"The Yellow Wallpaper" is a semi-autobiographical short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in which she describes the treatment of women during a rest cure prescribed for nervous disorders by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, who was a famous physician. The story describes the submissive, childlike obedience of women to male authority figures that was considered typical at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The unnamed protagonist of the story is helpless to express her own needs. She is taken by her husband, John, to a country house so that she can recuperate from a nervous condition. The reader is immediately aware of the condescending attitude of the physician husband toward his wife. She is relegated against her will to a third floor room of the house, a room that the owners previously used as a nursery. Symbolically, the room with the yellow wallpaper serves as a prison where the wife is restricted, like a child, from the intellectual activities of reading and writing. At first, the narrator rebels against the constraints by keeping a secret diary. When John discovers her disobedience, she is chastised and her diary is cruelly destroyed.
Social interactions are also held to a minimum. The husband lectures in other cities, so the narrator is often left without emotional support for days at a time. When John is at home, his conversations are patronizing, and he dismisses her concerns about her condition. Clearly, her role is to comfort him and trust blindly that her own condition is improving. John’s self-absorption does not permit him to see that his wife's condition is deteriorating.
Jennie (John's sister), who manages the household, is another example of the restricted role of women. She busies herself with decorating and supervising the kitchen. She unquestioningly carries out John’s orders to monitor the narrator's activities, even when her own contacts with the woman make it clear that what the doctor orders is not what the patient needs. She nevertheless obeys blindly until it is too late to reverse the effects of the narrator's descent into madness.
The powerful pattern in the yellow wallpaper resembles bars that confine the protagonist in her world of loneliness, helplessness, and infantilism. Deprived of intellectual stimulation, the narrator's imagination conjures up a world behind the paper where captive women wait helplessly to be freed. Ironically, she is one of the women seeking to be liberated. Destroying the paper seems to be the only way she can destroy the hold of stifling mores that demand female subservience to men and free women from male dominance.
The story unfolds slowly over many weeks, beginning with the arrival of the narrator (whose name, Jane, is not revealed until the end of the story) at an estate in the country. Jane has gone into a gradual decline, losing interest in her family and her surroundings, since the birth of her baby. Her husband, John, and her brother believe that a long rest is what she needs to feel more like herself. Because both men are respected physicians, Jane believes that they know what is best for her and tries to put on a good face, despite her increasing suspicions that her rest cure may do her more harm than good.
At first, the colonial estate where she is the only guest appears harmless and quaint, with large gardens and spacious rooms. Jane later reveals that her windows have bars and her bed is bolted to the floor. The only people whom she sees are her husband, who comes from the city to check on her, and her nurse, John’s sister, Jennie. Jane never has contact with her recently delivered child nor with friends. Her summer home takes on a more sinister tone as her mental condition deteriorates, with the very wallpaper in her room coming to grotesque life.
Jane’s husband blames her thinking for all of her problems and forbids her to do anything that will employ her mind productively. Jane rebels at first and keeps a secret journal, but as she weakens, even that endeavor becomes too tiring. She withdraws into her thoughts, which form the running interior monologue of her mental collapse. Apparently accepting the separation from her infant, Jane slowly loses control of her imagination and her motivation to seek human contact. After she collapses and is forced to keep to her room, she becomes fascinated with the patterns on the yellow wallpaper, seeing in the paper’s swirls faces and patterns that first amuse and then terrify her.
From her barred window, Jane begins seeing women creeping about the gardens on their hands and knees. Soon she discovers that another woman is trapped behind the wallpaper in her room, something that only she can see. At night, this woman pushes and struggles behind the paper in an effort to escape, rattling and ripping it as she fights to get free.
Jane says that the woman creeps along the walls, and she tries to help free her by gradually peeling back her wallpaper prison. Jane begins to notice signs of deterioration in her room: smears on the wall and bite marks on the bedstead. Gradually she no longer wants to leave her room; when John comes to take her home, she refuses to go and locks herself in with the creeping woman who is now free in the room.
Jane’s husband and sister-in-law gain entry and find only Jane creeping around and around the room, surrounded by shreds of wallpaper. The story concludes as she creeps over the form of her husband, who has fainted from the shock of seeing her in her madness.