Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 511
The narrator is an upper-middle-class young woman who has just given birth to a baby boy. She suffers from an unnamed affliction, which her physician husband, John, diagnoses as “temporary nervous depression.” He prescribes a behavioral regimen akin to the “rest cure,” a treatment in which patients minimize mental and physical stimulation and rest in bed for long periods of time. Although her husband prevents her from performing any imaginative activities, including writing, the narrator keeps a secret diary in which she records her experiences, emotions, and growing fixation with her bedroom’s yellow wallpaper.
The narrator’s diary includes very little information about her life before her diagnosis. She considers herself and John “mere ordinary people” and describes their interpersonal dynamic, in which John laughs at her ideas, as something to be expected in a marriage. While she doesn’t know exactly what is wrong with her, she believes that work and stimulation would help her improve. This belief is at odds with the medical opinions of her husband and brother (another doctor), and John’s supervision leaves her feeling powerless. The narrator’s reliance on her husband demonstrates the subordinate position of women in late 19th-century society.
In some respects, the narrator embodies traditional values of late 19th-century womanhood. She is deferential to her husband’s opinions and feels guilty that her illness prevents her from being the ideal wife for him. She refers to their baby as “dear,” despite her emotional inability to spend time with him. However, as John prevents her from expressing her imaginative impulses, she channels them into the yellow wallpaper. As it becomes necessary to deceive her husband in order to experience any sort of inner life, she sheds her late 19th-century values and personas.
The rest cure has the opposite of its intended effect, and without stimulation or the ability to express herself, the narrator begins to detach from reality. Her diary entries, which constitute the frame of the short story, demonstrate her psychological deterioration. Her writing becomes more fragmented and frenzied. She stares at the yellow wallpaper all day. She imagines seeing a trapped woman in the wallpaper and attempts to free her by tearing the wallpaper down.
By the end of the story, the narrator has fully embodied the persona of the woman trapped behind the wallpaper. She also sees a large number of creeping women outside her room, implying both that she is hallucinating and that she may now be aware of a larger scheme of oppression in the world around her. When John comes to take her away from the house, she creeps around the room and refers to a woman named Jane who has participated in her imprisonment. While it’s unclear if this might have been a typo for “Jennie,” readers can infer that Jane is the name of the narrator herself, and that she has rejected her identity in favor of the woman from the wallpaper. She creeps repeatedly in a circle around the room, continuing over John’s unconscious body, finally free from his control.