The story makes use of a common convention of the gothic romance. It opens with the typical hereditary estate, which the narrator is tempted to call a "haunted house," and then introduces the convention, best known in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre," of the mysterious mad woman in the upstairs room. However, the primary convention the story uses is the traditional difference between how men and women supposedly approach reality. The husband, who is a doctor or scientist, has no patience with faith, superstition, or anything that cannot be physically verified and converted to mathematical figures. This contrasts with the wife's imaginative power and her "habit of story-making."
Serving as a background to this tension is the wall-paper itself which gives the story its title--an image of domestic "woman's things," but which takes on significance because of the nature of the "patterns" that it embodies. If you isolate all those references to the wallpaper in the story, you will see how the patterns begin to take on an ominous expression of reality. The nature of the woman's "madness" is projective and thus identified with the nature of writing, for she creates meaningful patterns and then responds to the patterns as if the meaning existed in them instead of being projected on them.
Although this may be at least one definition of madness, it is also a definition of the artist, who creates meaning out of patterns that readers take to be real and significant. The difference between madness and art, of course, is between allowing the projection to possess one only temporarily or being drawn into it obsessively without the desire or ability to escape.
What the narrator does is to transform a "pointless pattern" into a meaningful one by following it to its conclusion or end and thus determining its purpose. The narrator says she knows little of the principal of design, but that she does know that there is no law or rule that governs the pattern of the wallpaper. Of course, as the story proceeds and she perceives or projects a woman behind the pattern, the reader knows that inevitability the woman must be herself, for the conventional rule that applies here is that if one projects a pattern, the pattern then indeed reflects the self. The story thus involves two basic notions of patterns that the reader may need to unravel--patterns created by society itself that entrap a woman and bind her and patterns the mind of the woman herself creates that follow only the law of her own psychic distress.
A 1982 film version of this story invents a number of elements to present the story as a male/female conflict in which the male is responsible for the madness of the female. For example, there is the difference between what the wife writes--her impressions and personal thoughts in a small notebook she keeps hidden in her pocket--and what the husband writes--a schedule that controls her every move and an academic paper. Thus, the story is about the woman's external life dominated by her husband's schedule and her inner life captured by her own notebook, which her husband wishes to deny her. In one scene the husband explains that he wants things solid, wants to get at the "reality of things"; he says, for example, that once pollination was explained to him, the mystery of love vanished.
A number of other inventions, such as a mysterious young girl who occasionally rides through the landscape outside the house on a bicycle, suggest the possibilities of the wife when she was a young girl herself, possibilities that have been closed off by the patterns that control her. Throughout the film, the dialogue emphasizes the husband's view that the wife thinks too much, that her imagination is her worst enemy. He argues that to be healthy she must be "calm and pink"; for him the essence of woman is body not mind; as a doctor friend of the husband says to her, "You must put on flesh."
The woman realizes that she seems to be living in a world of her own, but that the more it becomes her own the less control she has over it. Indeed, her inner world becomes externalized. At the end of the film, the conflict between the man and woman is made most explicit by a montage of shots that cut back and forth between the man reading his paper at a professional meeting and the woman tearing off the paper from her walls. What the woman wishes is to expose what lies behind the patterns, to destroy the patterns themselves, and to free the woman who is entrapped there. The climactic scene occurs when a hand comes out of the wall and a mysterious woman in a yellow dress kisses her and the two become one.
Tomorrow: Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"