In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman uses the conventions of the psychological horror tale to critique the position of women within the institution of marriage, especially as practiced by the “respectable” classes of her time. When the story was first published, most readers took it as a scary tale about a woman in an extreme state of consciousness—a gripping, disturbing entertainment, but little more. After its rediscovery in the twentieth century, however, readings of the story have become more complex. For Gilman, the conventional nineteenth-century middle-class marriage, with its rigid distinction between the “domestic” functions of the female and the “active” work of the male, ensured that women remained second-class citizens. The story reveals that this gender division had the effect of keeping women in a childish state of ignorance and preventing their full development. John’s assumption of his own superior wisdom and maturity leads him to misjudge, patronize, and dominate his wife, all in the name of “helping” her. The narrator is reduced to acting like a cross, petulant child, unable to stand up for herself without seeming unreasonable or disloyal. The narrator has no say in even the smallest details of her life, and she retreats into her obsessive fantasy, the only place she can retain some control and exercise the power of her mind.
The mental constraints placed upon the narrator, even more so than the physical ones, are what ultimately drive her insane. She is forced to hide her anxieties and fears in order to preserve the façade of a happy marriage and to make it seem as though she is winning the fight against her depression. From the beginning, the most intolerable aspect of her treatment is the compulsory silence and idleness of the “resting cure.” She is forced to become completely passive, forbidden from exercising her mind in any way. Writing is especially off limits, and John warns her several times that she must use her self-control to rein in her imagination, which he fears will run away with her. Of course, the narrator’s eventual insanity is a product of the repression of her imaginative power, not the expression of it. She is constantly longing for an emotional and intellectual outlet, even going so far as to keep a secret journal, which she describes more than once as a “relief” to her mind. For Gilman, a mind that is kept in a state of forced inactivity is doomed to self-destruction.
As someone who almost was destroyed by S. Weir Mitchell’s “resting cure” for depression, it is not surprising that Gilman structured her story as an attack on this ineffective and cruel course of treatment. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is an illustration of the way a mind that is already plagued with anxiety can deteriorate and begin to prey on itself when it is forced into inactivity and kept from healthy work. To his credit, Mitchell, who is mentioned by name in the story, took Gilman’s criticism to heart and abandoned the “resting cure.” Beyond the specific technique described in the story, Gilman means to criticize any form of medical care that ignores the concerns of the patient, considering her only as a passive object of treatment. The connection between a woman’s subordination in the home and her subordination in a doctor/patient relationship is clear—John is, after all, the narrator’s husband and doctor. Gilman implies that both forms of authority can be easily abused, even when the husband or doctor means to help. All too often, the women who are the silent subjects of this authority are infantilized, or worse.