The Phenomenology of Space--Attic Memories and Secrets

Sherry Lutz Zivley
University of Houston

Since Gilbert and Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic, critics have assumed that attics house madwomen. But they use that concept as a metaphor for their thesis, that women writers were isolated and treated with approbation. In most literature, attics are dark, dusty, seldom-visited storage areas, like that of the Tulliver house in The Mill on the Floss--a "great attic under the old high-pitched roof," with "worm-eaten floors," "worm-eaten shelves," and "dark rafters festooned with cobwebs"--a place thought to be "weird and ghostly." Attics do not house humans (not even mad ones) they warehouse artifacts that carry personal and familial history--often a history that has been suppressed. And that history is what makes attics interesting.

Washington—Contractors installing ductwork in an attic found a suitcase containing the skeleton of a baby who apparently died more than 20 years ago.

[The police spokesman] said the blue suitcase appeared to be more than 30 years old. The skeleton which was wrapped in cloth, "appears to have been there quite a long time, in excess of 20 years," Eaves said. Police estimated that the baby was 1 or 2 months old at death.

The house was built in 1928 and was occupied by the same family until the mid-1990s. The last of four elderly sisters who lived there died in 1995 at the age of 102, and the house was sold five years ago

Houston Chronicle, Wednesday, February 17, 2001

In Suzanne Berne's A Perfect Arrangement (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Press, 2001), a pragmatic architect says "Attics are wasted space," but the family maid, with far more insight into human beings, responds, as I would: "Not psychologically."

A house with an attic seems to resonate for us with more meaning and significance than a house without one. Attics make us think of history, interesting artifacts, old toys, books, clothes, linens, jewelry, and other treasures—but, most of all, of deep, dark, and significant family secrets. It was in the attic of the house that I grew up in that, as a snooping teenager, I found the packet of letters from my mother to her first husband. Her FIRST husband. I had never dreamed that she had had but one husband--my father. And had I not ferreted out those letters, I probably still would not know. Then, that night, my father took me aside–I'm sure at my mother's urging–and confessed that he too had been married and divorced before he met my mother. Whether particular attics hide such secrets hardly matters. What matters is that psychologically we believe that they do. In fact, attics frequently house just the sort of information I unearthed–facts that one is too attached to to throw away, but which one very much wants to remain secret.

Before a discussion of attics can begin, it is essential to define what is meant by "attic" and to distinguish attics from upper rooms. Not all third floor spaces are attics, because many larger houses have and had third floor rooms that were normal living spaces, sometimeshaving bedrooms and sometimes having a huge, finished room used for balls and other parties. Such rooms were furnished, and comfortably habitable. Such is the case with a room that is often cited as an "attic" that incarcerates a "madwoman," the upper room in "The Yellow Wallpaper.'" But Gilman clearly defines it as an upper room: "a big, airy room, the whole floor nearly, windows that look all ways, and air and sunshine galore" (42). ). And in "To Room Nineteen," Lessing calls the room to which Susan Rawlings retreats, "[t]he spare room at the top of the house" and the Rawlngs family refers to it as "mother's Room" (pb 265). Neither Gilman nor Lessing ever refers to these habitable rooms as "attics."

The title of Gilbert and Guber's The Madwoman in the Attic has become so well known that the concept of there being many madwomen housed in attics has been taken for granted and reached almost the stature of myth. However, the only truly mad woman in an attic that Gilbert and Guber cite as evidence is Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre. The others they refer to (and they cite only three) are the garret nun and Madam Walravens in dusty Vilette. Maggie Tulliver in George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, and Cassy, in Uncle Tom's Cabin. None is mad.

A true attic is not a place of habitation, but a storage area, often dark and, and seldom visited.1 Such an attic is described in Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion. Leeland refers to this "drafty" space as "the motherin' attic" (601). Kesey describes it:

A small window at each end of the long room provided space and light enough to be a uilding site for spiders and a cemetery for flies; what light was left over strained through the little warped panes and sifted like soot from a chimney across an ominous array of boxes and chests and trunks, rough----hewn packing crates and ornate bureaus. A dozen or so orange crates were lined up on end. . . . About this array of larger objects . . . were gather incidentals like [a] Teddy bear . . . fifty years of paraphernalia, tricycles to tambourines, dressmaker's dummies to diaper pails, dolls, boots, books, Christmas ornaments . . ., and, over everything, dust and mouse manure by the bale. " (600). There's even a mouse hiding inside a stuffed owl (601)

