The yellow wallpaper is a collective symbol. It represents different aspects of the time when the story was written. It refers to the oppressive social standards of patriarchy. Women had no right to claim their voice, so the symbol represents their striving to gain autonomy and respect.
The historical background is essential to understand the yellow wallpaper’s symbolism. The Yellow Wallpaper was published in 1892 when the women’s role in society was secondary to men. Back then, women had no right to vote and had no control over their own lives.
We can see it in the story, where the narrator has to do whatever her husband thinks is best for her. She has to sleep in the room with the terrible yellow wallpaper because John did not agree to change rooms. Here the wallpaper represents the neglect of the narrator’s desires, which is the norm of that time.
As the plot unfolds, the reader witnesses the progressive fall of the narrator into psychosis. She is locked in the room covered in the yellow wallpaper. It drives her to insanity, as it becomes the only object of her mental activity. The wallpaper starts to represent her sick mental state. The narrator tears the wallpaper off. She wants to break the imaginative woman inside of it free. Thus, the wallpaper becomes the symbol of the desire for freedom and autonomy.