“The Yellow Wallpaper” opens with the musings of an unnamed woman. She, her husband John, their newborn baby, and her sister-in-law have rented a summer house. The narrator is suffering from postpartum depression, and the summer house will function as a place for her to get better. The doctor has prescribed a rest cure of quiet and solitude, with an emphasis on avoiding any form of mental stimulation like reading or writing. The woman notes that the room in which she is staying seems to be geared more for incarceration than rehabilitation. John classifies her merely as “sick,” thereby exhibiting the prevailing attitude of the day, that mental illness in women was not real. Following the doctor’s strict orders, he forbids his wife from doing any type of work and does not allow her to see her baby. The narrator believes that work, excitement, and change would do her good, but her opinion does not matter. She would like to write, which is forbidden, and surreptitiously keeping a diary exhausts her, as does trying to oppose her husband. With very little to do, the woman is left to contemplate the ugly yellow wallpaper in the nursery that is coming off the wall in great patches. She begins to trace the pattern of the wallpaper. The woman’s narration abruptly ends because her husband is coming.
The story continues two weeks later when the narrator is able to write again. Even though she feels it might help relieve some of her tension, she generally gives in to her husband’s desire that she not write. She has been feeling terribly depressed, but John says her case is not serious. He does not think her suffering amounts to anything more than “nervousness.” He laughs at her hatred for the wallpaper, and though she wants him to repaper the room, he refuses to give in to her “fancies.” When the narrator claims to have seen people walking on the path by the house, he cautions her that giving in to her imagination will over-excite her. The woman starts to examine the wallpaper, noticing how the patterns form “eyes” that seem to be staring at her. When the sunlight shines in a certain way, she sees a figure skulking behind the pattern of the wallpaper. Again, the narrator must stop writing, for her sister-in-law, Jennie, is coming up the stairs.
Because the narrator does not seem to be getting better and spends a lot of time crying, John threatens to send her to Weir Mitchell, a doctor who believes even more strongly than himself in rest treatments. The narrator has become fond of the room, perhaps because of the wallpaper. She enjoys lying on her bed, following the patterns in the wallpaper and attempting to trace one of the strands to a conclusion. As she spends all her time in the bedroom, the wallpaper continues to captivate the narrator. She realizes that it knows things about her that no one else does. More alarmingly, the figure she sees in the wallpaper has begun to take shape— that of a woman stooping down and creeping behind the pattern.
One night the narrator tells John that she is getting no better and wants to leave the house, but he refuses, insisting the rest cure will work. She then returns to her examination of the wallpaper. Her diligent attention reveals that there is a front pattern and a back pattern and that at night the front pattern forms bars. The woman in the wallpaper is quiet during the day and more active at night, as is the narrator. The narrator has also grown fearful of John and Jennie, for they seem to be studying the wallpaper as if they want to understand its pattern before she does.
During the last week of their stay, the narrator fakes improved health and spirits when her husband is around but has become completely obsessed with the wallpaper. She constantly notices new facets of the wallpaper: the smell of yellow that creeps through the whole house; a streak along the baseboard encircling the room. She discovers that the woman in the wallpaper shakes the bars of the front pattern as she tries, unsuccessfully, to climb through them. Though she has only two days left in the house, she is determined to get the paper off and thus free the woman inside.
When John is away one evening, she locks the door, throws the keys out the window, and begins peeling the wallpaper. Despite her efforts, however, she cannot remove it all. In her desperation, she considers committing suicide but decides that this would be “improper and might be misconstrued.” She begins circling the room, following the pattern of the wallpaper, in essence becoming the woman inside, trapped in an endless maze. John breaks open the door to see his wife creeping along the wall and faints. The narrator only laughs. His slumped body is blocking her path, and she is forced to creep over him each time she circles the room.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Published by Gale, 1997.