Madwoman in the Attic, Part II

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

It’s hard for me to compare my ex-husband to Mr. Rochester. Whenever I teach Jane Eyre, my students and I talk about how terrible it would be to date him. He’s manipulative and takes advantage of his position — a position partly secured through Bertha’s money. Tellingly, he’s initially attracted to Jane because she has no independent means and no familial ties. He thinks he’s doing her a favor by marrying her even when he knows his track record with women is a disaster and he already has a wife. But dating my ex-husband wasn’t terrible, and for most of our marriage, he wasn’t even a bad husband. My ex-husband is fierce and he’s funny and he’s generous with others even if he wasn’t always generous with me.

But as Victorian novels make clear, characters can’t be separated from structures. Our marriage was shaped by struggles — with my family and the idea of family, the university, and capitalism. Somewhere in the process of fighting these unjust structures together, he became comfortable reproducing a messed-up structure in our marriage. Like Bertha in the pages of Jane Eyre, I was a fictive other through which he could establish his heroism. Like Jane, I was complicit in this process. I think he thought he was doing me a favor when he carefully instructed me on just where and how I failed. I was too attached to nineteenth-century texts written by white ladies, for one thing, and too unsettled by my mother. Because I believed in him, I extended his lessons. I found more sites of failure: I was a bad feminist for not sticking up for myself in our marriage and a sellout anytime I achieved scholarly success.

But as Victorian novels make clear, characters can’t be separated from structures. 

Most of the time, it doesn’t feel good to be a ghost. It’s exhausting. You don’t have a place to call your own, your absent presence frightens people without intending to, and you’re always looking for someone to take the time to figure you out and put your soul at rest. In one particularly distressing incident, I found myself weeping at an English department diversity committee meeting. I wanted to make a simple point about mentorship, but in the process I started crying and couldn’t stop. My white woman’s tears derailed the meeting, and I didn’t even know why. Of course, mentorship could be improved. Why did stating that fact make me so sad? My despair was palpable, but I couldn’t narrate its source. The committee members tried to make sense of my sorrow, but they too were at a loss.

The worst part about becoming a ghost, though, is that for a long time you don’t even know that you are one. Like Bertha, you’re always waiting to plead your case. Like Jane, you still think of yourself as a person. You pat yourself on the back when you claim your power, exert your will, narrate your story, extend your sympathy.

I only realized I had become a ghost when it was too late. Like Bertha, I had become a madwoman in the attic. By which I mean, I rented a third-floor room from a colleague. I needed a room because I worked in Philadelphia but the house I owned with my ex-husband was in South Carolina. Long-distance is a challenge for anyone, but it’s especially hard when you don’t have much money. Figuring out where to live and how to afford travel to see one another is a tricky business. In our case, we decided to buy a house in South Carolina because my ex-husband insisted that he needed a house in order to write, in order to have stability. This investment meant I’d have to live on the cheap, and I’d always be the one traveling. I did what I could: taking on extra classes, leading study abroad trips each summer, applying for fellowships, living in shitty 200 square foot studio apartments, renting a third-floor room instead of getting my own place. Sometimes I questioned whether this house in South Carolina would bring me stability — so much of my salary was going to a place I only saw once or twice a month and traveling was exhausting — only to be asked why I couldn’t invest more in his space — our space — since it was necessary to him, to us. Without words, it was hard to say that space was necessary to me too.

I tried not to haunt my colleague’s home, but I know that I did. It turns out that becoming a ghost doesn’t mean that you don’t need things: it means that you need more. 

Although I felt trapped, my third-floor room was objectively lovely. It was in an old West Philadelphia home that combined grandeur with charm. The bedroom was spacious with beautiful hardwood floors, two windows, and an unbelievable bedroom-sized bathroom attached, featuring a clawfoot tub, modern shower, and his and her sinks. Because the room was furnished, the move was manageable, which I appreciated after several years of moving furniture in and out of apartments by myself each fall and spring so I could spend summers with my ex-husband. But the third floor of Thornfield Hall was also lovely. Jane may compare the corridor leading to Bertha’s confined space to Bluebeard’s Castle, but she also notes that she likes “the hush, the gloom, the quaintness” of the third-story rooms that collect furniture and relics from the past.

Popular culture calls Bertha the madwoman in the attic — as I do in this essay — but she was actually confined on the third floor. Madwoman in the attic sounds better than “madwoman on the third floor,” for one thing, and the attic is just a little bit more distant from the house. Maybe it feels safer to put Bertha there. Maybe we desire a clearer demarcation between Jane and Bertha, domestic and haunted space. In the novel, though, it is Jane who seeks the attic, frequently climbing the three staircases and venturing through the trapdoor in order to look out at the world, longing for more. When Bertha escapes from her prison on the third floor, she does not look outward, she turns inward. She travels to the heart of the house — the second floor — to haunt Mr. Rochester and Jane in turn.

In my third-floor room, my life felt small, and I began to feel ghostly. I tried not to haunt my colleague’s home, but I know that I did. It turns out that becoming a ghost doesn’t mean that you don’t need things: it means that you need more. Lacking language and embodied presence, your needs seep out in unsettling ways and make domestic space feel spooky. Trapped on the third floor, I began to worry about who my ghostliness was serving. What was I haunting? Was my ghostliness going to good ends?

When Mr. Rochester decides to bring Bertha to England and lock her up, he does so pretty secure in the fact that no one ever has to know. Catching a “wind fresh from Europe” while in the West Indies, he begins to feel hope. Hope offers him a plan: “See that she is cared for as her condition demands, and you have done all that God and Humanity require of you. Let her identity, her connection with yourself, be buried in oblivion: you are bound to impart them to no living being. Place her in safety and comfort: shelter her degradation with secrecy and leave her.”

