The Yellow Wallpaper Summary

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow Wallpaper

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The Yellow Wallpaper Summary

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Published in 1892, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” has long been an important feminist work and critique of women’s roles. It is written as a series of journal entries by a woman confined to a room to recover her mental health as she focuses her unoccupied mind on the wallpaper in the room.

As the story begins, a married couple rent a beautiful house in the countryside for the summer. The wife is the narrator of the story, and through her journal entries, we understand that her husband believes she is suffering from temporary nervous depression. He orders her to remain confined to a single room upstairs that used to be a nursery. There are plenty of windows to provide air, and the walls are covered in a curious yellow wallpaper.

Her husband forbids her to write, as he believes this would exacerbate her depression. As she spends time in the room, she begins to examine the wallpaper more carefully. She writes journal entries about it, the way it is both disgusting and delightful. The narrator can’t decide if the wallpaper is beautiful or not. She describes the smell and the way the yellow rubs off if one touches it. The longer she stays in the bedroom, the more she notices that the wallpaper seems to change, particularly in the moonlight. This mutation becomes an obsession, and she begins to see a figure in the wallpaper. Very soon, she is convinced that this figure is a woman crawling on all fours behind the yellow pattern.

She believes she must free the woman. She begins to tear the wallpaper down piece by piece. On the last day of summer, when it comes time to leave the rental property, she locks herself in the room so she can strip the last of the wallpaper. She refuses to unlock the door for her husband, and he unlocks it with a key to find her crawling in a circle stripping the wallpaper pieces. She says, “I’ve got out at last, in spite of you and Jane.” Her husband faints at this sight, as she continues to circle the room, stepping over him each time.

A lot has been made of Gillman’s story, particularly in the ways that it highlights the predominant thinking in the medical field at the time. Women were considered fragile creatures, and it was common to prescribe a rest cure such as this. The narrator has no agency and no choice in understanding her own condition. When she protests about the choice of rooms, or about what she is allowed to do, her husband, who is a doctor, overrules her. She is left little recourse but to examine the wallpaper, the only mental stimulation she can find.

The story focuses on the concept of freedom versus confinement. The narrator is not allowed to make any decisions about her own care, and she is literally and figuratively confined. Her physical confinement offers neither stimulation nor activity that might keep her from descending further into her depression. Her figurative confinement is at the hands of those who make her decisions for her.

In the story, she looks on writing and reading favorably, believing that both of these would help her condition, but she is consistently overruled. Instead, she begins to “read” the wallpaper, and through it finds the woman she believes to be trapped behind it. Deciding to free the woman is deciding to free herself, though it comes at the expense of her sanity. In the end, she believes herself to be free.

It is difficult to discuss the story without discussing gender. Gillman used this story to highlight her own experience. Although she did not reach the same extreme that her narrator did, she came close to suffering a mental breakdown under the rest cure. At the time, women were expected to find fulfillment in the home, making minimal claims of identity and remaining in the hidden sphere. Men, on the other hand, had positions of authority.

In the story, this is true. The narrator does not even have a name, though she is periodically known as “Jane.” She mostly speaks in the first person, and Gillman uses this lack of identity to speak for women everywhere. The narrator is confined largely because of her gender, as this was a treatment prescribed only for women. By removing stimulation and agency, doctors at the time thought they were allowing women to be more themselves. Instead, they contributed to the overall breakdown of identity.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a timeless story from a feminist author that paved the way for other important work. It was written at a time when it was acceptable to confine a woman over a mysterious nervous diagnosis; its themes of isolation and agency are no less powerful today.