Susan Gubar Essay - Critical Essays

Gubar, Susan


Susan Gubar 1944-

(Full name Susan David Gubar) American editor and literary critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Gubar's career through 2000.

A distinguished professor of English at Indiana University, Gubar is a leading feminist literary critic who has principally and frequently collaborated with Sandra Gilbert, another esteemed critic and professor, to produce innovative works of criticism revealing the characteristics of a distinctly female literary tradition and style. The pair co-edited The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), which literary scholars worldwide have acknowledged as a seminal work of American feminist studies. With accessible prose and intelligent argumentation, this groundbreaking work challenges the authority of the Western literary canon on the basis of its nearly complete exclusion of women writers, introducing as well the idea of “anxiety of authorship” as a fundamental condition of women writers, particularly those of the nineteenth century. Gubar and Gilbert have also jointly edited the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1985), which is the first collection to gather a varied range of women's writings in English from the fourteenth century to the present. Besides co-authoring other feminist studies and an original satirical piece with Gilbert, Gubar has produced literary criticism with other scholars and has also published two studies as an individual author, Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture (1997) and Critical Condition: Feminism at the Turn of the Century (2000). While critics have generally hailed The Madwoman in the Attic as a landmark work of both feminist studies and literary scholarship, the study has also provoked hostility from some scholars who have denounced its middle-class, white, heterosexual perspective. Such critical responses to this and subsequent works by Gubar and Gilbert have promoted the growth of an increasingly diversified body of scholarship on women's literary experiences.

Biographical Information

Born in 1944, Gubar attended Queens College of the City University of New York, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1965. She received a master's degree from the University of Michigan in 1968 and a doctorate from the University of Iowa in 1972. The following year Gubar joined the English faculty at Indiana University, where she met and quickly befriended Gilbert. Together, they launched their successful collaborative venture in feminist studies with the publication of Shakespeare's Sisters (1979), a collection of critical essays on women poets written from a decidedly feminist viewpoint. That same year, Gubar and Gilbert published the critically acclaimed work that catapulted them to national prominence, The Madwoman in the Attic, which received a nomination for the National Book Critics Award for outstanding book criticism in 1979. As critical debate about their ideas escalated during the early 1980s, academic publishers W. W. Norton & Company approached Gubar and Gilbert with a project idea that resulted in The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, for which Gubar was named Woman of the Year in 1986 by Ms. magazine. Gubar next collaborated with Gilbert on the ambitious three-volume study No Man's Land (1988, 1989, 1994), which defines literary modernism in terms of gender warfare for possession of literary authority. Meanwhile, Gubar co-edited with other scholars the essay collections For Adult Users Only (1989) and English Inside and Out (1992), which deal with violence in pornography and the place of women literary critics within the largely male-dominated discipline, respectively. In 1995, Gubar and Gilbert published Masterpiece Theatre, a satire on university life, and Mothersongs, a collection of poetry written by, for, and about mothers and motherhood. Since then, Gubar has authored two books on her own, Racechanges, a critical examination of cross-racial and transsexual imagery in various media, and Critical Condition, a collection of essays evaluating the status of feminist studies at the turn of twentieth century. Gubar has continued to teach English at Indiana University and to lecture extensively, frequently accompanied by Gilbert.

Major Works

A study of women writers in the nineteenth century, The Madwoman in the Attic describes several key developments in the history of women's writing. Through close biographical and textual readings of the works of female novelists—ranging from Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, and Mary Shelley to George Eliot and Emily Dickinson—this work traces the evolution of a distinctly feminine narrative style that developed in reaction to the male-dominated literary discourse that prevailed at the time in which these authors wrote. According to the study's thesis, because nineteenth-century women writers were forced to write within limits dictated by a patriarchal literary tradition that equated the pen with the penis, women writers were largely viewed as trespassers in a male domain and either condemned as unfeminine or ridiculed as “lady novelists” and “female poetasters.” Gubar and Gilbert argue that women writers grew both afraid that they lacked the ability to express themselves artistically and angry that pervasive patriarchal attitudes toward women trapped them in such a position. In short, The Madwoman in the Attic demonstrates that by channeling those emotions and experiences into language, nineteenth-century women writers developed not only a uniquely feminine style, but also a language that subverts patriarchal ideology. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (Gubar and Gilbert's next work) is an encyclopedic collection of writings by women in English, chronologically arranged from the fourteenth century to the mid-1980s, including selections by minority, working-class, commonwealth, and lesbian women. The introduction to this volume reiterates the existence of a female literary tradition, while the selected works detail the evolution of female styles and subjects within that tradition. No Man's Land, a three-volume collaborative effort with Gilbert, posits that the radical departures that characterize modernism originate not only from social, political, and economic factors but also from gender or sexual conflicts. This work thematically outlines the further evolution of women's literature from the late Victorian period through contemporary times by arguing that the tenets of literary modernism were designed to advance patriarchal attitudes in reaction to increasing numbers of published female authors in the early part of the twentieth century. Comprised of volumes titled The War of the Words (1988), Sexchanges (1989), and Letters from the Front (1994), this series addresses such themes as the violence against women's efforts to subvert patriarchal culture, the influence of imperialism, the suffrage movement, and the significance of the shift in feminist literary techniques between the 1930s and 1990s. Racechanges, Gubar's first book-length solo work, examines the importance of cross-cultural identification between whites and blacks in matters of authorship and creativity, adapting techniques that explore the influence of gender in literary arts to racial dimensions of writing. A reflection of as much as an assessment of the contemporary status of feminist literary thought, the essays collected in Critical Conditions concern a range of conflicts and divisions spawned by the academic discipline of feminist studies itself, from its infancy in the early 1980s through the next generation.

