Sandra M. Gilbert was born Sandra Mortola in New York City, where she was raised by her parents, Angela (Caruso) Mortola and Alexis Joseph Mortola. She married Elliot Lewis Gilbert on December 1, 1957, and both went on to distinguished careers as English professors and scholars. The couple had three children: Katherine, Roger, and Susanna. Gilbert graduated with a B.A. in English literature from Cornell University in 1957. She earned an M.A. from New York University in 1961 and a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1968. Universities at which she has taught include Stanford, Princeton, Indiana, and the University of California at Davis (UC Davis).
Gilbert is a proponent of feminist literary criticism. This diverse school of criticism is characterized by a number of goals, including recovering forgotten or lost works of literature by women, analyzing female characters, and examining literature written by women for common threads and connections, while considering each author’s social, political, and economic situation. Gilbert was a major force in bringing feminist literary criticism to the forefront of the American academic community during the 1970’s.
Gilbert is perhaps best known for her collaborations with fellow professor Susan Gubar, whom she met at Indiana University, where they taught a course in 1974 on female literary tradition. Their first collaboration was a highly influential book of essays titled The Madwoman in the Attic. This collection was hailed as a groundbreaking study of female literary tradition in the nineteenth century, as seen through the lens of feminism. It opens with a detailed critique of male-centered and misogynistic theories of poetic creation. The central image of this group of essays is Bertha Mason, the madwoman in the attic in Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre, who attacks her brother, attempts to stab and burn her husband, and ultimately burns down the house that has served as her prison. The authors argue that even Brontë and other nineteenth century writers who were overtly concerned with women’s rights were frustrated by women’s status in society and so created images in their poetry and fiction of rage and violence directed at patriarchal institutions. Gilbert and Gubar’s book was a runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize and for the...
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