Madwoman in the Attic, Part I
February 5, 2021

[This is the first part of a multi-installment essay. You can read the second part here.]

When my ex-husband and I first moved in together, I was overwhelmed by how much of the stuff in our shared space was his. We were both broke graduate students but he had more and nicer things, as well as a more fervent commitment to a unified aesthetic. Uncertain about my taste and worried about money, I nevertheless wanted to claim space for myself. I went to Anthropologie and bought a set of overpriced bowls with a bold pattern of blue diamonds, a bright yellow rim, and an image of a butterfly in the center. They were somewhat ostentatious but I felt far more secure with them in our kitchen cupboards. We would have shared space, but there’d also be space for me.

When we divorced, I packed up these bowls to take them with me. My ex-husband objected, saying that they were from his ex-girlfriend. It was a fitting symbol for the failure of our marriage. He remembered the bowls that I had bought to claim space in our shared life as remnants of another woman. I reminded him of the story, how I bought them for our first apartment when I couldn’t really afford them. I don’t know if he believed me, but he said that I could have them after all.

I didn’t even want these bowls anymore, though. There were only three left — hardly enough for a dinner party. And they were far too loud. They didn’t fit in the kitchen I imagined for myself — I mostly objected to the butterflies. They were reminders of happy days of being wildly in love, incredibly naive, and a little bit gauche. I was only packing them up for the same reason I bought them: to assert myself.

He remembered the bowls that I had bought to claim space in our shared life as remnants of another woman.

This essay isn’t about those bowls, which sit on the highest shelf in my kitchen, hard to reach and hidden from view. It’s about an entirely different set of dishes: the cereal bowls. The cereal bowls came later in our life together — they were given to us by family and friends, one of the few things we registered for when we married. And they didn’t come alone: there were small plates, large plates, small mugs, large mugs, cups, and dessert bowls, too. These bowls weren’t loud — they were simple, elegant, and timeless. They were ceramic, with a thin brown line around the rim. I remember picking out the colors with my ex-husband. We decided on two varieties: sage and aqua chocolate brown. The salesperson told us to choose carefully, warning us that we’d be eating cereal out of these bowls for the rest of our lives. This warning didn’t scare me. I looked forward to eating from them until the end of my days.

I also tried to claim the cereal bowls when we were dividing our things. I felt it was only fair: he was keeping the house, the furniture, the gardening tools, most of the stuff from our kitchen, the car that was nearly paid off. I thought we could split the plates and bowls and mugs fifty-fifty. Or maybe even 75–25, since I’d have to buy many new things, pay for a multi-state move, and I was being very generous about the house and the car. He thought it made more sense for him to keep the majority of the plates, bowls, and mugs. He insisted, “Things can’t always be fifty-fifty.”

I knew it was unfair but I didn’t want to fight. I didn’t have the energy to respond to his feelings with basic accounting and I didn’t think facts would get a fair hearing. Divorce advice columns encourage people to keep things positive and be generous but they also insist that both parties should ask for everything they want so they don’t regret it later. I felt like I couldn’t have both: it was either generosity or the bowls. I told myself that it was only eight bowls. Someday, when I had bought the essentials and was back on my feet, I could buy new bowls for myself. I’d always choose my ex-husband’s feelings — however detached from facts — over eight cereal bowls.

Divorce advice columns encourage people to keep things positive and be generous but they also insist that both parties should ask for everything they want so they don’t regret it later. 

The divorce columns were right — I did regret it. A week later when he reported back from his meeting with the real estate agent, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. Apparently, she encouraged him to think about selling the house, warning him that there’d be too many memories from our marriage. He assured her that this wouldn’t be the case. When he told me this story, I earnestly declared: “I’m haunting the cereal bowls.” For me, these bowls were a reminder of all of the things that I deserved but did not get because I wasn’t willing to fight, because I didn’t know how to communicate my needs and desires in a way that he’d hear. I haunted the bowls because I wanted to claim them as my own and also force him to confront what he all-too-easily erased during the end of our marriage and throughout our divorce — me and the labor I put into our shared life. I don’t think he was too worried about my declaration of haunting — on the phone, he laughed.


