At the beginning of the long-awaited first volume of No Man’s Land: Volume I, The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar describe the problems they faced in producing a sequel to The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), their path-breaking study of nineteenth century women writers. “Comical colleagues ... insisted that it would be hard to construct ’Daughter of Madwoman’ or ’Madwoman Meets Abbott and Costello’ (or even ’Madwoman Meets the Lost Generation’),” Gilbert and Gubar recall in their preface. Their colleagues proved to be correct. As the study of British and American women writers progressed, it expanded into an investigation of works by men as well as by women, viewed in the social as well as the literary context of the last one hundred years. Eventually, the single-volume No Man’s Land that the collaborators had originally projected became three books, with volume 1, entitled The War of the Words, laying the groundwork for Sexchanges and Letters from the Front.
In Sexchanges, Gilbert and Gubar plan to examine some precursors of modernism, offering close readings of works by, among others, H. Rider Haggard, Olive Schreiner, Willa Cather, and Edith Wharton. In Letters from the Front, they will discuss works by such feminist modernists and postmodernists as Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, and H. D. The War of the Words is thus a transitional and pivotal book, broader and in some respects more complex than its predecessor and one infers, its successors. Written for an audience acquainted with literary history, this first volume of No Man’s Land draws on literary and nonliterary, canonical and noncanonical works to argue that the rise of the New Woman, the suffrage movement, and the increasing importance of women in the literary marketplace, far from being marginal historical events, have played major and previously overlooked roles in the development of modernist and postmodernist literature.
As the general title No Man’s Land and the titles of each volume suggest, Gilbert and Gubar use the motif of sexual warfare to present their sweeping revision of literary history. Throughout The War of the Words, literal and imaginary exchanges between such embattled pairs as Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes are made emblematic of larger, ongoing conflicts between women and men, conflicts that result from a “reaction-formation” on the part of male intellectuals to changes in the status of women in general and of literary women in particular. Reaction-formation, the label Sigmund Freud gave to ego-generated resistance against unacceptable pressures from the instincts—resistance that takes the form of anxiety—is one of many references to psychoanalytic theory that inform The War of the Words. Nevertheless, the orientation of The War of the Words is by no means narrowly or exclusively psychoanalytic; rather, Gilbert and Gubar use the tenets of several critical approaches, resting their analysis on the assumptions that “there is a knowable history” and that “texts are authored by people whose lives and minds are affected by the material conditions of that history,” especially gender.
Proceeding from these assumptions, the argument of The War of the Words, though at times complex, is never dogmatic. Supported throughout by elegant and ingenious readings of key texts, it is informed by the work of other scholars and theorists, and it is scrupulously documented. Like The Madwoman in the Attic, this volume features intriguing epigraphs and illustrations, including reproductions of paintings, posters, and cartoons. Best of all, Gilbert and Gubar’s collaborative method has produced prose that is filled with pleasures for eye and ear and that is, in a few remarkable passages, dense with puns, sometimes delightfully scandalous ones. This witty, allusive approach appropriately lightens the grim theme of warfare that unifies the book.
The motif of sexual battle extends to the structure of Gilbert and Gubar’s argument. The first of the volume’s five chapters deals with “The Men’s Case,” the second with “The Women’s Cause,” the third with “Modernism and Masculinism,” the fourth with “The Female Affiliation Complex,” the fifth with literary men’s and women’s relationships to language; thus, the chapters themselves represent alternations of fire between opposing camps. The collaborators begin chapter 1, “The Battle of the Sexes: The Men’s Case,” with a detailed comparison of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Princess (1847) and W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan’s Princess Ida: Or, Castle Adamant (1884), using these works to explore cultural debate about “the woman question” and to demonstrate growing hostility to women’s advances and achievements in the last half of the nineteenth century. While changes in the status of women have not always appeared on lists of...
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