The Yellow Wallpaper: Novel Summary
Note – The story is told in the first person by the Narrator, a young woman, as a series of undated journal entries spanning a period of three months. Though the original story differentiates entries only with line breaks, this summary divides them into numbered sections to aid in analysis and comprehension.
The Narrator and her husband, John, have rented a large, unoccupied colonial estate for the summer. The Narrator describes the home as haunted, or at least feeling very odd, and relates that her husband John, an accomplished physician scoffs at her notions. We learn that John has no patience for faith, abhors superstition and mocks things that cannot be quantified. The Narrator, however, secretly prefers to entertain the idea that the home is haunted. The Narrator is suffering from nervous depression and secretly believes that if her husband were not a doctor she might recover more quickly. However, both John and the Narrator’s brother, also an accomplished physician, have told her that she is perfectly healthy and only suffers from a temporary condition and tendency to hysteria. Outwardly she agrees to take the “phosphates or phosphates” they prescribe as well as the exercise, fresh air, various tonics and rides in the country, but inwardly she yearns to work and write. She believes that change and excitement would be of greater benefit than the enforced relaxation of the summer residence. She admits, however, that as much as she would rather be writing, the task exhausting. She concurs with her husband that thinking about her condition is depressing and no help whatsoever.
The house is beautiful, secluded and several miles from the nearest village. The grounds are full of hedges, gates and fallen-in garden sheds. The garden is “delicious”, big and shaded – full of paths, grape arbors and benches. The house has been empty for many years due to its heirs’ financial difficulties. When the Narrator tries to explain the house’s strange creepiness to her husband he believes that she is only getting a chill and closes a window. The Narrator admits that since her nervous condition began she is much more likely to become angry with her husband but, at his insistence, she does her best to control her emotions. However, the exertion required to remain outwardly calm is fatiguing.
John selects the former children’s nursery for their bedroom. It is a large room occupying nearly the entire upper portion of the home. The Narrator hates it and would much prefer a room on the first floor which opens onto the porch and is decorated with antique chintz hangings. However, she yields to her husband’s reasoning that the downstairs room is too small for two beds and they would be too far apart if he took a separate room. The Narrator feels ungrateful for not appreciating the vigilant care and attention of her husband.
The upstairs room has windows facing all directions and is full of fresh air and sunshine. Due to the presence of bars on the windows and rings in the walls, the Narrator theorizes that the room was first a nursery, then a playroom and finally a gymnasium. The entire room is wallpapered in what the Narrator describes as a “repellant”, “unclean” yellow faded by the sunlight so that it ranges from a “dull yet lurid” orange to a “sickly sulphur” tint. It is decorated with a “sprawling, flamboyant” pattern that confuses the eye even as it begs the viewer to follow each tentative curve to its eventual “suicide”. The Narrator believes that the children who previously lived in the room must have also hated the wallpaper because two areas, one around the head of the bed and the other across the room, have been ripped from the wall.
The Narrator abruptly notes that her husband is approaching so she will stop writing.
Analysis – Entry One
The first entry introduces two relationships key to the story: the relationship between the Narrator and her husband and the relationship between the Narrator and the house. Both relationships are imbued with ambiguity – she feels guilty for failing to properly appreciate her husband’s efforts on her behalf and she resents his failure to value her opinion of those efforts. Similarly, she finds the house both attractive, expressing admiration for the grounds and antique décor, and repulsive in its haunted atmosphere. More specifically, she is both attracted to and repulsed by the upstairs room with its fresh air and sunshine but horrid wallpaper.
Regarding the Narrator’s relationship with her husband: We learn that John, while perhaps well-intentioned and loving, pays little regard to his wife’s opinions. His dual role as both her husband and physician reinforces his authority over his wife/patient and leaves her without an outlet for her true feelings. This is demonstrated most clearly in his insistence on the choice of their bedroom and his curt dismissal of her suggestion that the house feels haunted. Significantly, he closes a window at the latter suggestion which not only stops the discussion but reinforces her containment. Lacking the mental confidence and, due to her nervous condition, energy to overcome her husband’s opinions, the Narrator is left with only her secret journal as a way to express her true feelings. This creates a split in her character – between her outer behavior and inner thoughts – that will play out with disastrous consequences as the story proceeds.
Regarding the Narrator’s relationship with the house: The Narrator cannot reconcile her appreciation of the home’s colonial, run-down charm with her sense of loathing and dread. This is due, in part, to its role as the site of her seclusion as prescribed by her husband/physician but due also in part to her admitted preference for work, specifically writing, and activity over domestic tranquility. As such, early in her relationship with the house she focuses upon the detail which she finds least attractive: the yellow wallpaper in what it to be their bedroom. This turning away from the charming aspects of the property (the grounds and gardens) and obsession with its least charming aspect (the wallpaper) will grow as the story progresses.