Dishes are a sticking point in the history of the dark, unhappy house at the center of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 horror novel, The Haunting of Hill House. In the novel, Dr. Montague gathers a group of people to investigate whether the house is haunted. The sisters who grew up there fight over ownership of the house but also a set of “gold-rimmed dishes.” When Dr. Montague narrates the history of the house, he says that the loss of these dishes “seemed to irritate the younger sister more than anything else.” The younger sister never gets the home or the dishes but no one ever lives peacefully there again. The woman who inherits the house commits suicide, driven mad in part by the belief that the younger sister is breaking in during the night, stealing things. Readers begin to suspect that the protagonist, Eleanor Vance, may be in trouble when she admits that she’d try to steal those gold-rimmed dishes, too.

I found this novel comforting as I thought about my attachment to the cereal bowls, but it’s not the best novel to explain my own practice of haunting. The story is far too dark. Eleanor’s desire for the dishes — her longing for a home of her own, separate from her mother — kills her. I didn’t want to die — beneath the sadness, I trusted I would someday find a home of my own. I didn’t even want to disrupt my ex-husband’s peace — I wanted him to be happy in his home, too. But I did want to be present in my own life and some form of recognition in the aftermath of our shared life: I wanted to haunt our South Carolina home until I, too, could feel settled in my own space.

But I did want to be present in my own life and some form of recognition in the aftermath of our shared life.

I understand my haunting of the cereal bowls through a novel that is more familiar to me as a scholar of Victorian literature — Jane Eyre (1847). Jane Eyre is a narrative of a woman’s development organized around the marriage plot. It’s a novel that white feminists have long celebrated because of Jane’s ability to claim a self and narrate her story. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar nod to the novel in the title to their groundbreaking study of feminist theory and women’s literature, The Madwoman Woman in the Attic (1979). For them, Jane and her counterpart, Bertha — the madwoman in the attic who gives the novel its energy and mystery — help clarify just how hard it is for women to write within a male literary tradition. By connecting Jane to Bertha, they track how Jane oscillates between law and order and unbridled rage. They see Jane and Bertha as psychic doubles that illuminate the inequality at the heart of Jane and Mr. Rochester’s ‘equal’ partnership. In 1985, Gayatri Spivak tracks a different relationship between Jane and Bertha when she boldly checks white feminist feelings with basic facts: the structure defining these two characters and their relationship to one another is empire. Empire determines who gets to be a feminist hero and an individual — Jane — and who is a fictive other through which this heroism is produced — Bertha. In this reading, Jane’s sympathy for Mr. Rochester doesn’t just mask inequality, it perpetuates empire.

When I read Jane Eyre in college, the professor asked the students in our small seminar to explain why they identified with Jane. Everyone had something to say. If I were being honest, I would have mentioned that I connected with Jane’s caution in the latter part of the book: how she sussed out situations, regulated her desire, kept herself in check. But because I had already realized that it was harder to make friends if you talked too much or too earnestly in class, I almost certainly was not honest. Like Jane, who longed for “liberty” but was willing to accept “new servitude” in its place, I thought that honest conversations about one’s ideas and interpretations were a great concept in the abstract but far beyond my grasp.

At the time, I didn’t much identify with Bertha Mason/Rochester. The novel doesn’t really want you to identify with Bertha — as Spivak argues, she remains a shadowy figure who screams, laughs, and sets fires offstage. Readers first encounter her as a tragic laugh echoing through the third floor in the middle of the day. Her laughter becomes scarier and less sad when it comes closer — Jane hears “demoniac . . . goblin-laughter” just outside of her room after Bertha sets fire to Mr. Rochester’s bedroom. When Bertha finally appears as an embodied presence, Jane desires to forget the memory of her vampire-like visage. Learning that the man she was about to marry was already married, Jane ventures to the third floor to see his wife face to face. Jane describes Bertha as a “clothed hyena” and “lunatic” — never as a human being.

