What is a description of the natural emotions and mental weakness that the protagonist displays in the story "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The female narrator's natural emotions undergo sensory, emotional, and aesthetic deprivation so the narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper" descends into mental weakness that amounts to madness in which she becomes hopelessly mentally entrapped. 

  • Sensory deprivation

The protagonist of Gilman's story, who suffers from post-partum depression, termed "a nervous condition" by Dr. Weir Mitchell and her physician husband, is taken to a summer house where she is to have bed rest and solitude nor is she to read or write. Post-partum depression is a compilation of natural emotions that are only indirectly related to mental weakness in that misdiagnosis and incorrect treatment can result in mental weakness. At the summer house, her husband John wrongly dismisses her condition as mere "sickness" and treats her as an ailing patient who needs quiet and sleep in order to heal.

Because the walls are barred, the protagonist/narrator cannot view the lovely gardens outdoors well, nor the beautiful bay or the shaded lane leading to the house. John cautions her "not to give way to fancy" and imagine things; instead, she is told to use will power and "check the tendency." This denies her natural emotions that seek beauty, freedom of movement, and the security of independence.

And, when she complains to her husband about the horrible wallpaper, he patronizingly tells her,

...that after the wallpaper was changed it would be the heavy bedstead, and then the barred windows, and then that gate at the head of the stairs, and so on.

  • Emotional deprivation

As mentioned, John scolds his wife for her tendencies to "fancy" and to want to change her environment, thus offering her no emotional support. As she is often alone with only her husband to  confide in during the evenings, the protagonist is bereft of human comfort; so, in order to occupy and express herself, the narrator has begun to write down her feelings. But, John's sister, who also checks on her is not trusted by the protagonist:

I verily believe she thinks it is the writing which made me sick!

  • Aesthetic deprivation

Of an artistic nature, the protagonist is appalled by the appearance of the room that has been designed as nursery with barred windows and "rings and things in the walls." Moreover, she finds the paint and wallpaper as the worst she has ever seen. It is a hideous yellow and has 

One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.

This paper is so offensive to her artistic sensibilities, that the narrator becomes obsessed with the wallpaper's imbalance of design:

I...follow that pattern about by the hour....I start, we'll say, at the bottom, down in the corner over there where it has not been touched, and I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion.

More and more, the woman analyzes and re-analyzes the "columns of fatuity" and the "interminable grotesques" that seem to form around the center. Finally, the narrator imagines in the dim shapes "behind that outside pattern" until she imagines "the faint figure" shaking the pattern to get out.

Desperately, then, the narrator begs her husband to return home, but John says he cannot leave. When she suggests that she is mentally strained, John hushes her,

"I beg of you...that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind!....It is a false and foolish fancy...."

After her husband's refusal of her feelings, the narrator becomes very unstable. "Life is very much more exciting now than it used to be," the narrator comments in her madness. Her natural emotions in these areas have been violated and ignored so that mental weakness emerges as a result of being stifled and imprisoned.

I'm feeling ever so much better!...it is so interesting to watch developments....[the paper] makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw...old foul, bad yellow things.

Now insane, she sees a woman, whom she tries to free from the wallpaper as she creeps about the room.

Read the study guide:
The Yellow Wallpaper

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