This is a real attic–a quite different kind of space from an upper room. Similarly, the topmost room in the Tulliver house in George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss is a "great attic under the old high-pitched roof," with "worm-eaten floors," "worm-eaten shelves," and "dark rafters festooned with cobwebs," as well as a storage trunk. The garret of Simon Legree's house in Uncle Tom's Cabin is another classic attic: "a great, desolate space, dusty, hung with cobwebs, and littered with cast-off lumber" 2 (502). There are "imense packing boxes and "a small window . . . , which let in, through its dingy, dusty panes, , a scanty uncertain light on the tall, high-backed chairs and dusty tables" that are stored there (502). It is thought to be, as are many attics, "weird and ghostly" (502).

Also, in Isaac Bashevis Singer's "The Little Shoemakers," , "[t]he attic was stuffed with heirlooms–tables and chairs, cobbler's benches and lasts, whetstones and knives, old clothes, pots, pans, bedding, salting boards, cradles. . . . [and [s]acks full of torn prayer books" (45).

Almost everything that has been written and said about attic since Gilbert and Guber's tome The Madwoman in the Attic has accepted their thesis about attics. But in their book, they use the concept of the madwoman locked away banished to the attic as a metaphor for their thesis, that women writers were often isolated and treated with approbation. Such women, finding it physically and mentally impossible to do both, had to choose between living as wife and mother and writing. Bertha Mason Rochester, is their only example of what their readers have accepted as a given—that English and American fiction depicts many madwomen consigned to attics. In the other often-cited example of insane women in attics, the narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper" is housed in a third floor bedroom, not at attic. And although she is under much pressure from her husband, her sister-in-law, and her doctor to remain there, she is not locked in the attic but goes down occasionally to visit with guests. She also has a key (which only she uses, in the final scene, to lock herself in).

Attics can be distinguished from upper rooms on the basis of their functions. Upper rooms are places of human habitation—nearly always bedrooms. Attics are storage places—personal, familial, and even communal warehouses for memories, memorabilia, and memoirs. Attics house personal and familial history--often a history that has been suppressed. They house the facts, facts that have often been obliterated from public knowledge and public records; facts that often reveal deep, human, moral and life-changing truths. People conceal things in attics. Clearly what contributes much of the horror to readers of Jane Eyre is that an attic is in fact inhabited—that a human being is being forced to live in seclusion in a space perceived as uninhabitable

Family Memoirs, Family Secrets

Children do not seem to be able to resist prying about in attics and take in the surreptitious snooping process, whether it results in interesting information or not.

In The Christmas Box, a family finally learns why the elderly woman with whom they are living is so withdrawn and shuns their little girl. After the little girl prowls around the attic and learns that the woman's own little girl had died and left her heartbroken. This discovery provides the opportunity for the little girl to become friends the elderly woman and to enrich both of their lives. In The Man Without a Face, with Mel Gibson, the little boy explores the attic, expecting to find evidence of his tutor's licentious "secret" life, but finds instead a collection of mannequins which his tutor uses in his profession as a painter.

In Katherine Anne Porter's "Old Mortality, "the only touchstones the young girls have against which to test the highly romanticized stories their parent's generation tell about the past and their Aunt Amy are the artifacts stored in "the lumber room," a place to store furniture in the attic. There, the "[p]hotographs, portraits by inept painters . . .and the festival garments folded away in dried herbs and camphor were disappointing when the little girls tried to fit them to the living beings created in their minds by the breathing words of their elders" (175). And there, their grandmother would twice yearly sit nearly all of one day beside old trunks and boxes, . . . unfolding layers of garments and small keepsakes, . . . crying over certain things, . . .looking again at pictures in velvet cases, unwrapping locks of hair and dried flowers, crying gently and easily as if tears were the only pleasure she had left. (175)

But the artifacts that move their grandmother to tears do not seem "impressive" to the young girls because they were [s]uch dowdy little wreaths and necklaces, some of them made of pearly shells; such moth-eaten bunches of pink ostrich feathers for the hair; such clumsy big breast pins and bracelets of gold and colored enamel; such silly-looking combs, standing on tall teeth capped with seed pearls and French paste. (175)

To Miranda, "It seemed such a pity that these faded things, these yellowed long gloves and misshapen satin slippers, these broad ribbons cracking where they were fold, sould have been all thouse vanished girls had to decorate themselves with" (175).

