Gilman’s symbolic uses of the story’s setting, particularly early on, work to create powerful dramatic irony and invite the reader to understand the harsh truths of the narrator’s life long before she does. This approach adds key layers of meaning which elevate the story from a simple tale of a woman going mad to one which offers substantial social commentary on the gender politics of the time. Right away, Gilman uses the setting as a way to create tension by describing the narrator’s new living space as both a stately “colonial mansion” and a “haunted house.” This discrepancy between the house’s outward appearance and the narrator’s instinctual feelings of distrust towards it suggests that this new space will aggravate her condition rather than improve it. Other details, such as the “hedges and walls and gates that lock,” also work to undercut the estate’s façade of beauty and foreshadow the confinement that she will inevitably experience there. 

The nursery and its poor condition also have significant symbolic value, representing the particular lifestyle that outside forces aim to impose on her. John’s decision to have the narrator stay in the nursery functions on two levels. First, the nursery reflects the notion that, according to the patriarchal values of her culture, her primary goal and responsibility in life is to raise children. The irony, of course, is that her struggle to eagerly fill that role is what brings John to confine her there in the first place. Second, the narrator’s connection to the nursery highlights the way in which John, representing the views of their culture at large, infantilizes her. She has virtually no agency, leaving her as helpless as a child. These layers of meaning invite the reader to consider what the narrator is up against as she moves through the story and give more context to her character arc.