My name is Bertha or Catherine or maybe I don’t have a name and am instead a shadowy specter-threat lurking in a room above your head or a room with hideous wallpaper that would rob anyone of sanity.
My goal today is to reclaim this space as my own.
See, most probably I am here against my will but for your good, but you have told yourself that no, it’s for my own good. I am deep in the throes of grief or have reached middle age unmarried or was jilted years ago. Maybe I have postpartum depression or even psychosis, which you and your doctor friend are making worse-not-better by telling me to stop writing and thinking. What, don’t you want me to question my circumstances, my place, my lot? (No, you don’t.) Are my thoughts, my words, dangerous? (Yes, they might be, to you and your ilk if enough women like me get their hands and eyes on them.)
You have created my role as a trope. A cliché. You have reduced me to a literary device. One with a hell of a reputation in academic circles, but still, a device I remain, still less than a person. You call me mad because you can’t comprehend what I truly am: a woman—a person, just like you. (Perhaps you think I should be grateful for my fame.) (Perhaps you’re none too surprised that I’m not.)
First, you literally put me in an attic in Jane Eyre so that I would not endanger you or interfere in your extramarital (that’s right, still your wife) business. Then an entire house in which I languish in a moldering wedding dress and train a young woman to exact my vengeance upon men. Oh, and let’s not forget that horrid room with the yellow wallpaper where you said I should rest my way through one of the most difficult mental illnesses a woman can encounter.
Now, more than a century later, I’m still here: I’m the woman upstairs: middle-aged, bitter, and single. I’m the young widow, a landlady eavesdropping on other people’s affairs. Or maybe I’m Bertha Mason Rochester or Catherine Havisham, still, and someone has kindly imagined a voice for me. Perhaps I am even explicitly called unnecessary; whether earnestly or for effect, that one in particular stings.
Yes, I am many women. I am 32 flavors and then some.
Virginia Woolf says we women need rooms of our own, and she didn’t mean that you should lock us away in them and try to stop us writing and thinking, try to neutralize us like the threats we are to the cozy life in which you ignore us and have better things to do than deal with us.
So I’m writing to the internet, seeking my own room. Hell, I’ll even take an attic. I’ll fill it with books and words and thoughts, pillowy chairs, loud music. I will have excellent wifi and elaborate parties. I’ll get proper treatment for what ails me instead of whatever rest cure shuts me up for you.
I will not swim so far out into the ocean that I can’t swim back.
The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Woman UpstairsThe Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
The Affairs of Others by Amy Grace Loyd
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Havisham by Ronald Frame (forthcoming: Picador, November 2013)
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (forthcoming: Grove, February 2014)
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
I’ve left out many examples in favor of a rather lengthy list of classic and current or forthcoming novels. What are your favorites?
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