The family insists on dwelling in and romanticizing the past. They refuse to admit, even to themselves, that Aunt Amy married Gabriel because she was already pregnant by another man and that she killed herself because she did not want to face the responsibilities of motherhood and adulthood. And they try to make the girls believe these myths. But what Miranda sees in the attic provides the first glimpse of reality. What she learns in the attic leads to an awareness that will enable her eventually to reject her family's insistences on dwelling in and romanticizing the past, and even as a young girl, Miranda concludes that these artifacts "seemed to have no place in the world" (193). When the girls heard their father say things like "[t]here were never any fat women in the family"–assertions that contradicted the facts–Miranda and Maria "simply wondered, without criticism, what he meant" (174). And when they met Aunt Amy's "handsome romantic beau," Gabriel and see him to be "a vast bulging [and graying] man with a red face," who is "a shabby fat man with bloodshot blue eyes . . . and a . . . laugh . . . like a groan" (197), fourteen-year-old Miranda , exclaims, "Oh, what did grown-up people mean when they talked anyway?" (197). It is in this attic that Miranda gains the first hints of all the truths that Miranda learns over the years about her family.

In A. S. Byatt's Possession, extremely significant family secrets are hidden in a garret that was once the bedroom of Christabell LaMotte, which is in a "wing that's been closed since 1918 and has no electricity. To get there one must ascend first "a stone staircase and then further up a winding wooden stair" (20). The entry to the room is a "little door [which] was heavily paneled and had a heavy latch." The room itself is a "dark, cramped circular space" with "a roof carved with veined arches and mock-medieval ivy-leaves, felt-textured with dust" (21). There, hidden in wooden box beneath the bed are the love letters of Randolf Ash and LaMotte–letters that document their adulterous affair, which produced an illegitimate child–the ancestor of one of the two protagonists of the novel, Maud Bailey. The letters provide much biographical information which throw new light on the couple's poetry. They also provide the clue that leads to the discovery of the correspondence between Mott and Ash, which had been buried with him.

In Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion , Leeland Stamper, who hates and is jealous of his more successful and popular older half-brother, finds in an old rolltop desk, artifacts attesting to Hank's success and popularity in high school: "a foxtail, and stacks of Christmas cards, an album of Glenn Miller 78s a cigarette smoked to the fading lipstick stain, a beer can, a locket, a shot glass, a dog tag, a service cap, and pictures, pictures, pictures. There is also a picture of "a sultry sixteen-year-old" who has written "across her white cashmere" sweater, "To Hank the Hunk; a gorgeous Hunk of male I hope to let clean out my car pocket once gain..Doree." Another girls hopes Hank would "see fit to be a little more friendly in the future with certain interested parties." And another admonishes him that interest in her "wouldn't get him nowhere so don't go getting any ideas—a letter she wouldn't have written unless she was pursuing Hank.

But Leeland's most devastating discovery is of the ongoing correspondence—and love—between his mother and his half-brother. There are scented love letters to Hank from Leeland's mother, Myra. One begins, "Dearest Hank" (620). Another says, "my dearest Hank I have no way of telling you . . . how much I missed your hands your lips and." It continues "can we ever see each other again[?]" She calls him sweetheart and makes it clear that she is only staying in the East until Leeland is grown and she can return to Hank, telling Hank "darling until . . .we can find that place alone in the sky" and signed, "all my love" (621).

Leeland finds the book of poems he had written in high school, which he had given to his mother and she had claimed she had lost at an automat--"the poems I had written and hand-printed meticulously . . . in the mail of my brother!" (621). Leeland's response is "He has no right she has no right with my poems!" Perhaps most infuriating of all is the discovery that his mother had regularly written Hank for money for Leeland's tuition, doctor bills, and insurance. As a result of his discoveries, Leeland "was almost beside myself with rage' (621).

Leeland's attic discoveries precipitate major changes in him. He manages to break through to new discoveries. He realizes that he must "win back the strength I had bartered away [for] years" in attempting to get love by appearing weak and needy (623) and that he must "win[ ] back the pride I had exchanged for [both his mother's and Vivian's] pity" (623). Consequently he realizes that he must join Hand in a perilous attempt to run logs down the river to the sawmill "even if we both drowned" because "I didn't want to spend another dozen years in his shadow, no matter how bit it loomed" (623).

