The Madwoman in the Attic Essay - Critical Essays

Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces The Madwoman in the Attic Analysis

In keeping with the spirit of “re-vision” that Gilbert and Gubar see as essential to the worldview of nineteenth century women authors, The Madwoman in the Attic analyzes how these “outsiders” reformed the patriarchal house of literature they had inherited. The authors’ discussion of Jane Austen’s work notes the conflict between criticism of patriarchal domination and the desire to conform to the virtues of modesty and self-effacement considered fitting a female, particularly one who dared enter the male realm of authorship. Austen’s response to sentimental novels, upon whose heroines many young women modeled themselves, was Love and Friendship, a work written in 1789 which at once ridicules the extremes of exaggerated, melodramatic events and characters and yet portrays the personalities and daring of such heroines as preferable to the saccharine sterility and passivity of the well-bred young lady of the day. In such novels as Northanger Abbey (1818), Gilbert and Gubar see a tension in Austen’s uneasy acceptance, through parody, of an inherited masculine form of fiction that idealizes female passivity and silence.

In the writings of Austen and the other authors treated in this work, doubles act as more than mere foils to heroines; they allow for female authors to express their ambivalence about patriarchal customs and their own place as writers within a misogynist literary tradition. “Jane Austen’s Cover Story (and Its Secret Agents)” explores Austen’s later work, showing how she reveals this duality within her own nature in the characters of her novels. In Sense and Sensibility (1811), for example, Marianne Dashwood’s emotionalism is almost flatteringly portrayed as the lively imagination of the Romantic poet. Her sister Elinor, while the model of sense and self-restraint, is not purely appealing for an author such as Austen, whose art comes, after all, from verbal expression, not from silence.

Austen can use negative characters to express her dissatisfaction with the status quo, for, as Gilbert and Gubar point out, “mad matriarchs . . . reflect her discomfort with the glass coffin of female submission.” Authorship and art provide an escape not allowed to standard model heroines, entrapped in silence. Austen finds the voice closest to her own in such characters as Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, and Anne Elliot, who express themselves, yet who avoid the extremes of self-destructive acquiescence or the vulgarity and thoughtlessness of speaking too brashly.

In “Milton’s Bogey: Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers,” Gilbert and Gubar discuss possible meanings of Woolf’s phrase “Milton’s bogey,” particularly in reference to Milton’s portrayal of Eve. They argue that Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley (1849), in which Eve is a Promethean Titan, is an indirect critique of John Milton’s portrayal of a relatively submissive Eve. According to Gilbert and Gubar, Eve is identified with Satan, not only in a negative sense but in a positive one as well, in the light of the tradition of Romantic heroism. Like the Byronic hero, both Satan and Eve question hierarchical authority and limitation, seeking autonomy and enlightenment. Unlike the male imaginings of this relationship, however, the authors note the tendency of some female authors not only to identify with but also to feel a sexual attraction for the satanic figure and to view this male as a sadistic father, all simultaneously. In this complex association resides the threat of death and annihilation as a result of incestuous breeding; herein lies the bogey for the female...

(The entire section is 1485 words.)