Published in 1892, Gilman’s story is generally interpreted as a study of the protagonist’s descent into psychosis and as a condemnation of the “rest cure,” a treatment for nervous disorders that originated with Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell. Gilman’s personal experience with Dr. Mitchell and his rest cure supports this interpretation of the story, as does the narrative’s content; the unnamed narrator (often identified as Jane), steadily deteriorates during a rest cure and fears being treated by a physician named Dr. Weir. The story is also interpreted as condemning the submissive role women were expected to play in marriage, not an uncommon literary theme at the turn of the century.
Another influence is evident in the story, however—the popularity of Gothic literature in the 1800s. Gothic elements are introduced immediately in Jane’s description of the setting—the “ancestral halls” of a “hereditary estate.” The secluded old mansion, set among shadowy, walled gardens, is reminiscent of the settings of many gothic tales. The shattered greenhouses, lying in disrepair, and the abandoned gardeners’ cottages suggest ruin and decay, familiar motifs in gothic literature. In her first journal entry, Jane notes that there is something “queer” about the mansion’s being uninhabited for so long and rented to her husband so inexpensively. The mansion reminds her of a haunted house; she sees “ghostliness” in it. Jane insists “there is something strange about the house—I can feel it.”
Other conventions of Gothic literature are found in the story, as well. A troubled heroine trapped in a strange setting tells her own story as it develops. Her domineering husband imprisons her, consigns her to a room with barred windows, and abandons her for long periods of time; a housekeeper watches her intently and reports her behavior to him. Her husband professes love and concern for her, but he denies her perception of reality and systematically imposes his will in ways that harm her. No longer trusting her husband or the housekeeper, she struggles to save herself. In the context of Jane and John’s nineteenth-century society, the scenario seems more tragic than sinister, but it’s consistent nonetheless with the plot of many Gothic stories and novels.
Considering what’s not in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” it’s doubtful that Gilman set out to write a Gothic tale. Jane doesn’t explore dark, secret passages by the flickering light of a candle held in a trembling hand. She isn’t seized with terror and compelled to run from the mansion into a violent storm. Gilman instead creates a complex protagonist, with the story’s Gothic elements illustrating Gilman's artistry as a writer. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is not a political tract, nor is it an essay on women and marriage; it is a short story, a sophisticated piece of fiction that leaves readers wondering.
Has the old mansion stood empty for many years because of legal entanglements, or is there another reason no one chooses to live there? Who previously occupied Jane’s bedroom? Was it a nursery, playroom, gym, and boys’ school, as she conjectures in an attempt to explain its unusual features, or were there other reasons to bar the windows, bolt the bed to the floor, and install “rings and things” in the walls? Are the rings perhaps the kind to which chains could have been affixed? Was it children who gnawed repeatedly on the bedstead? One wonders when reading Jane’s account of biting off a piece of it. Is the estate a former asylum, or is it the home of someone else who once was driven mad in the bedroom? Whatever the room used to be, the reader knows one thing for sure: Jane is not the first person to tear the yellow paper from the walls. The story is filled with specific details about the bedroom, but they create ambiguity rather than clarity.
Reading Jane’s journal leaves the reader with a final question. Is she an unreliable narrator recording her own descent into insanity at the hands of a domineering husband, or is she a reliable narrator overwhelmed by supernatural forces and ultimately possessed by a demon? The answer, however, is unimportant. Jane is destroyed either way, and whatever it is that extinguishes her spirit and steals her life is truly evil.