In a rather deep state of depression, Gilman's narrator fights to overcome the oppression of the patriarchal system in which she dwells,
You see he does not believe I am sick! And what can one do?
The narrator's husband and other physician, Dr. Weir Mitchell, mitigate the seriousness of her depression, calling it "a slight hysterical tendency" and a "fancy" that requires complete rest. However, she feels that "congenial work with excitement and change" is better for her. In addition, she feels trapped as she repeats "But what is one to do?"
Knowing her own artistic nature, the narrator desires the aesthetic; she longs to go into "the delicious garden," and she fears the house because she senses something very strange about it. Her husband John affords her no credibility to sny of her emotional or intuitive reactions, and the narrator becomes "unreasonably angry" with her husband who scolds her for not having sufficient "self-control." Again and again, her husband surpresses her desires, such as that of being in the room downstairs where there are "roses all over the window" and pretty chintz hangings. Instead of allowing her any spontaneity, John has "a schedule prescription for each hour" so that he takes from his wife "all care,"making her feel ungrateful, yet more repressed as she is forced to stay in an "atrocious nursery."
Left alone and forbidden any forms of stimulation, the narrator begins to blame herself for her nervousness that comes on when she is with the baby. She rationalizes that her husband knows better for her, yet she clings to her creative imaginings despite her husband's belittling of them and exhorting her to have more control. This is the conflict that develops: her artisitic, creative nature against the partriarchal demands of Dr. Mitchell and her husband. And, this conflict turns inward because the narrator has no power. Feeling trapped in her confinement, the narrator without outlet for her artistic drives, turns them inward, imagining a woman trapped behind what she perceives as a hideous yellow wallpaper. Projecting her emotional imprisonment into an image of a woman behind the bars of the wallpaper, the narrator seeks to free this woman, who represents her creative spirit,
I think that woman gets out in the daytime!....
I can see her out of everyone of my windos!....
I see her in that long shaded lane, creeping up and down. I see her in those dark grape arbors, creeping all around the garden....
And though I always see her, she may be able to creep faster than I can turn!
In short, the narrator becomes nearly schizophrenic as she suffers great delusions in her efforts to assert her aesthetic spirit and free herself from her confinement in a room that appalls her.
The motives and the opinions of the narrator in this excellent short story are explained in the first few paragraphs of the opening, in which the narrator introduces herself to the reader, her husband, and also explains why it is that she is confined to her room. Note what she says about her husband and his control over her treatment:
John is a physician, and perhaps (I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind) perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.
John believes that there is nothing wrong with the narrator and that all she needs is rest and quiet, even though the narrator herself believes that "congenial work, with society and change" would do her the world of good. There is a conflict therefore between the narrator and her own feelings about what she needs and what is good for her, and then the beliefs of both the narrator's husband and brother, who clearly have more power in this scenario. The resulting boredom that the narrator experiences as she is expected to do nothing but rest and stay in this bedroom can therefore be seen as the cause of the madness she later falls into. That is to say that her visions of the woman behind the wallpaper can be seen as a projection of herself being constrained by male patriarchal ideas of what men think is best for her, leaving her fertile and productive mind disengaged and frustrated.