Given the distinct first-person narration and writing style of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator’s sense of internal conflict regarding her identity and inability to fulfill social expectations quickly emerges as the driving force of the story. The fact that the narrator herself is not even consciously aware of this personal struggle until the final moments of the story makes this conflict particularly unique, although Gilman’s thorough use of symbolism throughout allows readers to identify it early on. The tension that exists between the narrator and her husband, who actively works to restrain and silence her, acts as a microcosm of the broader social conflicts that lie at the heart of the story. Ultimately, the narrator finds herself grappling with the Victorian era norms and expectations which render her powerless to control the direction of her own life. Subordinate to her husband in their marriage, her perspective constantly dismissed, the narrator eventually identifies herself with the woman trying to escape the domestic trappings that the yellow wallpaper symbolizes.

Test your comprehension of “The Yellow Wallpaper” with AP® Literature-style multiple-choice questions in SparkNotes PLUS.

From the earliest moments of the story, Gilman lays the groundwork for this central conflict in both her descriptions of John and the estate to which he brings his sick wife. The narrator writes almost immediately that John, who does not believe she is truly sick, often laughs at her, admitting that “one expects that in marriage.” These details depict an unequal relationship in which the husband is undoubtedly in control, leaving the wife with no choice but to submit herself to his every whim. The fact that John is also the narrator’s physician doubles the amount of influence he has over her, and this heightened degree of dominance appears symbolically throughout the estate to which he brings her for treatment. Upon their arrival to the estate, which serves as the inciting incident for the story, the narrator takes note of the “hedges and walls and gates that lock” throughout the gardens, as well as the fact that it reminds her of “a haunted house.” These dark images of confinement become even more apparent as she describes the features of the nursery in which her husband insists she stay, a choice that further emphasizes the infantilizing opinion that John has of his wife. The literal bars on the windows, for example, essentially turn the room into a prison.

As the narrator spends more time powerlessly trapped in the nursery, she begins to take an interest in the details of the initially off-putting yellow wallpaper. These moments of rising action, which include her identifying “bulbous eyes” and eventually a creeping woman in the design, represent the beginning of both her descent into madness and her self-awakening. Although she is not consciously aware of it, the woman trapped behind the patterns of the wallpaper becomes clearer to her the longer she herself remains trapped in the nursery, thus suggesting that the narrator is beginning to understand the broader significance of her own situation. The bars that the narrator sees on the wallpaper in the moonlight, for example, mirror the metal bars covering the nursery windows, and the fact that she sees them strangling the women who try to climb through represents a subconscious acknowledgement of her own oppression. 

The climax of the story occurs when the narrator resolves to tear down the wallpaper and free “that poor thing” who “crawl[s] and shake[s] the pattern.” In this moment, she takes physical action to rebel against her confinement by destroying a symbol of the very thing that defines her life as a Victorian woman: domesticity. The narrator angrily tears apart the nursery and, although she briefly contemplates suicide, decides that she wants to do something that will truly “astonish” John. In this moment, she conflates herself and the woman in the wallpaper and begins to creep around the room freely.

Despite her apparent descent into madness, the narrator has finally developed a full and clear understanding of herself and her social position by identifying with the wall woman. The nursery becomes the place where she reclaims her freedom as she finally sees the trappings that both John and Victorian society at large have constructed to keep her in line. When John finally arrives and sees what the narrator has done, he faints from shock. He cannot fathom that his own wife would defy social expectations so much that he could not “put [her] back.” This brief amount of falling action ends the story on a rather ominous note, leaving readers to wonder about the aftermath of this act of rebellion.