Monday, December 29, 2008

Notes from the Attic

I mentioned the idea of the Madwoman in the Attic and the Angel in House in my last blog. Essentially this is the way that that goes: In 1979, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gunbar came out with a profound criticism asserting that the male voice had been heard for too long in literature. I mean, come on, let's admit it--it was the white boy's club for a really long time! Anyway, the name of their ground-breaking work, Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination, identified the two aforementioned stereotypes. The Angel in the House realizes that material and physical comforts are gifts from her husband and her goal in life is to please her husband and her children. Virginia Woolf's reference to her own mother as "intensely sympathetic, immensely charming, utterly unselfish, excelling in the difficult arts of family life.....she sacrificed herself daily." Woolf claimed she heard her mother's voice until she wrote To the Lighthouse whereby she "exorcised the voice of the angel and all expectations that came with it." Well.....I don't know where Virginia's Room of One's Own was located but I'm kinda thinking the Attic was probably in the running since she filled her pockets with rocks and walked peacefully into the water to her death. Gotta wonder if that voice of the Angel in the house was ever completely exorcised??

I think of all of the Madwomen in literature that have been relegated to the "Attic" and it is heartbreaking. It's like--if we can't understand her, if she is a little too spirited....she's off to the "attic." It's not one of those trendy renovated attics like we see on HGTV (the show makes me literally break out in hives for all of the missed opportunities of home renovation that pass me daily but that's another story)--I'm thinking the cobwebby, dank and dark attics of our youth. Of course Jane Eyre, the angel in the house that she was.....a little rebellious, yes but hey, she returns to Rochester and ends up marrying him despite the fact that he kept Bertha, his first wife, locked in the attic for years. Don't you think you would be a wee bit frightened to marry a man who had relegated his first wife, screaming like a banshee, to the top floor of his own home, for fear that a little PMS or hormonal madness might land you in the same boat? There's a real threat here Jane--it doesn't look good for the unpredictable days of mood swings. I would be willing to bet that when the mansion was rebuilt after Bertha burned it down it did not have an attic. Surely Jane had enough wherewithal to prevent a repeat of the "Upper Room" syndrome.

The absolute most frightening case of the "Madwoman in the Attic" is in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story The Yellow Wallpaper. Here a woman is stripped of all meaningful and productive work, medicated by her arrogant and maniacal doctor of a husband and, with no other stimuli than the wallpaper, the pattern and designs on the wallpaper become increasingly intriguing, and a figure of a woman soon appears in the design. She eventually decides that there is a woman creeping on all fours behind the "bars" created by the shadows, who is trying to escape her prison. It's terrifying especially for an attic-dweller like me. This is a cautionary tale to those of us who need to feel productive, needed for our own voice but are called to be "the woman behind the man." As a side note--- I am and have been a "stand by your man" woman and I have chosen it, tailored it to suit my own Annie Oakley mess with my husband and I'll rip your eyes out style. But that has only come with time---I have also been the diagnosed "patient" convinced that she is unfit, unworthy, unimportant. Luckily, I escaped that particular tower room. There's danger ahead for those who are asked to give it up whatever that "it" is that makes you----YOU--that's all I'll say about that. Well actually, that came from the woman in wallpaper who I talked to each morning

Oh, and one more little tidbit that is just the icing on the cake for the Madwoman--she is "sexually fallen" whatever that means! I"m not touching that one with a ten foot pole dance.

When I think about attics and angels and madness I wonder how far we have come? I know that growing up in the south it certainly behooves a maiden to be able to baste a turkey, bake a cake, clean an oven, nurture a crying baby, wake up early and make the coffee, stand at the door with your lipstick on......and, of course, be a hellcat in the bedroom. This is an old stereotype though, right? I am not a feminist, per se. I wear red lipstick, I love sexy shoes, I do wear makeup and sometimes mascara to bed makes me feel better about myself, I love being a wife (thank God he's from the North and not into the whole little woman in the kitchen thing) and a mother and I have been know to bake, albeit burn, a batch of cookies. That is not the point. Here's the thing: when the angel in the house flys the coop where oh where does she go? Is she replaced with another halo-hanging sweetie pie while she screams her head off in the attic? I don't know---where is Bertha when you need her?

Well...enough ruminating for the day.....It's time to come down the attic stairs and put the casserole in the oven.

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