The experiences of the main character in Charlotte Perkin Gilman's short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," are based on the author's personal experiences with post-partum depression.
This was not a recognized illness, as it is today, and the woman in the story suffers the diagnosis of a society that is ill-prepared to deal with what they do not understand.
Most modern commentators now interpret the story as a feminist indictment of society's subjugation of women...
After having a baby, the medical community relies on what they know; they advise the young mother...
to abstain from any and all physical activity and intellectual stimulation. She is not allowed to read, write, or even see her new baby. To carry out this treatment, the woman's husband takes her to a country house where she is kept in a former nursery decorated with yellow wallpaper.
Reviewing the quote above, we note that the woman is "kept in" a former nursery. In other words, she is restrained or imprisoned in this room. She is not allowed any sort of diversion, not to read or even see her baby.
At the start, where the woman seems most healthy, she has spirit, and tries to defy her seclusion:
I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal—having to be so sly about it, or else meeting with heavy opposition.
However, she is also a product of her society. The things that she wants are not provided, but instead of insisting, she feels ungrateful. She is also controlled by her husband—a doctor—as if she is incapable of making the simplest of decisions.
He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction...he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more.
The woman's husband makes every decision for her, even to the point of allowing that since he sees no problem, that she has no reason to be concerned.
[John] knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him.
As the speaker continues to describe her limited activity (of secretly writing), and her husband's refusal to change her room, but assurances that in a few weeks she will be well, the woman begins to imagine that she sees things in the wallpaper: like eyes—everywhere, and fungus. And when she infers to John that perhaps she is better physically, but not in other ways, he won't listen to her, but dismisses the entire idea.
Reviewers...maintain...that John's treatment of his wife represents the powerlessness and repression of women during the late nineteenth century.
This is a story that not only describes a young woman's descent into mental illness, but a society (represented strongly in her husband) that refuses to give credence to the woman's concerns. She becomes fearful of her husband and paranoid. She imagines that the smell of the paper moves through the house, and imagines that the pattern moves because "the woman behind the pattern shakes it!"
John's refusal to listen to his wife, his complete certainty in his own power to "fix" his wife, and his inability to see what is happening to her mental health lead to his wife's belief that she has become a part of the paper. When her husband finally sees how far her illness has gone, he faints...and she continues to creep around the room, leaning against the wallpaper, climbing over his unconscious form every time she passes.
The unnamed woman in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" is confined in a patriarchal and repressive Victorian society. Suffering from what is now recognized as post-partum blues after the birth of her child, the husband, John who is a physician himself, accepts the prevailing wisdom that his wife merely needs bed rest since mental illness in women is mere frivolousness. The doctor prescribes a "rest cure" in which the woman is confined to bed with no mental stimulation at all.
This type of rest was advocated at the time by Dr. Weir Mitchell; in fact, Gilman herself was subjected to this confinement when she herself suffered from post-partum blues. Having written her story to expose the folly of such a theory as the deprivation of all stimuli with bed rest, Gilman claimed that she had written the story "to preach" against the restrictive social mores of her time. The narrator demonstrates the influence of this partiarchal code as she says,
John does not know how much I really suffer. he knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him....
I suppose John never was nervous in his life. He laughs at me so about this wallpaper!
Rather than having a recuperative effect upon the narrator, the deprivation of the stimuli of nature, her books and writing, as well as being forbidden to see her baby cause the narrator to become very disturbed. Nevertheless, because of her Victorian upbringing, the woman worries that she will cause John to become angry and she acquiesces to his demands because she begins to believe that she is too sensitive and her behavior "is due to this nervous condition" that she has.
Of course, because of the terrible restrictions placed upon the narrator in her Victorian society, she projects her insanity upon the repulsive pattern of the wallpaper behind which she images a woman trapped who seeks desperately to free herself. The yellow wallpaper and the trapped woman become metaphors for the desperate attempt of women to free herself from the restrictive Victorian society.