The Yellow Wallpaper | Study Guide

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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The Yellow Wallpaper | Section 1 | Summary



"The Yellow Wallpaper" is told as a series of journal entries on what the narrator calls "dead paper." As it begins, the narrator explains that she and her husband, John, have rented a "colonial mansion, a hereditary estate" for the summer. She feels that there is something strange about it, but John, a doctor and a man who prides himself on being practical and reasonable, dismisses her misgivings. She reveals that she has a "nervous condition" and has been prescribed medication and rest by John. She is not supposed to do any "work," which includes writing.

The house is miles from town and set back from the road, surrounded by gardens and broken-down greenhouses. The narrator's room is on the upper floor in what used to be a nursery. Bars on the windows were likely once used to keep children safe from falls, and the wallpaper is peeled off in places where children may have damaged it. The narrator notices that the wallpaper is an ugly shade of yellow, and its pattern is equally ugly: "committing every artistic sin."


In this opening journal entry, the narrator establishes important details of setting, character, and situation that provide the foundation of the rest of the story.


The narrator and her husband are staying for the summer in a large mansion that has fallen into some disrepair. The narrator feels that there is something of a "haunted house" feel to it. The room where she will be staying is large and airy, but it has some unsettling traits: bars on the windows, yellow wallpaper that the narrator takes an instant dislike to. In this story, setting will play a very important role, as nearly every aspect of the narrator's psyche and situation are reflected in how she describes her surroundings. For example, the estate was once in good condition but is now a bit broken down, as readers will learn is true of the narrator. The estate has "hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses," the windows are barred, and the house is isolated—all images that reflect the narrator's sense of being confined within boundaries, in a small space, away from people. The wallpaper has curves that "commit suicide" and "destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions," which reflects the self-destructive workings of the narrator's mind.


The narrator and her husband, while a loving couple, are not equal in freedom or power. John, a respected physician, has all the decision-making authority in the marriage. He vetoes her desires dismissively—"John would not hear of it"—and prides himself on being "rational." Therefore, he will not listen to or take seriously any of her explanations of how she feels or what she wants, because he sees these things as being imaginative and irrational.


The narrator has a "nervous condition," and John has prescribed rest, tonics, food, and the avoidance of all work or stimulating activity, including writing or visiting family. Although the narrator doesn't believe this course of action will help her, she realizes she has no say in the matter and accepts his directives ... or at least, most of them. She has kept a secret journal, which she writes in when John is not around.

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