Indiscretions, Sins, and Crimes

Often attics are the spaces in which people and families try to hide family crimes, sins, and indiscretions.

In Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian Gray keeps his portrait covered in a locked room that Gray had used "first as a play room . . . then as a study" 195 a room "at the top of the house" (194). It is there that he murders the painter of the work, Basil Hallward, after Hallward has seen the transformed portrait. (255-56). In that room, after the murder, the portrait sweats "loathsome red dew that gleamed, wet and glistening on one of the hands as though the canvas had sweated blood" (280).

Similarly, Frankenstein carries out the secret experiments that will produce the monster in an attic. It is "a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house and separated from the other apartments by a gallery and staircase" in which he keeps what he calls his "filthy creation" (36). ). Likewise, it is to the attic that Maggie Tulliver retreats to "fret out her ill-humours" and punish her Fetish doll "for all her [Maggie's] misfortunes" by driving nails into the doll's body (24).

Even in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre the crucial fact about the Rochester house's attic is not that it houses a pyromaniacal lunatic,3 but rather the secret that it hides—that the woman whom he incarcerates and hides there in is Rochester's wife, whose existence he denies in hopes of committing bigamy by marrying Jane Eyre. And both the access to and the space in which Bertha Mason is incarcerated are clearly appropriate to an attic. To get there Jane and Rochester had to "ascend[ ] the stairs." Then they "mounted the first staircase, passed up the gallery, proceeded to the third story." There they must go through a locked "low, black door" and enter a tapestried room. Behind one of the tapestries is a "second door." The room which houses Bertha Mason is "a room without a window'" –clearly an attic room (328).

In Elizabeth George's In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner," the renowned London surgeon Sir Adrian Beattie has created a "chamber" that is "up two flights of stairs" and "behind a locked door in the attic" in which he participates in S & M with prostitutes "up two flights of stairs" and behind a locked door in the attic" (379). The room's decor is "in part headmaster's office, operating theatre, dungeon, and mediaeval torture chamber" (379). In the cubboards are costumes which "ranged from a heavy wool nun's habit to a prison guard's uniform complete with truncheon" to "the more traditional garb...PVC get-ups of red or black, leather teddies and masks, high-heeled boots," and "the instruments of...[his] discipline, tidily arranged like the antique surgical instruments in the study" (380).

Although the commissary in William Faulkner's "The Bear," is not on the third floor, it shares many of the attributes most people associate with attics. It is, as Faulkner asserts, "not the heart perhaps but certainly the solar plexus of the repudiated and relinquished"l familial home of the McCaslin plantation 255). In it are

the old smells of cheese and meat and kerosene and harness, the ranked shelves of tobacco and overalls and bottled medicine and thread and plow-bolts, the barrels and kegs of flour and meal and molasses and nails, the wall pegs dependant with plowlines and plow-collars and hames and trace-chains, and the desk and the shelf above it on which rested the ledgers in which McCaslin recorded the slow outward trickle of food and supplies and equipment (255-56)

Ike finds in the commissary just the kind of storehouse of information one expects–or finds without wanting or expecting to--that one finds in an attic "the ledgers in their scarred cracked leather bindings." In them arethe yellowed pages and the brown thin ink in which was recorded the injustice and a little at least of its amelioration and restitution faded back forever into the anonymous communal original dust the yellowed pages scrawled in fading ink by the hand first of his grandfather and then of his father and uncle. (261-62)

One of the ugliest reports of events that took place in an attic comes not from fiction but from autobiography. As an adult Anais Nin records her memories of the attic in which her her father beat her and her brothers and sexually abused her as part of her punishment. Nin writes that her father was "fond of spanking" (Linotte, cited in Bair 17). As Deidre Bair writes, he then "devised a more extreme form of cruelty: locking up Rosa [his wife] first, then walloping the children." To do this he "made the children march up to the dark and frightening attic, paddling them as they mounted the stairs with a hairbrush, a cane, or the flat of his hand" on the boys, but always "the flat of his hand on his daughter." Nin herself wrote "I would do anything to keeping him from lifting my dress and beating me."4 Decades later, she writes of these experiences:

My father has taken me up to the little attic room to spank me. He takes my pants off. He begins to hit me with the palm of his hand. I feel his hand on me. But he stops hitting me and he caresses me. Then he sticks his penis into me, pretending to be beating me. (Bair 18)

Attic Hide Outs

Precisely because attics are not considered to habitable, they are ideal places for people to remain safely hidden, as is the case for Cassy in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, two characters in William Faulkner's Absolom! Absolom!, and for Bertha Mason Rochester in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.

