As “The Yellow Wallpaper” begins, the story’s unnamed narrator matter-of-factly writes that she and John, her husband, have moved into a grand estate for the summer. She notes how rare of an opportunity this arrangement is for “ordinary people” like themselves before confidently declaring that something about the house seems off. The narrator wonders why the estate has been empty for so long, but she explains that John, whose outlook on the world is purely practical, dismisses her curiosities outright. As both her husband and her doctor, he also refuses to believe that the narrator is truly sick. She explains that his treatment plan for her “temporary nervous depression” involves severe restrictions on her activity, an approach also known as the “rest cure.” The narrator disagrees entirely with this approach, advocating instead for more activity and work, but relents and admits that she is powerless to challenge her husband’s opinion. Secretly, however, she writes in her journal to express herself.

In an attempt to avoid thinking about her condition, the narrator spends time describing the grounds and the main house of the estate. A degree of beauty remains throughout the property, but the effects of the home’s vacancy are clear. The narrator explains that she gets frustrated when John refuses to entertain her perspective, particularly when it comes to the room she stays in at the house. Instead of using a room on the ground floor that opened up to the gardens, he insists that the best place for her is the nursery on the top floor of the house. While the room is airy with lots of natural light, it also has bars across the windows and peeling yellow wallpaper. The wallpaper, the narrator explains, is a repulsive, sickly shade of yellow that the children who lived there must have surely hated.

After two weeks, the narrator begins a new journal entry by writing that John is often away taking care of other patients and fails to realize how much she is suffering. She regrets, however, that she has become a burden to him and Mary, who takes care of their baby. The narrator still presses John about moving to a room on the ground level or removing the yellow wallpaper, but she also admits that she is beginning to grow fond of the nursery and the opportunities it gives her to imagine people moving about the world outside her windows. John, of course, reminds her that she needs to calm her mind.

The narrator begins to notice more details in the design of the yellow wallpaper, a design which seems to encourage her imagination to run wild. She identifies one spot on the wall where the pattern looks like “a broken neck and two bulbous eyes,” and across the rest of the wall, eyes stare back at her. The furniture has not fared much better over the years than the torn and dirty wallpaper, for the room’s heavy bed “looks as if it had been through the wars.” The narrator hears Jennie, John’s brother and now housekeeper, coming, but before she puts her journal away, she notices a kind of sub-pattern that seems to lie beneath the main design of the wallpaper.