The story is written in the first person as a series of journal entries. The narrator is a woman whose husband — a physician — has confined her to the upstairs bedroom of a house he has rented for the summer. She is forbidden from working and has to hide her journal entries from him so that she can recuperate from what he has diagnosed as a "temporary nervous depression — a slight hysterical tendency;" a diagnosis common to women in that period. The windows of the room are barred, and there is a gate across the top of the stairs, allowing her husband to control her access to the rest of the house.
The story illustrates the effect of confinement on the narrator's mental health, and her descent into psychosis. With nothing to stimulate her, she becomes obsessed by the pattern and color of the room's wallpaper.