by Stephen King
In 1985, Rose Daniels' husband, Norman, beats her while she is four months pregnant, causing her to miscarry. Rose considers leaving Norman but dismisses the idea: Norman is a policeman, and is excellent at finding people. He also has a violent temper and has been recently accused of assaulting and raping a black woman named Wendy Yarrow. The subsequent lawsuit and internal affairs investigation has made him even more volatile.
Nine years later, Rose is making the bed. She sees a drop of blood on the sheet that dripped from her nose the night before, when Norman had punched her in the face for spilling iced tea on him. Rose realizes that she has passively suffered through Norman's abuse for fourteen years and that if she continues to put up with it, he will eventually kill her. Rose departs on a bus with their bank card. Once Norman realizes that Rose is gone, he resolves to hunt her down and kill her.
Rose arrives in a Midwestern city, disoriented and afraid. At the bus station, she meets a man named Peter Slowik, who guides her to a local women's shelter. She quickly makes several friends and, with the help of shelter director Anna Stevenson, gets an apartment and a job as a hotel housekeeper. When Rose tries to pawn her engagement ring, she takes a liking to a painting of a woman in a rose madder gown. She trades her ring for the painting, which has no signature. Bill Steiner, the owner of the pawnshop, asks her for a date. Rose falls in love with him, but she is afraid to begin a new relationship.
Rose discovers that the painting seems to change from time to time. Eventually she is able to travel through it. On the other side, she encounters a woman called Dorcas, who resembles Wendy Yarrow. She also sees the woman in the painting, whom she calls "Rose Madder" because of her gown and her evident madness. Rose Madder asks Rose to rescue her baby from an underground labyrinth inhabited by a blind, one-eyed bull called Erinyes who orients by his sense of smell.
Dorcas leads Rose to the edge of the temple grounds. Dorcas cannot enter the labyrinth, as she is afflicted by the same mysterious illness as her mistress, and Erinyes would be able to smell her. Before Rose parts from Dorcas, she is made to strip naked and rip her nightgown into several strips. One is soaked in Dorcas' blood and tied around a rock. Rose enters the temple, where she manages to save the child, escape Erinyes, and return the baby girl to Rose Madder, who promises to repay her. Rose returns to her world and puts the strange incident at the back of her mind.
Norman arrives in the city, attacks some of Rose's friends from the shelter, and then goes to Rose's apartment. He kills a policemen assigned to protect her, poses as one of them in the patrol car, and sees Rose and Bill returning from the police station. He attacks them, almost strangling Bill, but Rose is able to fight him off because she believes she is wearing the golden arm circlet Rose Madder had given her. After injuring Norman, Rose carries Bill to the apartment, where she sees the circlet on her table and realizes she has been fighting Norman alone the whole time.
Rose tricks Norman into following her into the painting, then leads him to Rose Madder, who kills him. Rose returns to her world with instructions from Rose Madder to "remember the tree". She eventually marries Bill and has a daughter, but finds that the violent rages that characterized both Norman and Rose Madder have begun to spring up within her. She remembers that Rose Madder allowed her to take some seeds home with her, which she plants along with Norman's police ring in a secret grove by her favorite lake. The seed grows into a beautiful but deadly tree. She revisits the tree periodically as it grows, and is able to release her rage and go on with her life.