Charlotte Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper portrays a woman dealing not only with her mental instability, but with her domineering husband and her role as a woman in the late 1800's. It is likely that at the start of the story the woman is merely depressed and anxious, wanting to do something more with her life than be a wife and mother; the mere act of her writing would lead the reader to believe so. It is her inability to communicate this need to John, his constant reminders to her of her 'illness', and her treatment while in the summer house that lead to her eventual breakdown.

The room that John chooses for his wife is symbolic and telling of attitudes of men toward women of the period. Although his wife would rather have a room downstairs looking out onto the piazza, with roses festooned about the window, he assigns her the nursery. This room is reminiscent of a mental ward, taking up nearly an entire floor of the house, with bars on the windows and heavy immovable furniture.

The room is also appointed with wallpaper that intrudes on the serenity of Gilman's main character. Her obsession with the wallpaper could be interpreted as her obsession with personal freedom. Unlike Edna Pontillier in Chopin's The Awakening this woman does not have the luxury of autonomy. Edna could do as she pleased while her husband kept a safe distance away. John's intrusion into his wife's life is complete. He chooses her room, her diet and medication, he separates her from her home, family and child. He exercises the kind of control that most husbands of the period could over their wives. So then, this woman's preoccupation with her freedom, as it is being slowly eroded, manifests itself in her obsession with the wallpaper of her prison-like room.

When she first sees the wallpaper it is merely annoying, but as it is studied it gains new depth. It grows to be fascinating and nonsensical, she begins to decern a pattern and see heads strangled within the complex tendrils of its design. Finally, she sees a figure trapped behind the paper, as trapped as she is in this room and in her marriage.

The wallpaper then symbolizes the confining nature of her life, and those who try to keep her there. Because she is powerless to make any changes in her own life, she begins to identify with the woman trapped behind the wallpaper, and tries to help this woman gain her freedom. At some point during this struggle she loses herself to her fantasy, and announces to the reader that she is the woman who was trapped.

The story obviously tells of a woman driven to insanity by societal expectations and constraints, but a far more interesting interpretation comes about when viewing her acts of madness as a struggle to free herself of these bonds. Writing her journal without regard to her husband's wishes is an act of rebellion, as is ripping the paper from the wall. As she flouts her husband's authority to greater and greater degrees, she is portrayed as being less and less connected to reality.

In the final scene, she is creeping over the floor, along the strip of wall where she removed the paper, "freeing" herself. In order to complete her journey, she crawls over her fainted husband. Showing the reader that she is victorious in her desire for independence, in her desire to be free.