In Uncle Tom's Cabin, Cassy, exploiting the legend that the ghost of a slave Legree had abused haunts the attic, by moving out of her upstairs room because she claims she hears ghosts in the attic, then setting a bottle near a knothole so that when a light wind blows it "the most doleful and lugubrious wails and sounds", an wounds "which, in a high wind, increased to a perfect shriek" which seemed t"t be that of horror and despair" (504), and then, after she and the young Emmeline "run away," they hide in the attic, in which they have prepared mattresses, candles, and books. They are safe from discovery there, because the garret is presumed to be uninhabitable by human beings but, instead, inhabited by ghosts. While Simon Legree searches the countryside looking for them, Cassy and Emmaline remain safely hidden in the garret.

In Abslom! Absolom!, two men hide out in the attic to avoid beinc captured by the law. Goodhue Coldfield first "nailed himself up in the attic to keep from being drafted into the Rebel army" and then chose to starve himself to death there (144). Then, Henry Sutpen hid for four years in the attic of the plantation house at Sutpen's Hundred after shooting his half-brother, Charles Bon. He tooe dies in the attic, when the house burns down.

Benevolent Memories

Occasionally, attics house benevolent family memories, an even family spirits, as they do in Isaac Bashevis Singer's "The Little Shoemaker." Abba loves "to climb up in the attic." When he was there, if he listened attentively he would hear a whispering, a murmuring and soft scraatching, as of some unseen creature enggaged in endless activity, conversing in an unearthly tougue. He was sure that the sould of his fore fathers kept wath over the house. (43)


It is clear that fiction writers make a clear delineation between attics and upper rooms. Upper rooms, on the other hand, are places where human beings reside and where they often work their way to new insights into themselves and discover new and different ways of living. Attics are places for things—letters, legal documents, artifacts, and photographs—that document personal and family history. The things residing in an attic do not change, but they may precipitate major changes in people who examine and learn from such history. What is learned in the attic determines the future of the character(s) and reconfigures the plot.


1. In questioning my friends about their "attic" experience, I've been saddened to be reminded that most houses built in the last few decades have no attics other then a minimal crawl space, and that their families, therefore, tend to save very little of familial and historical significance.

2. That it used to be common practice to store old lumber in attics may account for the fact that the term "lumber room" is occasionally used in place of "attic" or "garret." The OED specifies only that a lumbr room is a storage place for discarded furniture and things. And Gilbet and Gubar, use the term interchangeabely with the term attic (360, fn).

3. As such a lunatic, she seems a strange choice for Gilbert and Guber to have chosen of symbol for talented women writers. Such a reading of "The Yellow Wallpaper," of course, does make sense.

4. Early Diaries-2, 86, cited in Bair, 17.

Works Cited

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press, 1969. Trans of La poétique de l'espace. Presses Universitaires dueFrance., 1958.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Margaret Smith. London: Oxford UP, 1973.

Byatt, A. S. Possession. New York: Random House, 1990.

Capote, Truman. Other Voices, Other Rooms. New York: Random House, 1948.

——— . The Grass Harp. New York: Random House, 1951.

Eliot, George. The Mill on the Floss . E. Gordon Haight. Oxford: Carendon Press, 1980.

Faulkner, William Absolom, Absolom!. New YorK: Random House, 1936.

––– Go Down, Moses.

George, Elizabeth. In Pursuit of a Proper Sinner. New York: Bamtam, 1999.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic : The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Kesey, Ken. Sometimes a Great Notion. New York: Viking, 1964.

Porter, Katherine Anne. The Collected Stories of Kathering Anne Porter. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, l979.

Shelley, Mary.Frankenstein. Ed. Marilyn Buller.London: William Pickering, 1993.

Singer, Isaac Bashevis. The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1982.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin. Ed. Philip van Doren Stern. New York: Paul S. Eriksson, 1964.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray; For Love of the King. London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1993.