The unnamed woman who is the main character of the story has depression after the birth of her child. Her husband - who is a doctor - decides that it can be cured with the complete isolation and house life. He moves with his family to a quiet house in the countryside, aside from major routes, and isolates his wife in the room upstairs. The walls of the room are covered with yellow wallpaper, and the woman finds it very uncomfortable to see. But as her doctor, her husband orders her to stay in bed in that room for all the time, without an ability to see her baby or see anyone except him and the nurse.
The woman is prohibited to read or write, to do anything - just to lay and look at the wallpaper. She feels that her husband just doesn’t care about her wishes and needs, reducing them to the whims of a mentally ill woman and belittles her for being too emotional and, as a woman, too weak and unable to decide what is good for her. He even doesn’t allow her to choose a room she prefers, leaving her in the spacy room with that awful wallpaper instead of smaller, cozy one downstairs. While the wallpaper is just the most disturbing, it is not the only eerie thing in that room. The bars on the windows hint that there was another person - another woman maybe - who was also held there. The rings on the walls just make the room resemble a prison cell a bit more.
Reading, writing or other activities that draw her attention really helped the woman before, so she is very upset when her books are taken away. Trying to put her mind to work and save herself from boredom, the woman starts her secret diary where she describes her room. But there is nothing interesting inside and slowly the pattern of the yellow wallpaper becomes the only thing that entertains her. The woman starts describing the wallpaper and the pictures she imagines behind the pattern lines. Her first notes are short and scarce because she needs to hide the diary when her husband comes, but then she learns to hide her feelings, thoughts - and the diary itself - way better.
Slowly the wallpaper stops being disturbing and becomes her only source of information and feelings. The woman is more and more addicted to looking at it. At first, she still tries to ask her controlling husband to spend time with her or to allow her to do something except “resting” in bed, but then the readers can see only brief complaints - mostly her notes are dedicated to the wallpaper.
Finally, her husband notices her obsession with the wallpaper and becomes worried, but it’s too late. The woman cares more about her only entertainment than about worries of her cold and ignorant husband. He tries to repaper the room but she becomes hysterical and the man has to step back. The wallpaper restores her imagination and the woman looks through the window, imagining different people who lived that before and their stories. She also tries to imagine the former owner of the room and comes to the conclusion that it could be the room for small kids - the window is safe, the wallpaper is torn in some places, all the furniture is fixed to the walls tightly, like everything was designed to minimize the potential harm for the room inhabitants.
The nurse who cares for the woman is her sister-in-law, so, as a sister of her husband, she is completely on his side. The woman can’t speak with her about anything that goes against her husband’s prescription of complete rest. She asks to let her go or to give her at least something she can do to relieve herself of boredom, but her husband threatens to send her to the real psychiatric ward, to the doctor who previously worked with her and after whom she had a nervous breakdown.
The last note about her husband visiting her contains nothing more than tiredness. The woman seems completely broken and turns from the real life to the world behind the wallpaper. She is still disgusted by sharp, chaotic, formless lines of the pattern, but she starts to see the image behind it. It is a woman, trapped behind the grotesque bars of the wallpaper, imprisoned like she is herself. Maybe it is a former inhabitant of the room who never saw her freedom.
The woman becomes more and more fixated. She isn’t bothered by anything but wallpaper. But to her husband it looks like her condition is improving - the woman can sit still and stare at the wall “resting” almost all the time. She even becomes jealous, trying to distract the nurse from looking at the wallpaper too. She wants to discover the secret of the woman by herself.
Now she sees the prisoner behind the wallpaper clearly, how she is shaking the bars of her cell trying to escape. Finally, the woman decides to free her, scratching the wallpaper. The nurse notices this, her excitement and strange marks on the wall, so the woman makes the last desperate attempt. She tears away the wallpaper all around the room, creeping around. Now she fully associates herself with the trapped woman, she goes completely insane, thinking that there are numerous prisoners behind the wallpaper and she has always been one of them, not the real woman.
Her husband, hearing the strange noise, enters the room and seeing his wife in such a state, faints near the door. The woman continues creeping and tearing the wallpaper from the wall, stepping over him all the time, completely ignorant.