If you are tasked with writing an essay or a paper on "The Yellow Wallpaper," you may need to delve deeper into the themes and motifs of the story. The book is told from the perspective of the narrator as she describes her confinement to a room at the top of a summer house and her gradual obsession with the yellow wallpaper that ultimately drives her to madness. This literary work is considered one of the first works of early American feminist literature and provides insights into the attitudes towards women's mental health in the late 19th century.
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“The Yellow Wallpaper” Plot Overview
“The Yellow Wallpaper” starts with the narrator’s first diary entry. She begins with a description of the house that her husband has rented for them over the summer, a massive hereditary mansion far from town. Her husband John is a highly practical man and a well-known physician. It was on his recommendation that they rented a peaceful house for the summer while their own house underwent renovations.
Though she feels sick he dismisses her worries as a “slight hysterical tendency”. He prescribes complete rest, even from social interactions and any intellectual work including writing. Though she disagrees, she feels powerless to do anything about it. John is the one who decided to rent the house and chose the room at the top of the house as their bedroom, where the narrator would spend most of her time.
The narrator believes the room used to be a nursery because of the bars on the windows, probably to ensure that children didn’t accidentally fall out. She notes that the wallpaper seems to be peeled off in places and finds both the yellow color and the pattern ugly, committing every possible artistic sin. As John approaches, she hides her diary.
The second entry takes place two weeks later. The narrator is falling deeper into depression. John is away for work most days and she has grown to despise the nursery. Even small tasks like getting dressed and entertaining seem challenging to her. We find out that her newborn baby is being taken care of by a nanny and the narrator feels anxious being around the child.
The narrator’s request to move to a different room had been denied by her husband as was her request to change the wallpaper. Ever practical, he doesn’t see the point of changing the wallpaper for a short-term stay. From the windows of the nursery, she can see the garden, the bay, and a small path from her window on which she sometimes sees people walking. John tells her that it’s just her imagination and that she shouldn’t make up stories.
She wishes she could have some visitors, or at least write, but John disagrees saying that it would be too much excitement for her. She writes about the wallpaper, how she now sees unblinking eyes and broken necks in the pattern and how disturbing she finds it. She recounts that she used to stay awake as a child imagining the expressions of her furniture. She has started noticing a second, deeper pattern of a formless figure behind the ugly front pattern.
She describes the room in more detail, noting the scratched floors and large tears in the wallpaper. She suspects that the wallpaper has some power over the inhabitants of the house. She puts the diary away as Jennie, John’s sister who is staying with them to take care of the house approaches.
The third entry takes place on the evening of the 4th of July after a few family members came to visit. Rather than a welcome distraction, Jennie, John’s sister had taken care of all the arrangements. The narrator feels worse than ever, crying most of the time when she’s alone. John has suggested that if things don’t improve then he may have to send her to another doctor, Weir Mitchel, after the summer, though the narrator doesn’t want to go.
She spends most of her time alone with nothing to do. Sometimes she goes for walks in the garden or sits on the portico, but she spends most of her time in bed staring at the wallpaper. She talks at length about its hypnotic pattern. Never making sense but always hinting at something deeper. She is now fascinated by it, but studying it tires her.
The fourth entry begins with the revelation that the narrator’s condition is worsening, she spends most of her days lying down and feels too weak to write but felt like she had to do something to express herself. She had tried to ask John if she could spend some time with her cousins but started crying mid-way and was unable to convince him. John carried her up to the nursery in his arms and read to her to try and make her feel more at ease.
She finds solace in the fact that she is in that room with that wallpaper so that at least her child is spared from being there. The subpattern has become more clear and she now sees a woman lurking in the pattern, though she doesn’t tell John or Jennie about it, rightfully thinking that they would consider her mad.
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In the fifth entry, the narrator talks about an interaction she had the night before. In the moonlight, the narrator felt as if the woman lurking in the subpattern was shaking the outer pattern from her attempts to escape. She got out of bed to feel the wallpaper and when she came back her husband was awake. He scolded her for being awake and out of bed so late. She tried to convince him to leave the house, but he said that there are only 3 weeks left in the lease and she’s just being silly. He told her that she’s getting better, but she said that though she might be physically better, her mental state was getting worse. John told her to trust him and went to sleep. She stayed awake for hours staring at the wallpaper.
In the sixth entry, the narrator has become even more fascinated with the wallpaper. She describes how it changes drastically based on the light. At night the outer pattern becomes bars and the subpattern becomes clear as a woman training to break out. John forces her to lie in bed after every meal and she complies, but she doesn’t sleep, she studies the pattern. She starts being afraid of John.
She walked in on Jennie touching the wallpaper once and believes Jennie is competing with her to try and understand the wallpaper’s pattern. Jennie says that she had noticed yellow marks on the narrator’s clothes and was just trying to understand where they came from. The narrator concludes the entry by expressing her distrust of both John and Jennie.
In the seventh entry, the narrator is feeling much better! She feels like her condition is improving and is in a good mood and eats well. John is pleased with the development but the narrator doesn’t tell him that it’s because she is enjoying unraveling the secret of the wallpaper pattern. There is only a week left and she feels confident that she will be able to figure out the pattern before she has to leave.
In the eighth entry, the narrator says she feels even better though she sleeps most of the day and stays awake at night watching the wallpaper. She now notices a smell that the wallpaper gives off that permeates the house and sticks with her even when she’s out riding horses. She admits to thinking about burning the house down to be rid of the smell but now she’s used to it. She also notices a streak going around the wallpaper and wonders how it was made.
In the ninth entry, the narrator has confirmed that the outer pattern does indeed shake. The woman behind the pattern shakes it as she crawls around the walls and tries to break out. Sometimes there are many women trying to escape and sometimes only one. She suspects that those that fail are strangled by the pattern.
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By the tenth entry, the narrator is certain that the woman escapes during the day and it is her that she sees creeping around on the path from her window. She says that no self-respecting woman would creep around in the daytime, and she herself only creeps around when John is out of the house. She wishes that John slept in another room so that she could spend time with the woman at night.
By the eleventh entry, the narrator has made up her mind about removing the top layer of the wallpaper. She says she has revealed a secret that she can’t tell anyone else, one that she can’t even write about in her diary. John is concerned about her, but she writes that she can see through his pretense of being loving and kind. She believes that the wallpaper has affected both John and Jennie. There are only two days left before they leave the house.
The final entry starts narrating events the day before they have to leave the house. The narrator has made sure that she will be alone in the room at night. As night falls, she starts tearing into the wallpaper to help the women inside escape. Jennie walks in the next morning and the narrator happily says that “it was out of pure spite”, Jennie believes her and laughs, telling her not to get too tired.
The narrator is obsessed, peeling off the wallpaper even as things are being moved out. When she is alone, she locks the door and throws the key out of the window so that she can continue without interruption. She can’t reach the higher parts of the wall and tries to move the bedstand but fails. She says she is so angry that she wants to jump out the window but the bars are stopping her.
The narrator starts speaking as if she is a woman behind the wallpaper. She is thrilled to be outside the pattern and starts creeping along with the smudges on the wallpaper. John returns home and tries to break down the door but the narrator yells that that key is under a plant in the garden. When John finally finds the key and opens the door she screams at him that she has gotten out despite the efforts of him and Jane. He faints at the sight of her creeping around the room and she continues to creep around the room over his body.
This concludes our “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman summary. The book is actually quite short, so read it if you have the chance! This summary covers all the main plot points, but the narrator’s descriptions of the yellow wallpaper and her progression into madness make for fascinating reading. It also gives the reader a peek at what life was like over 100 years ago and it’s quite surprising how similar it is to life now.