In "The Yellow Wallpaper," why does the narrator question her mental capacity?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In John Steinbeck's novella, Of Mice and Men, an especially lonely character who is made to live in the barn and not with the other ranch hands in the bunkhouse, remarks how a person goes crazy after a while because he is not certain of what he sees or hears since no one else is with him to affirm or contradict what he observes, "He can't tell. He got nothing to measure by." 

Isolated in a barred nursery room, the narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper," too, has no one by whom she can measure herself. She is simply imprisoned with her own thoughts, thoughts that become confused, for one thing, because her husband has dismissed them as mere "fancy," as, for instance, when speaks of the beautiful shaded lane where she imagines people walking or when she asks if they can go downstairs where there are prettier rooms than the one in which she is confined. Then,too, she has been forbidden to write, to express herself, and see visible evidence of her thoughts. She complains,

It is so discouraging not to have any advice and companionship about my work. Ohn says we will ask Cousin Henry and Julia down for a long visit, but he says he would as soon put fireworks in my pillowcase as to let me have those stimulating people about now. 

Ironically, these "stimulating people" would do the narrator much good as she has been alone far too much. It is, indeed, this isolation that effects the narrator's uncertainty of her mental balance. For, without proper stimulation, her vivid and artisitic imagination channels itself elsewhere and becomes distorted. When she seeks help from her husband, he coldly replies, one but myself can help me out of it, that I must use my will and self-control and not let my silly fancies run away with me.

In fact, he angrily scolds her later when the narrator mentions that she feels mentally weak, forbidding her, " will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind!" Left to her own devices, the lonely woman,who has no mental stimulation from other sources, fixates upon the yellow wallpaper, now imagining that there are women behind bars there. The pattern of this paper is hideous and tortures her and the women behind it as they try to free themselves. Finally, it is the narrator who feels she is behind the barred pattern of the paper and frees herself mentally. "I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did?" she asks as she crawls along the floor, yet without anyone by whom she can measure herself.

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The Yellow Wallpaper

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