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The Isolated Protagonist

In short stories, the conflict between protagonists and secondary characters plays a vital role in the protagonist’s self-discovery. Authors use the relationships and interactions between characters to reveal the development of the protagonist. Some protagonists, however, remain in physical and emotional isolation. In “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and in “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, the protagonists are controlled by authority figures whom they do not actively engage. This essay examines each protagonist’s isolation and suggests that isolation results in self-destruction.

In “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the protagonist is brought to a summer house that is “quite alone”. The location of her bedroom in itself isolates her, for it occupies most of the top floor and thus is removed from the majority of household activity. She is told by both her husband and her brother, who are physicians, that she suffers from “a slight hysterical tendency”. She tries to confide her anxieties to her husband but she is met with condescension. Her desire for companionship is a recurring one early in the story. Gradually, however, she craves her solitude, locking her bedroom door and using the excuse of napping to ensure privacy. This increasing evasion of others and the envisioning of the woman behind bars furthers her isolation.

 Willa Cather’s protagonist, Paul, manifests his intense dislike for his station in life by mentally detaching himself from the “ugliness and commonness” he perceives at home and at school. He creates elaborate stories of exotic travel and esteemed friends in an attempt to reshape his identity. His isolation becomes physical when he is suspended from school, denied entrance to Carnegie Hall and forbidden to keep the company of the actors he reveres. Ironically, Paul’s dream of belonging to fine society does not involve becoming an actor or musician, but instead simply being “in the atmosphere”. When he steals his employers’ money to fulfill this desire in New York he makes no attempt to engage others in his enjoyment. He relishes moments alone in his hotel sitting room and sips champagne alone at dinner.

Paul and the woman protagonist in “The Yellow Wallpaper” face isolation from those around them. For Paul, the isolation is more self-imposed; however, both protagonists are apprehensive to confront those who dictate their plights. Gilman’s protagonist is expected to abide by her husband’s orders of rest and is cautioned against giving into her “fancies”. Similarly, Paul’s dreams are reined in as well. Paul is expected to follow in the footsteps of the role model chosen by his father and to behave and evolve as others within his social circle. Both characters long for a companion who will listen to their true feelings and desires. Paul uses his job as an usher at Carnegie Hall and his friendship with Charley Edwards to maintain the pretense of involvement in society life. In the case of “The Yellow Wallpaper” protagonist, the longing for companionship fosters her fixation on the wallpaper in her room. For the isolated protagonist, a tipping point occurs when the protagonist can find no solution within himself. In “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the protagonists slide into dementia accelerates when she is made to take naps after every meal. She is unable to sleep and surrenders to her illusions about the woman behind bars in the wallpaper. For Paul, the tipping point occurs when he is physically isolated from everything: suspended from school, banned from Carnegie Hall and forbidden to associate with Charley Edwards. Without the catharsis of interaction, both protagonists face internal crises which ultimately destroy them, for one cannot transform crisis into resolution on one’s own.

In “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the protagonist engrosses herself with tracing the patterns of the wallpaper. Eventually, she degenerates into madness. Paul builds a life based on a “mesh of lies” and, faced with a return to the existence he despises after his theft is discovered, Paul kills himself. Through interaction with other story characters, protagonists undergo the metamorphosis of conflict to crisis to resolution. Protagonists who exist in isolation from those around them linger in crisis and grasp at temporary solutions before their final surrender.

(c) Kristy Kassie, October 23, 2008


Willa Cather, "Paul's Case"

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper"

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