The Madwoman in the Attic (Women's Issues (Ready Reference series))
In the preface to their book, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar note that their study began with a course in literature by women that they had taught together at Indiana University in 1974. During that course, as they read the writings of women such as Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath, they were surprised by recurring patterns in literature by women who produced their works independent of one another and who were also distanced from one another geographically, historically, and psychologically. Despite distances, these writers shared a sense of literal and figurative confinement. Trapped within a male-dominated society, they struggled with an internal rage against their confinement and with a complexity of anxieties they inherited as a result of their confinement. They dealt with these tensions by creating a metaphor; they created their own double, a “madwoman in the attic.”
Having identified this metaphor, Gilbert and Gubar set out to explore its presence in the work of nineteenth century, mostly British female writers, including Austen, Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, and George Eliot. The only American writer who is explored extensively is Emily Dickinson, a woman whose life and career were dramatic embodiments of the madwoman in the attic. Studied together, these writers offer a treasure trove of ideas about the pressures exerted on female artists not only of the nineteenth...
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The Madwoman in the Attic (Magill's Literary Annual 1980)
The Madwoman in the Attic is not light reading in any sense of the word. Its 650 pages of thoroughly researched, intricately argued literary theory and analysis demand close and constant attention from the reader. However, neither its length nor its complexity should be allowed to deter the student of literature from reading it through, for it is one of the most detailed, substantial, and provocative considerations of the special problems of women writers yet published. It should immediately take its place beside such works as Ellen Moers’s Literary Women, Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own, and Patricia Meyer Spacks’s The Female Imagination as an indispensable resource for the study of nineteenth century fiction and poetry.
Authors Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have attempted to discover and describe the assumptions nineteenth century women writers had about themselves as human beings and as artists and to see how these assumptions affected the content and style of their works. Essential to the self-image of the woman writer, they suggest, was the “patriarchal theory of literature” that connected literary production with male sexuality and thereby implicitly denied to women the possibility of creating significant works. They further argue that in addition to barring the way to women through theory, the patriarchy also blocked them through the images of women presented in its literature. The female...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Nonfiction Series)
Growing out of a course in women’s literature taught by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar at Indiana University, The Madwoman in the Attic traces the development of a distinctively female response to the male-dominated literary tradition of nineteenth century England. Based on Harold Bloom’s assertion that literary history is a tale of powerful action and reaction, the work first establishes the standard ways in which women are depicted, defined, and confined in the male literary tradition. Gilbert and Gubar then go on to distinguish the female tradition and literary response from that of their male counterparts.
Beginning with Jane Austen’s juvenilia and mature works, The Madwoman in the Attic follows a roughly chronological pattern to analyze in depth the themes, strategies, and social and literary backgrounds of other novelists including Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, and George Eliot. A less extensive discussion of the female poetic tradition, including Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, precedes the concluding analysis of Emily Dickinson’s work. The volume is divided into six parts that delineate strands of the tradition of real and fictional women in literature, from the viewpoint of both male and female authors.
Calling on a wide background, from classical and biblical sources to fairy tales, from traditional literary critics to psychoanalytic and archetypal theorists,...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination began as a course on British and American women writers team-taught by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar at Indiana University in 1974. These two feminist scholars found, in teaching such writers as Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Emily Dickinson, that the works of these authors shared, to a great extent, themes and images, despite the fact that they were created in different places at different times. Based on this revelation, they developed a definition of a female literary tradition, the existence of which had often been intuited by readers but which had never been thoroughly researched. The central image of this definition proved to be confinement, both literal and literary, and the authors in the tradition shared an impulse to seek freedom by subverting patriarchal definitions of self, art, and society. Using close readings and many secondary sources, Gilbert and Gubar implemented the methodology of Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, a study of male authors based on the premise that literary history involves strong action and inevitable reaction. They also applied the techniques of critics such as J. Hillis Miller in showing the intersection of experience and metaphor.
The text, which is as collaborative as the teaching that produced it, is divided into six jointly or individually written parts: “Towards a Feminist...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Since its publication in 1979, The Madwoman in the Attic has given critics new strategies and issues to consider in reading women writers. Their encyclopedic array of primary and secondary material gives Gilbert and Gubar’s argument great authority. While the texts they analyze do not receive equal attention, the writers’ tracing of parallel images and themes creates an impressively coherent argument, especially given the length of the book (719 pages). Some critics have noted that the same images and themes can be traced in male authors, but no one has yet pursued the research necessary to make that case. The fact that The Madwoman in the Attic is scholarship begun in the classroom and based on female conversation is evident in its readability and its practical use of literary theory.
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Bibliography (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Abel, Elizabeth, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland, eds. The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1983. A collection of essays on the female Bildungsroman, or novel of development. Interesting considerations of the relationship between gender and development in nineteenth and twentieth century British women writers.
Auerbach, Nina. Romantic Imprisonment: Women and Other Glorified Outcasts. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. A collection of essays that examine many of the same authors and issues analyzed in The Madwoman in the Attic. Auerbach’s interpretations are characteristically provocative.
Homans, Margaret. Bearing the Word. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. An analysis of nineteenth century women writers that uses Lacanian psychology to draw relationships between the maternal and language.
Pratt, Annis. Archetypal Patterns in Women’s Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981. Pratt argues that women’s fiction should be read as an interrelated field of texts reflecting feminine archetypes in conflict with patriarchal culture.
Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton...
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