The Yellow Wallpaper Summary
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman that describes the narrator’s depression following the birth of her child.
- The narrator’s husband, John, a respected physician, diagnoses her behavior as “hysteria” and prescribes rest.
- John prohibits the narrator from writing, and she cannot stand to visit her baby.
- The narrator spends all day sitting in bed, and she begins to see a woman struggling inside the room’s yellow wallpaper.
- Finally, in an effort to release the woman, the narrator tears down the wallpaper. When John comes in, he finds the narrator creeping around the room and faints.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 792
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” is written as a series of entries in a secret diary. Through this intimate medium the narrator describes her three-month stay in an estate.
The first entry details the circumstances under which she and her husband have come to the estate. The narrator’s husband, John, has diagnosed her with “a slight hysterical tendency” following the birth of their baby boy, and he takes full responsibility for her care. Her symptoms are unclear, but John is adamant that nothing is really wrong with her. Because John is a respected physician, the narrator does not question his authority. She takes supplements, adheres to a strict daily schedule, and avoids mental stimulation and “work.” She is forbidden to write.
John dismisses the narrator’s feeling that there is “something strange” about the house. Though she wants to stay in a room on the ground floor with “roses all over the window,” he insists that they share the renovated nursery on the top floor of the house. The room is large and airy, but it has bars on the windows and ugly yellow wallpaper that has been “stripped off” around the head of the bed and bottom of the facing wall. The narrator is disgusted by the wallpaper’s color and pattern, describing them with vivid and often violent imagery.
The diary’s second entry is written two weeks after the first. The narrator describes her sense of personal failure at being unable to function as she believes John expects her to. He is frequently absent from the home, and she is often too exhausted to write and too nervous to see their child, who is cared for by a nanny. John scoffs at her requests to repaper their bedroom or relocate to another one. He believes it is detrimental to her health to indulge her “fancies,” and he discourages her from engaging her imagination in any way. Despite John’s admonitions and her personal resolution, the narrator personifies the wallpaper as malicious and watchful. She begins to sees the shape of a figure hidden behind the wallpaper’s ornate design.
Over the following weeks, the narrator’s emotional condition continues to deteriorate. She is easily exhausted, cries “most of the time,” and suffers from feelings of hopelessness and weakness. She limits her physical activity and spends more time lying down in her room. John denies her request to see friends and continues to assert that her recovery is a matter of “will and self-control.” Her thoughts are disordered, and she spends hours “keeping watch” over the wallpaper, in which she now frequently sees the figure of a creeping woman behind the pattern. After John sees her getting up at night to check whether the figure in the wallpaper is moving, she asks him to “take [her] away.” He refuses, condescendingly dismissing her and instructing her not to think about her mental well-being.
As the narrator’s perception of her wallpaper evolves, she more distinctly discerns the figure of a woman behind the “bars” of the pattern who moves at night and stays still during the day. The narrator lies to John about sleeping so that she can spend time alone in their room. She believes that John and his sister, Jennie, are also trying to figure out the mystery of the wallpaper. Her suspicions increase after Jennie discovers yellow smudges on her and John’s clothes.
Near the end of her stay, the narrator’s obsession with the yellow wallpaper restores her energy. She discovers new characteristics of the wallpaper: the “yellow” smell that pervades every room of the house; the strange smudge on the paper along the bottom of the walls; and the movement of its pattern, with the creeping woman shaking the front and “trying to climb through.” The narrator sees the woman from the wallpaper creeping outside in the garden, and describes her own creeping in the bedroom. She tries to remove the front pattern from the wallpaper and grows increasingly suspicious of John and Jennie.
The final entry describes the last day of the narrator’s lease. She has spent the entirety of the previous night tearing down the wallpaper to free the woman trapped in it. Unable to move the bed, she bites it in frustration, and as she tears down the room’s wallpaper, she refers to herself as the trapped woman. Outside her window in the garden, she sees many other creeping women and expresses her preference for her room and its wallpaper, revealing that her own creeping has formed the smudge around the room. John returns to the house, discovers the narrator’s behavior, and faints. She continues around the room, “creep[ing] over him every time!”