The narrator begins with a description of the impressive summer home she has just moved into with her husband John. She is amazed that two ‘mere ordinary people’ could have secured such a place. She jokingly wonders whether the home might be haunted, since it was so cheap to rent. Her husband laughs at her suspicion, but, as she writes, ‘one expects that in marriage.’
Hints that there is something strange about the house create the first sense of disconnect between its outward appearance, as a beautiful home, and its inner (perhaps sinister) life. John’s laughter, and the narrator’s sarcastic response, reveal the strained dynamic of their marriage and the fact that these dynamics are built into marriage—that marriage as it exists in the society of the time of the story involved such strains and power disparities.
The narrator goes on to describe her eminently practical husband John, who is a physician, and his dismissal of her worries about depression—she believes she is sick, while he thinks she has ‘a slight hysterical tendency’ and nothing more. She explains the cure he has prescribed her, which forbids any writing or intellectual work until she feels better. Although she disagrees with this lack of activity, she feels powerless to object.
John embodies a typically male view of the world—pragmatic, stoic, dismissive of anxiety—in contrast to his wife, and does not take her emotional concerns very seriously. The cure he has prescribed resembles that which the author experienced in real life, and restricts her self-expression outside of traditional gender roles.
The narrator describes the house in more detail, which is grand but seems semi-abandoned and a bit ‘strange.’ She doesn’t like the room they have chosen to live in, but John insisted they take the nursery at the top of the house so that she could absorb the restorative air. Her whole life is scheduled by John, who is very ‘careful and loving’ so that she feels ‘basely ungrateful not to value it more.’
If we read the narrator’s tone in describing her husband’s special care as sarcastic, it betrays her frustrated sense of powerlessness. She is unable to communicate, since John has removed her means of self-expression and dismisses any suggestion she makes about her own life.
The narrator thinks the large, airy room at the top of the house must have been a nursery, since its paper is stripped off in great patches and there are bars on the window to prevent children from falling. She objects only to the room’s yellow wallpaper, which she finds irritating, repellent, and full of contradictions and outrageous angles.
Already, small, sinister details of the room foreshadow a difference between its appearance as a ‘nursery’ and its true past. Seeing the narrator misinterpreting these details—the stripped off paper, the bars on the windows, which might be the result of children or a previous insane occupant—creates suspense and a sense of powerlessness in the reader. It also suggests that the narrator’s experience that eventually drives her crazy is one shared by other women; that the narrator is just one of many women affected by society’s treatment of them.
As John approaches, the narrator hides the diary where she is writing this note.
By hiding her only form of self-expression, the narrator rebels against John’s orders both as her husband and her doctor. This contributes to the growing gap between how she appears to him, and how she feels inside.