“The Yellow Wallpaper” opens with the story’s unnamed narrator, who expresses her thoughts in the form of journal entries, marveling at the grandeur of the house and grounds her husband has taken her to for the summer. She feels, however, that there is “something queer” about the place and explains that her case of “nervous depression” is what prompted their stay there. The narrator complains that her husband John, who is also her doctor, belittles both her illness and, more generally, her perspective. Her treatment, known as the “rest cure,” requires that she refrain from virtually any form of activity, even working and writing. Despite these instructions, she feels that activity, freedom, and interesting work would help her condition and has begun keeping a secret journal in order to “relieve her mind.” The narrator continues her journal entry by describing the house and gardens, both of which are beautiful yet clearly impacted by the estate’s years of emptiness. In the nursery on the top floor, however, she finds the yellow wallpaper, with its strange, formless pattern, to be particularly disturbing.

As the first few weeks of the summer pass, the narrator succeeds at hiding her journal, thus keeping her true thoughts from John. While she longs for more stimulating company and complains about John’s patronizing, controlling ways, she takes a new interest in the oddly-menacing wallpaper. John worries about her fixation, and he refuses to repaper the room so as not to give in to her nervousness. The narrator’s imagination, however, has awakened, and she reflects on her history of having an overactive mind. She goes on to describe the bedroom again, which she says must have been a nursery for young children due to the fact that the paper is torn off the wall in spots, there are scratches and gouges in the floor, and the furniture is heavy and fixed in place. Just as she begins to see a strange sub-pattern behind the main design of the wallpaper, John’s sister Jennie, who serves as a housekeeper and nurse for the narrator, interrupts her writing. 

As the Fourth of July passes, the narrator reports that her family has just visited, leaving her more tired than ever. John threatens to send her to Weir Mitchell, the real-life physician under whose care author Charlotte Perkins Gilman suffered. The narrator is alone most of the time and says that she has become almost fond of the wallpaper; studying the pattern has become her primary form of entertainment. As her obsession grows, the sub-pattern of the wallpaper becomes clearer. It begins to resemble a woman “stooping down and creeping” behind the main pattern, which at nighttime looks like the bars of a cage. Soon the wallpaper dominates the narrator’s imagination. Mistaking the narrator’s fixation for tranquility, John thinks she is improving. On the contrary, she sleeps less and less and believes that she can smell the paper all over the house. The sub-pattern now clearly resembles a woman who is trying to escape from behind the main pattern. The narrator sees her shaking the bars at night and creeping around during the day, when the woman is able to leave the wall. 

Suspecting that John and Jennie know of her obsession, she resolves to destroy the paper once and for all, peeling much of it off during the night. While left alone the next day, she goes into something of a frenzy, biting and tearing at the paper in order to free the trapped woman whom she sees struggling from inside the pattern. By the end, the narrator is hopelessly insane, convinced that there are many women creeping around and that she herself has come out of the wallpaper. She creeps endlessly around the room, smudging the wallpaper as she goes. When John breaks into the locked room and sees the full horror of the situation, he faints in the doorway so that the narrator has “to creep over him every time!”