37 pages 1 hour read

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow Wallpaper

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1892

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Yellow Wallpaper”

These citations for “The Yellow Wallpaper” reflect the 2009 compilation American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps, pages 131-147.

The unnamed narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” presents her story to the reader over a series of ten revealing diary entries. She writes from her bedroom located on the top floor of “[a] colonial mansion” (131) that she and her husband John are renting for the summer with their infant son and two members of staff. The ten journal entries vary in length and in tone, but they all trace the mental decline of the narrator, who is suffering from a serious postpartum episode of mental instability.

In the first diary entry, the narrator introduces her husband John, a pragmatic man who “scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures” (131). John is a physician, as is the narrator’s brother, and though the narrator accepts that her brother and her husband believe “there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression,” she feels they are wrong in forbidding her from doing “congenial work” (131). Although the narrator writes in secret, she finds working against John’s wishes exhausting, so she “get[s] unreasonably angry with John sometimes” (132).

The narrator describes their temporary home in detail, marveling over the garden, the paths, and the “grape-covered arbors” (132). Although the surroundings are beautiful, “there is something strange about the house” (132) itself, and the narrator dislikes the room—“the nursery, at the top of the house” (133)—that John has chosen for their own. The windows in this room have bars on the windows, and the “sprawling flamboyant” (133) wallpaper is peeling off the walls. The color of the wallpaper as well as the pattern offend the narrator, and she empathizes with the children who previously must have “hated” (133) the room. The entry closes abruptly with a brief mention of John’s approach.

The second diary entry takes place two weeks later. The narrator writes of the sense of freedom she enjoys when she is able to write while John is away during the day “and even some nights” (134) working. The narrator laments not being able to do more to contribute to the household, expressing gratitude for Mary, who “is so good with the baby” as well as affection for the baby, who is “dear” (134) but a source of anxiety. She also writes of John’s reactions to her complaints about the wallpaper and other details of their living situation, like “that gate at the head of the stairs” (134). John reacts by dismissing her and calling her “a blessed little goose” (134). The narrator continues to describe the qualities of the house and the garden she does like, including a mention of John’s warnings to her to keep her “imaginative power and habit of story-making” (135) in check as indulging these tendencies will only make her feel more tired. John has also decided that they will not receive visitors, as to avoid overstimulating the narrator. The narrator discusses her feelings and impressions of the wallpaper, writing of her anger at the “impertinence” (135) of the pattern and remembering her childhood imaginings about the furnishings in her old room. She writes of the marks on the floor of her current room and the damage done to the plaster, all of which makes the nursery appear “as if it had been through the wars” (136). Another description of the wallpaper includes the narrator’s observation of “a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure” (136) lurking around inside of the ugly wallpaper pattern.

The third diary entry takes place just after the Fourth of July, and the narrator, as well as John and John’s sister, Jennie, have just finished hosting some family members who have left after a weeklong visit. The narrator writes that John is threatening to send her to “Weir Mitchell in the fall” (136) if she doesn’t improve more quickly, and the narrator expresses her dislike for the plan. She admits to crying frequently, when she is alone, and that she is “alone a good deal just now” (137). She describes lying down on her bed, which is nailed to the floor, and staring at the pattern in the wallpaper for extended periods of time. At the end of the entry, the narrator expresses a feeling of tiredness and a desire to nap.

The fourth diary entry begins with an admission. The narrator acknowledges that she must write what she feels and thinks in order to experience a sense of relief, especially as her “[d]ear John” reminds her when she is emotional to “not let [her] silly fancies run away with [her]” (138). The narrator finds great comfort in the fact that the baby is comfortable in a different room in the house and that John insists she stay in the unpleasant nursery because she “can stand it so much easier than a baby” (138). The narrator explains that the shapes in the pattern on the wallpaper are taking the form of “a woman stooping down and creeping about that pattern” (139). The entry concludes with a wish that “John would take [her] away from here” (139).

In the fifth diary entry, the narrator describes another fruitless and futile conversation with John. During this discussion, the narrator requests to leave early, but John refuses, ignoring the narrator’s claims that her health is not improving according to plan. John, in an embrace, insists that the narrator is better, allowing her to be “as sick as she pleases” (140). The narrator specifies that despite her improved physical health, her mental health is not better. John responds with a “stern, reproachful look,” refusing to take her “false and foolish fancy” (140) seriously. The narrator continues to decline, as evidenced by her continued fascination with the wallpaper and her need to “watch it always” (140), in all kinds of light, from moonlight to the light of dawn. As well, the narrator describes feeling a sort of paranoia towards her husband and towards Jennie; this paranoia arrives along with a new sense of appreciation for the wallpaper, which gives her “something more to expect, to look forward to, to watch” (142). The narrator notes that she only has one week left at the house.

The sixth diary entry contains an admission: “I don’t sleep much at night, for it is so interesting to watch developments” (142). In this entry, the narrator also complains of a powerful smell that has appeared with damp weather, and the odor “creeps all over the house” (142). The narrator explains that in order to get rid of the smell, she considers “burning the house” (143). The entry closes with a description of a mark on the wall, “[a] streak that runs around the room” and “makes [her] dizzy” (143).

The seventh diary entry marks the narrator’s discovery of a woman behind the wallpaper who causes the pattern to move by “crawl[ing] around fast” and attempting “to climb through that pattern” (143). The narrator states that she sees heads in the wallpaper pattern, heads that the wallpaper “strangles […] off and turns […] upside-down, and makes their eyes white” (143).

In the eighth diary entry, the narrator claims that the woman in the wallpaper is able to escape in the daytime, asserting that “she is always creeping, and most women do not creep by daylight” (143). The narrator goes on to explain that she has seen the woman in the garden and on the road before describing her own experiences with “creep[ing] by daylight” (144); during these movements, the narrator locks her door so that her husband cannot enter the room while she is behaving like the woman in the wallpaper, “creeping as fast as a cloud shadow in a high wind” (144).

The narrator writes the ninth diary entry two days before she is due to leave the house, explaining that she has only “two more days to get this paper off” (144) after nearly three months of living with the wallpaper. She doubts John’s sincerity and love when he asks her questions, certain that the wallpaper has affected John and Jennie in some secret way.

The tenth and final diary entry takes place on the day before the narrator, John, and Jennie will leave the house and move back home. John is away in town for the night, and the narrator has rebuffed Jennie’s offer to stay in the room with her, knowing that she won’t be “alone a bit” (145) thanks to the appearance of the woman in the wallpaper. The narrator explains that the night before, she helped the woman out of the wallpaper, and together, they “peeled off yards of that paper” (145). The next morning, Jennie observes the torn wallpaper and warns the narrator not to tire herself before the long boat ride home the next day. To avoid more discussion, the narrator tells Jennie she needs to have a rest now that her furniture has been moved out of the room and “nothing [is] left but that great bedstead nailed down, with the canvas mattress we found on it” (145). At this point, the narrator locks the door and throws the key “down on the front path” (145) before trying unsuccessfully to move the bed. She gives up on her efforts to move the bed, focusing her energy instead on peeling off more wallpaper with “[a]ll those strangled heads and bulbous eyes and waddling fungus growths [that] just shriek with derision” (146). When the narrator hears John at the door, she notices his panic and tells him where to find the key. When he is finally able to unlock the door, the narrator “kept on creeping just the same,” telling John that she has “got out at last” (147). She continues, “And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (147). The diary entry concludes with the narrator wondering why John has fainted and fallen onto the floor, right into her path so that she must “creep over him every time” (147).

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By Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman


Charlotte Perkins Gilman