Set in a time when knowledge of the human psyche was minimal and a woman's only role was to be subservient, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper chronicles a woman's gradual descent into insanity. Her husband and physician, John, who "is practical in the extreme, has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition,"" and "scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures,"" (673) has taken her to an unfamiliar house for rest and relaxation, and ultimately what he has decided will be her salvation from "temporary nervous depression- (674). However, as the story evolves the reader comes to realize that this "treatment- is driving her further from reality. .
The protagonist establishes her role early in the story. Despite the fact that she feels "congenial work, with excitement and change, would do [her] good,"" she stays confined to this house, surrounded by haunting yellow wallpaper and barred windows. Her husband and his brother, both prominent physicians, have restricted her to practically no activity, and she is "absolutely forbidden to work'- until she becomes well again. She makes few attempts to tell her husband her contradictory ideas, and on the occasions the subject would come up, John would discourage her thoughts with words such as "the very worst thing [you] can do is to think about [your] condition."" She readily fills her role and admits that thinking about her condition "always makes [her] feel bad- (674).
With little else to stimulate her, the protagonist begins to focus her attention on the wallpaper that decorates her room. It began as an aesthetic dislike. "The color is repellant . It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others. I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long- (675). As her illness progresses, though, she becomes obsessed with the unusual pattern of the paper, and the reader realizes the paper is symbolic of her mental struggle.