The story is about a married woman, a mother of a very young child who suffers from a postpartum depression after delivering the baby. She is slowly driven into madness by the patriarchal authorities around her.
Suffering from nervous disorders, she is taken to a solitary mansion, in a remote area, away from her friends and neighbors, by her husband who happens to have the most professional profession in the nineteenth century as a physician. In that era, the most well-known prescription for people suffering from nervous disorders is bed-rest; having inactive life. This prescription is proposed by S Weir Mitchell. Gilman intentionally mentions Mitchell’s name in the novella to show that there is a very strong relationship between her novella and her real experience.
In the solitary mansion, the nameless narrator is put in a room, which formerly was a nursery on the second floor with its barred windows originally intended to prevent small children from falling out. The room is “decorated” with the fateful yellow wallpaper that later on apparently drives her to insanity gradually.
Having nothing to do during her “imprisonment” in the yellow wallpapered room, this intelligent and ambitious woman spent her idle time by writing in her journal a bit, a kind of “work” that is strongly prohibited to do by her husband. Therefore, she has to do it secretly. She has to close her journal as soon as someone comes to her, either her very own husband, or her sister-in-law that obviously gets task to “watch” her.
Increasingly she concentrates her attention on the wallpaper in her room—a paper of a sickly yellow that both disgusts and fascinates her. The paper symbolizes her situation as seen by the men who control her and hence her situation as seen by herself. The wallpaper consists of “lame uncertain curves” that suddenly “commit suicide—destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.” There are pointless patterns in the paper, which the narrator nevertheless determines to pursue to some conclusion. Fighting for her identity, that just as she is about to find some pattern and meaning in it, it “slaps you in the fact, knocks you down, and tramples upon you.”
Inevitably, therefore, the narrator, imprisoned within the room thinks she discerns the figure of a woman behind the paper. The paper is barred—that is part of what pattern it has, and the woman is trapped behind the bars, trying to get free. Ultimately, in the narrator’s distraught state, there are a great many women behind the patterned bars, all trying to get free.
Being busy to watch the pattern of the wallpaper and the figure of a woman behind it, the narrator seemingly sees herself there. The woman is trapped behind the pattern of the wallpaper, the narrator is trapped inside her barred room on the second floor. Feeling sorry for the woman, the narrator wants to free her by peeling the wallpaper, to give the woman way out of the entrapment. It shows her hidden wish, to free herself from her husband’s imprisonment.
By the end of the story, the narrator can peel all of the wallpaper and free the woman. Her quickly worsening mental inevitably puts her in the woman’s position. After “freeing” herself from the wallpaper, she creeps all the room, to enjoy her “freedom”. “I’ve got out at last, … And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!” (Bauer, 1998:58)