Do you think that the narrator is mentally ill to begin with, or has something else caused her to become mentally ill in "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the beginning of the narrative of "The Yellow Wallpaper," the narrator is suffering from what is now referred to as postpartum depression. This develops because of hormonal changes in women after childbirth. But, because of her forced confinement by her husband and physician, as well as her isolation from her baby and family and friends, the woman in this story becomes worse in her ability to think clearly and control her emotions.

According to the Mayo Clinic, among the many symptoms of this postpartum depression are these:

  • Feelings of worthlessness, shame, guilt, or inadequacy
  • Diminished ability to think clearly, concentrate or make decisions

"The Yellow Wallpaper" was published in 1892 as a criticism of the medical treatment that was prescribed at the time by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell to women who suffered from what was then termed "nervous prostration," or "neurasthenia." This story is an indictment of the insensitivity demonstrated by male physicians to female patients who suffered from the depression that often follows childbirth.

The insensitivity to the woman's condition oppresses her in her marriage, and deprives her of her voice. Her doctor and husband tell her that she merely suffers from a "temporary nervous depression--a slight hysterical tendency." She is virtually incarcerated in a room of a strange house without any access to the lovely garden outside. Her feelings are ignored as she is placed in a room with bars on the windows and wallpaper that is stripped off in patches. What is there is hideous to the woman's artistic eye:

One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin....when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide--plunge off at outrageous angles, and destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions. 

But, when she complains to her husband, he simply tells her, 

I must use my will and self-control and not let my silly fancies run away with me. 

When the narrator begs to go home, her husband denies her desires. In addition, he deprecates her creative powers of "story-making" and refuses to change the wallpaper and "give way to such fancies."

Isolated in a room that is repugnant to her with its hideous yellow wallpaper and "inharmonious" furniture, and without any outlet for her thoughts and feelings, the woman's imagination becomes overactive:

I...lie there for hours trying to decide whether that front pattern and the back pattern really did move together or separately. 

Because she is trapped in a room she finds hideous, the woman finally is seduced into an act of insanity that is committed in order to relieve her obsession with thoughts of entrapment.
Furthermore, she becomes mentally ill because of the insensitivity of her husband and Dr. Mitchell, who never recognize her symptoms or listen to her ideas and requests. Instead, they force her to remain alone in a room she detests without any outlets for her frustrations. 

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The Yellow Wallpaper

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