"The Yellow Wallpaper" is a semi-autobiographical short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in which she describes the treatment of women during a rest cure prescribed for nervous disorders by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, who was a famous physician. The story describes the submissive, childlike obedience of women to male authority figures that was considered typical at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The unnamed protagonist of the story is helpless to express her own needs. She is taken by her husband, John, to a country house so that she can recuperate from a nervous condition. The reader is immediately aware of the condescending attitude of the physician husband toward his wife. She is relegated against her will to a third floor room of the house, a room that the owners previously used as a nursery. Symbolically, the room with the yellow wallpaper serves as a prison where the wife is restricted, like a child, from the intellectual activities of reading and writing. At first, the narrator rebels against the constraints by keeping a secret diary. When John discovers her disobedience, she is chastised and her diary is cruelly destroyed.
Social interactions are also held to a minimum. The husband lectures in other cities, so the narrator is often left without emotional support for days at a time. When John is at home, his conversations are patronizing, and he dismisses her concerns about her condition. Clearly, her role is to comfort him and trust blindly that her own condition is improving. John’s self-absorption does not permit him to see that his wife's condition is deteriorating.
Jennie (John's sister), who manages the household, is another example of the restricted role of women. She busies herself with decorating and supervising the kitchen. She unquestioningly carries out John’s orders to monitor the narrator's activities, even when her own contacts with the woman make it clear that what the doctor orders is not what the patient needs. She nevertheless obeys blindly until it is too late to reverse the effects of the narrator's descent into madness.
The powerful pattern in the yellow wallpaper resembles bars that confine the protagonist in her world of loneliness, helplessness, and infantilism. Deprived of intellectual stimulation, the narrator's imagination conjures up a world behind the paper where captive women wait helplessly to be freed. Ironically, she is one of the women seeking to be liberated. Destroying the paper seems to be the only way she can destroy the hold of stifling mores that demand female subservience to men and free women from male dominance.