serious,” at a point when it is clear that she is concerned that her case is very serious indeed.
Dramatic irony occurs when there is a contrast between the reader’s knowledge and the knowledge of the characters in the work. Dramatic irony is used extensively in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” For example, when the narrator first describes the bedroom John has chosen for them, she attributes the room’s bizarre features—the “rings and things” in the walls, the nailed-down furniture, the bars on the windows, and the torn wallpaper—to the fact that it must have once been used as a nursery. Even this early in the story, the reader sees that there is an equally plausible explanation for these details: the room had been used to house an insane person. Another example is when the narrator assumes that Jennie shares her interest in the wallpaper, while it is clear that Jennie is only now noticing the source of the yellow stains on their clothing. The effect intensifies toward the end of the story, as the narrator sinks further into her fantasy and the reader remains able to see her actions from the “outside.” By the time the narrator fully identifies with the trapped woman she sees in the wallpaper, the reader can appreciate the narrator’s experience from her point of view as well as John’s shock at what he sees when he breaks down the door to the bedroom.
Situational irony refers to moments when a character’s actions have the opposite of their intended effect. For example, John’s course of treatment backfires, worsening the depression he was trying to cure and actually driving his wife insane. Similarly, there is a deep irony in the way the narrator’s fate develops. She gains a kind of power and insight only by losing what we would call her self-control and reason.
An “epistolary” work of fiction takes the form of letters between characters. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a kind of epistolary story, in which the narrator writes to herself. Gilman uses this technique to show the narrator’s descent into madness both subjectively and objectively—that is, from both the inside and the outside. Had Gilman told her story in traditional first-person narration, reporting events from inside the narrator’s head, the reader would never know exactly what to think: a woman inside the wallpaper might seem to actually exist. Had Gilman told the story from an objective, third-person point of view, without revealing the narrator’s thoughts, the social and political symbolism of the story would have been obscured. As it is, the reader must decipher the ambiguity of the story, just as the narrator must attempt to decipher the bewildering story of her life and the bizarre patterns of the wallpaper. Gilman also uses the journal to give the story an intense intimacy and immediacy, especially in those moments when the narrative is interrupted by the approach of John or Jennie. These interruptions perfectly illustrate the constraints placed on the narrator by authority figures who urge her not to think about her “condition.”