The Yellow Wallpaper is written as a series of diary entries from the perspective of a woman who is suffering from post-partum depression. The narrator begins by describing the large, ornate home that she and her husband, John, have rented for the summer. John is an extremely practical man, a physician, and their move into the country is partially motivated by his desire to expose his suffering wife to its clean air and calm life so that she can recover from what he sees as a slight hysterical tendency.
The narrator complains that her husband will not listen to her worries about her condition, and treats her like a child. She also suspects that there is something strange and mysterious about the house, which has been empty for some time, but John dismisses her concerns as a silly fantasy. As part of her cure, the narrator is forbidden from pursuing any activity other than domestic work, so as not to tax her mind. She particularly misses the intellectual act of writing and conversation, and this account is written in a diary that she hides from her husband. They move into the room at the top of the house, which the narrator supposes is a former nursery since it has barred windows and peeling yellow wallpaper.
This repellent yellow wallpaper becomes a major force in the story, as the narrator grows obsessed with deciphering its seemingly incomprehensible, illogical patterns. She continues to hide the diary from John, and grows more and more convinced that the wallpaper contains a malevolent force that threatens the whole home. From her room, she can see a shaded lane, the bay, and an overgrown garden. When she can escape the attention of her husband and Jennie, his sister, she continues her study of the wallpaper and begins to imagine she can see a mysterious figure hiding behind the top pattern. She tries to convince her husband that they should leave the house, but he insists that she is improving and sees indulging her concerns as encouraging a dangerous, fanciful nature, when what is required is self-control.
The narrator’s depression and fatigue continue to worsen. Her fascination with the wallpaper takes over her life. In a series of increasingly short diary entries, she describes her progress in uncovering the secrets of its pattern, as she grows increasingly paranoid about the intentions of Jennie and John. She believes that the figure is a creeping woman, trapped behind the bars of the top pattern, and becomes determined to free her, and to keep the secret of her existence from her husband and his sister. She surprises Jennie examining a scratched groove on the wall, and doesn’t believe her excuse that she had been looking for the source of the yellow stains on the narrator’s clothes. She begins to keep secrets even from her diary, and makes an initial, nighttime attempt to remove the wallpaper on the eve of their departure. Later, when all the furniture has been removed from the room except for the gnawed and heavy bedstand, she locks the door and throws the key down onto the front drive, and then proceeds to tear and tear at the parts of the wallpaper she can reach.
Here, at the story’s climax, the perspective shifts as the narrator’s mental breakdown becomes complete, and in her madness she is convinced that she is the woman who was trapped behind the wallpaper. She begins to creep around the room in an endless circle, smudging the wallpaper in a straight groove. John breaks into the room and discovers her, and faints at the sight. She continues to creep endlessly around the room, forced to go over his prone body.