This passage shows the imperial logic that structures the novel: how Mr. Rochester extracts wealth and a wife from the West Indies while also feeling like he can hide these connections. Edward Said’s postcolonial readings of nineteenth-century British novels show that this erasure isn’t just about Rochester’s character, it’s what these novels do. Nineteenth-century British novels depict a social world that would be impossible without empire, but they try to make empire invisible to readers — they shelter this degradation with secrecy. As a result, nineteenth-century novels appear as a world onto themselves — what Said calls “autonomous enclosures” — that obscure actually-existing global and imperial relations. Said works to expose the relations that these novels try to bury in oblivion — telling the stories that readers have not required but have so desperately needed. As he puts it,“my principal aim is not to separate but to connect.”

There wasn’t a trash bag for my feelings - the exhaustion, anxiety, and sadness of not being able to sleep - but I knew that they wouldn’t be welcome in our home.

Like nineteenth-century novels, a long-distance marriage has to negotiate separation and connection although empire plays an entirely different role in these negotiations. My ex-husband wanted our South Carolina home to be an autonomous enclosure — a space protected from the worries of the world, including the worries of living life on the cheap in Philadelphia. My sacrifices in Philadelphia made our life in South Carolina possible but he wanted to keep this fact a secret. It was sometimes hard work keeping reality under wraps. For six long months, a bedbug terrorized my 200-square-foot apartment, evading exterminators, but nevertheless making its presence known through itchy red welts that appeared across my face, hands, and feet. Because it took the exterminator six months to find the culprit, my ex-husband kept telling me to stop worrying and complaining — it was all in my head. Yet he still took precautions to protect his space — leaving a trash bag on the porch for me when I returned home. After over six hours of travel, I’d strip off my clothes and put everything from Philadelphia into the bag and then directly into the dryer. There wasn’t a trash bag for my feelings — the exhaustion, anxiety, and sadness of not being able to sleep — but I knew that they wouldn’t be welcome in our home. The bedbugs and the terror they enacted were a Philadelphia problem, and as long as I performed the proper cleaning procedure, they shouldn’t affect our life in South Carolina.

With these connections disavowed, I felt buried in oblivion. I wanted a more comfortable space in my daily life — an apartment without bedbugs, a kitchen I didn’t share, a space that somehow reflected and nourished myself. But when I brought these desires to my ex-husband, he tended to suggest that I was cared for as my condition demanded. Don’t you believe in our shared life together, he’d ask. Why do you hate beautiful things?

Ghosts don’t believe in autonomous enclosures. They, like Said, aim “not to separate but to connect.” Troubling boundaries between past and present, living and dead, absence and presence, they expose the secrets upon which unjust structures depend.

In Jane Eyre, Bertha’s end is tragic. She sets fire to the third floor, burns Jane’s old bed, and then climbs to the roof of the house and leaps to her death. Jane’s ending seems happier — with Bertha out of the way and Mr. Rochester now blind, she can marry her love and be useful — a true helpmate. But even as Jane narrates the end of her story with the famous declaration, “Reader, I married him,” she also marks just how much she withholds from her husband. She doesn’t tell him about her suffering and homelessness after she was forced to flee from him, and she doesn’t tell him about her ghostliness. Jane is quite matter-of-fact but her union with Mr. Rochester depends upon the supernatural. Jane reunites with Mr. Rochester because she hears him cry her name from a great distance. But when Mr. Rochester later explains that he really did cry her name in a moment of despair, she refuses to tell him that she heard him and responded to his call: it’d be too much for this gloomy man to handle, she reasons to the reader. Perhaps, remembering all of those trips to the attic in days long ago, Jane is letting the reader know that her marriage has transformed her into a phantom. Perhaps she’s asking the reader — in the space between her words — to set her free.

My ghost story doesn’t have as neat of a conclusion, but ghost stories never do.

The end to my marriage plot is far less exciting: I asked again for the cereal bowls and my ex-husband gave them to me. My ghost story doesn’t have as neat of a conclusion, but ghost stories never do. Instead of resolving conflict, ghost stories prompt ongoing interpretation, often from contradictory evidence. As Elaine Freedgood explains, ghost stories tell two stories simultaneously — “the one in which ghosts do exist and the one in which they do not.” There certainly are at least two stories in the return of the cereal bowls. After loading the bowls into my car, my ex-husband apologized for not taking better care of me and expressed his sadness about the end of our relationship. Sometimes I think of this apology as a sign that my haunting achieved its purpose. Other days, I remember that my sympathy for him can still betray me. For however happy I was to have the bowls back, I also felt twinges of guilt.

On the shelves of my new apartment, the bowls help me be present in my new space even as they evoke the past. They remind me of love but also pain, suggest both continuity and dislocation, and represent the power and limits of words working in the world. I’m comfortable with this messiness — the fact that they signify too much. Here, it is not a burden. It feels good to be rooted in a place — to not feel trapped or troubled by the way my spirit roams. But my spirit does still roam. I thought that I wanted a space of my own to reclaim myself, re-establish my personhood, and start a new trajectory of becoming. But I’ve learned from Bertha and Jane that my desires are far more complicated. I want to expose secrets, create connections, and turn my ghostliness to good ends. I want to laugh like a goblin as I try to tell my tale and acknowledge the space between words.

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

Photo by Денис Токарь on Unsplash


Follow us



By Salvatore Difalco



By Salvatore Difalco