"The Yellow Wallpaper" was one of the first works to chronicle the process of going insane. Its harrowing quality derives from the fact that the author knows whereof she speaks. But even though it is based on Gilman's own breakdown, the story is crafted as a work of art, because the nightmarish motif of the yellow wallpaper itself serves as a metaphor for the disintegration of the protagonist's mind.
The narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper" has no name. Generally, when the protagonist of a first-person story remains unnamed throughout the work, we take this to mean that the character represents all humankind. In this story, however, it seems more likely that the main character is unnamed because the experience she is undergoing robs her of her identity. Alone in the yellow-wallpapered nursery with the barred windows, she is treated like a combination inmate and child -- denied her writing that gives her solace and lends meaning to her life, denied stimulating companionship that could distract her from her preoccupation with her meager surroundings. Denied any kind of healthy stimulus at all, she is forced to provide her own.
We can see that at the beginning of the book, our protagonist is not too far gone. Her first impression is of the ugly wallpaper; she's "never seen a worse paper in [her] life." Almost immediately, however, she veers into a type of language that could either be interpreted as metaphorical or disturbed, describing the pattern's "lame uncertain curves" that "suddenly commit suicide -- plunge[ing] off at outrageous angles, destroy[ing] themselves in unheard-of contradictions." Obviously it is the protagonist herself who feels lame and uncertain, and fears suicide -- fears that she herself will suddenly plunge off at some outrageous angle. Her self-control is still working, but like the wallpaper, disturbing patches show through.
By the second week of her stay, even more disturbance manifests itself in her description of the wallpaper. While she admits it is "inanimate", she also, in the same sentence, says that she doesn't like its "expression". It looks like a face to her -- "a broken neck and two bulbous eyes [that] stare at you upside down". Two sentences later, the wallpaper face is not one creature but many, with multiple "absurd, unblinking eyes [which] are everywhere". The wallpaper creatures anger her with their "impertinence"; this is the first time she mentions them crawling around the room. She sees, too, a "strange,...