‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, an 1892 short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, has the structure and style of a diary. This is in keeping with what the female narrator tells us: that she can only write down her experiences when her husband John is not around, since he has forbidden her to write until she is well again, believing it will overexcite her. Through a series of short instalments, we learn more about the narrator’s situation, and her treatment at the hands of her doctor husband and her sister-in-law.
To summarise the story, then: the narrator and her husband John, a doctor, have come to stay at a large country house. As the story develops, we realise that the woman’s husband has brought her to the house in order to try to cure her of her mental illness (he has told her that repairs are being carried out on their home, which is why they have had to relocate to a mansion). His solution, or treatment, is effectively to lock her away from everyone – including her own family, except for him – and to forbid her anything that might excite her, such as writing. (She writes her account of what happens to her, and the effect it has on her, in secret, hiding her pen and paper when her husband or his sister come into the room.) John’s suggested treatment for his wife also extends to relieving her of maternal duties: their baby is taken out of her hands and looked after by John’s sister, Jennie. Jennie also does all of the cooking and housework.
It becomes clear, as the story develops, that depriving the female narrator of anything to occupy her mind is making her mental illness worse, not better. The narrator confides that she cannot even cry in her husband’s company, or when anyone else is present, because that will be interpreted as a sign that her condition is worsening – and her husband has promised (threatened?) to send her to another doctor, Weir Mitchell, if her condition doesn’t show signs of improving. And according to a female friend who has been treated by him, Weir Mitchell is like her husband and brother ‘only more so’ (i.e. stricter).
The narrator then outlines in detail how she sometimes sits for hours on end in her room, tracing the patterns in the yellow wallpaper. She then tells us she thinks she can see a woman ‘stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern.’ At this point, she changes her mind, and goes from being fond of the pattern in the yellow wallpaper to wishing she could go away from the place. She tells John that she isn’t getting any better in this house and that she would like to leave, but he tells her she is looking healthier and that they cannot return home for another three weeks, until their lease is up and the ‘repairs’ at home have been completed.
Despondent, the narrator tells us how she is becoming more obsessed by the yellow wallpaper, especially at night when she is unable to sleep and so lies awake watching the pattern in the wallpaper, which she says resembles a fungus. She starts to fear her husband. She becomes paranoid that her husband and sister-in-law, Jennie, are trying to decipher the pattern in the yellow wallpaper, and she becomes determined to beat them to it. (Jennie was actually checking the wallpaper because the thought it was staining their clothes; this is the reason she gives to the narrator when asked about it, anyway. However, the more likely reason is that she and John have noticed the narrator’s obsession with looking at the wallpaper, and are becoming concerned.)
Next, the narrator tells us she has noticed the strange smell of the wallpaper, and tells us she seriously considered burning down the house to try to solve the mystery of what she smell was. She concludes that it is simply ‘a yellow smell!’ We now realise that the narrator is losing her mind rather badly. She becomes convinced that the ‘woman behind’ the yellow wallpaper is shaking it, thus moving the front pattern of the paper. She says she has seen this woman creeping about the grounds of the house during the day; she returns to behind the wallpaper at night. The narrator then tells us that she believes John and Jennie have become ‘affected’ by the wallpaper – that they are losing their minds from being exposed to it.
So the narrator begins stripping the yellow wallpaper from the walls, much to the consternation of Jennie. John has all of his wife’s things moved out of the room, ready for them to leave the house. While John is out, the narrator locks herself inside the now bare room and throws the key out the window, so she cannot be disturbed. She has become convinced that there are many creeping women roaming the grounds of the house, all of them originating from behind the yellow wallpaper, and that she is one of them. The story ends with her husband banging on the door to be let in, fetching the key when she tells him it’s down by the front door mat, and bursting into the room – whereupon he faints, at the sight of his wife creeping around the room.
That concludes our attempt to summarise the ‘plot’ of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. You can read our analysis of the story here.