A good one-sentence summary of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story might read as follows:
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a highly ironic story that takes us inside the mind and emotions of a woman suffering a slow mental breakdown – a breakdown paradoxically caused by attempts to restore her mental health.”
No summary, however, can do real justice to the rich complexity of Gilman’s tale itself, a tale brimming with irony from start to finish. Among the numerous examples of irony the story reveals are the following:
- The narrator refers to herself in the first sentence as an “ordinary” person, but it soon becomes clear that she is hardly ordinary in any way.
- The narrator declares that there is “something queer” about the house in which she is now living – a description more applicable to herself than to the house.
- John, the narrator’s husband, has “an intense horror of superstition,” but he will soon find himself trying to cope with an increasingly superstitious wife.
- John apparently doesn’t believe that his wife is really sick, but of course by the end of the story her mental sickness will become undeniable.
- Both the narrator’s husband and her brother are physicians, but neither is able to cure her of her true illness, which is mental rather than physical and which becomes worse the more they belittle her condition or try to cure it by superficial means.
- The narrator takes drugs prescribed to her by her husband and brother, but she is forbidden to “work” – the one treatment that might actually have been effective.
- John urges his wife not to think about her condition, thereby leading to her obsess about it in secret.
- By declaring that she will cease talking about herself and will instead talk about the house, the narrator introduces the topic that will eventually drive her completely crazy.
- The narrator acknowledges John’s genuine concern for her, but it is precisely the nature of that concern that leads to her growing mental illness:
He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction.
I have a schedule prescription for each hour in the day; he takes all care from me, and so I feel basely ungrateful not to value it more.
- The narrator inhabits a nursery, but her symbolic treatment as a child only makes her mental condition worse than it already was.
- The room the narrator inhabits was once associated with youth, with health, with freedom, and with vitality, but now it seems as much a prison as anything:
It is a big, airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways, and air and sunshine galore. It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls.
- The wallpaper in the room is in deteriorating condition, as will also soon be true of the narrator’s mind. Indeed, her obsession with the wallpaper will be one reason for her own mental deterioration.
- Although John hates to have the narrator “write a word,” she sees writing as her only outlet and relief.