Like Jane, who longed for “liberty” but was willing to accept “new servitude” in its place, I thought that honest conversations about one’s ideas and interpretations were a great concept in the abstract but far beyond my grasp.

Feminists have worked hard to shift the scales of sympathy toward Bertha. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)rewrites the novel from Bertha’s and Mr. Rochester’s perspective — Jane hardly appears. You might think this new narrative perspective shows the power of storytelling: it’s easy to assume that we give sympathy to those who speak. When Jane narrates, Bertha is in the shadows. In Bertha’s story, Jane is entirely unimportant to the plot. But it’s not that simple. In this novel, Bertha tries to tell her story to Mr. Rochester and he just doesn’t listen: it isn’t the right time or the right place. She learns instead that “words are no use.” Trapped in his house in England, she waits for him to visit her so she can plead her case but he never arrives.

Even in her own narrative, Bertha’s story is one of unbecoming. Antoinette Conway, rooted in a place, first loses her name. Mr. Rochester renames her because he is wary of the connection between Antoinette’s name and her mother’s — he decides it is better to start afresh. He settles on Bertha — he’s always liked the name. Antoinette does not but that’s not his concern. When imprisoned in England, she begins to haunt herself and her narrow space. Tellingly, ghosts don’t talk — at least coherently. Their stories need to be uncovered and deciphered by others. Jane’s marriage plot is one of development and resolution: she can stop telling her story because the drama is over. Bertha’s marriage plot brings loss and haunting — not only will she never be able to tell her own tale but she will always depend on others to bring her story to a close. Without words, she relies on actions. She sets fire to Mr. Rochester’s house at the end of the novel but it’s still uncertain whether she’s free.

Bertha’s story is a ghost story. Once you realize this fact, you also begin to question Jane’s marriage plot and realize that Jane’s story might be, too. Despite Jane’s caution, her claims to autonomy and independence, and her all-too-easy dismissal and dehumanization of Bertha to shore herself up, she haunts the story she tells. She’s also a ghost who needs others to set her free.


I became a ghost over the course of my marriage. My own process of unbecoming wasn’t inevitable — looking back, I see many moments when I tried to insist on being an embodied person. I think I even said it that clearly: “I need to be a person.” But when I tried to talk to my ex-husband about my needs, I’d learn the same lesson that Bertha did in Wide Sargasso Sea: words were no use. What I said and how I said it was always wrong. Instead, I found myself listening to my ex-husband a lot. He had plans for our relationship, plans for me. Like Mr. Rochester, he tended to remind me that I was the mad daughter of a mad mother and thus couldn’t be trusted. In these moments, it was nice to lose myself, to float away.

I became a ghost over the course of my marriage. My own process of unbecoming wasn’t inevitable — looking back, I see many moments when I tried to insist on being an embodied person.

Mr. Rochester’s refusal to listen to Bertha requires little explanation in the pages of Jane Eyre. He just desires to be decent: this madwoman would require cruelty to be cured and he isn’t capable of such meanness. He never wanted to harm her, he insists, he just wanted to remain uncontaminated by her. Who wouldn’t want to be free of this “filthy burden”? Who wouldn’t want to breathe clean air? Bertha may be the one who’s imprisoned, but the novel is far more concerned with how Mr. Rochester feels trapped.

Like Mr. Rochester, my ex-husband didn’t want to be cruel. But my needs were messy and monstrous and my origins and attachments were unseemly: couldn’t I work harder to keep his life clean? I wanted him to have the life that he desired — clean lines were part of his aesthetic — and I didn’t know how to articulate my need for more messiness. Who wants to be on the side of chaos? As was the case with Bertha, my personhood was the problem — although in my case, it wasn’t a matter of race. Because I was a ‘good’ white woman like Jane, I had immediate sympathy for my ex-husband’s plight and I didn’t require physical confinement. Slowly and steadily this sympathy taught me that the solution to the problem of my personhood was to lock it up, to become a ghost.

[This is the first part of a multi-installment essay. You can read the second part here.]


Photo by eniko kis on Unsplash

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