Critical Reception

When The Madwoman in the Attic appeared in 1979, the field of feminist studies as an academic discipline was yet to be recognized in the American university curriculum. Many critics concede that Gubar and Gilbert's pioneering work of literary criticism has not only contributed to that discipline but has also spurred the establishment of and defined the parameters for feminist scholarship as a viable academic pursuit in the United States. Hailed as a breakthrough in literary studies, The Madwoman in the Attic is widely regarded as a touchstone in the study of the female literary imagination. Some critics, however, have qualified their praise for The Madwoman in the Attic. A few have objected to many of its assertions, claiming that they are premised upon reductive, distorted, anachronistic, or ideologically-driven readings of certain texts; others have detected a specifically white, middle-class, heterosexual bias throughout the work. Similarly, some critics have faulted Gubar and Gilbert's work in The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women for a perceptible preference for modern and contemporary writers. Others have suggested that the pair bent their scholarship to political ends and that they chose works fitting their theories rather than the best works representing particular authors. Although minority groups are well represented in the volume, some critics complained that the collection's scarcity of pre-eighteenth-century writers tends to emphasize the accomplishments of professional authors at the expense of other forms of female literary expression, such as letters and diaries. However, most scholars have applauded Gubar and Gilbert's efforts in The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, widely referring to the collection as a gauge for evaluating women writers's literary achievements within a written tradition, but also citing it as evidence of an earlier literary feminism. A majority of literary scholars have agreed that Gubar and Gilbert's body of criticism has cast a new light on literature by showing thematic and stylistic affinities between the works of female writers from similar and dissimilar cultures and eras. Likewise, many feminist critics have credited the pair with inspiring the proliferation of feminist scholarship—both pro and con—during the closing decades of the twentieth century, particularly owing to Gubar and Gilbert's insistence that women's writings constitute a distinct tradition that traces a matrilineal evolution of language at odds with a dominant patriarchal culture. Since the publication of The War of Words, however, critics have become more and more stringent in their assessments of Gubar's collaborations with Gilbert.

Principal Works

Shakespeare's Sisters [editor, with Sandra M. Gilbert] (criticism) 1979

The Madwoman in the Attic: A Study of Women and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination [with Gilbert] (criticism) 1979

The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English [editor, with Gilbert] (criticism) 1985

No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth-Century, Volume 1: The War of the Words [with Gilbert] (criticism) 1988

For Adult Users Only: The Dilemma of Violent Pornography [editor with Joan Hoff] (criticism) 1989

No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the...

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Carolyn G. Heilbrun (essay date 25 November 1979)

SOURCE: “The Return of the Repressed,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 9, No. 16, November 25, 1979, pp. 4, 6.

[In the following essay, Heilbrun praises The Madwoman in the Attic as a major work of feminist critical theory.]

The pens of authorship have not only been, until the 19th century, entirely in the hands of men: the pen has also been male, a part of the male anatomy. Women could possess it only as a monstrosity. With the beginning of the 19th century, this attitude, taken less obviously for granted, began to be stated: Gerard Manly Hopkins called the artist's creative gift a male gift, a male quality. Jane Austen, Anthony Burgess latterly...

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Rosemary Dinnage (essay date 20 December 1979)

SOURCE: “Re-creating Eve,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. XXVI, No. 20, December 20, 1979, pp. 6, 8.

[In the following essay, Dinnage agrees with Gubar and Gilbert's views regarding the frustrations of nineteenth-century women as authors, but nevertheless asserts that they “insensitively” force “nineteenth-century attitudes into twentieth-century molds.”]

Women's situation, Charlotte Brontë wrote, involves “evils—deep-rooted in the foundation of the social system—which no efforts of ours can touch: of which we cannot complain; of which it is advisable not too often to think.” Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's closely argued interpretation of...

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Nina Auerbach (essay date Summer 1980)

SOURCE: “The Madwoman in the Attic,” in Victorian Studies, Vol. 23, No. 4, Summer, 1980, pp. 505–07.

[In the following essay, Auerbach commends Guber and Gilbert's “liberated” readings of nineteenth-century women writers in The Madwoman in the Attic.]

Feminist criticism seemed to spring alive in the 1970s when Kate Millett's Sexual Politics smashed into patriarchal myths about womanhood; it is fitting that The Madwoman in the Attic should finish out the decade by recomposing this mythology in feminist terms. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's rich compendium of the images, fears, and dreams of power that haunted nineteenth-century woman writers...

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Patricia Meyer Spacks (essay date Winter 1980)

SOURCE: “New Questions,” in Yale Review, Vol. 69, No. 2, Winter, 1980, pp. 266–70.

[In the following essay, Meyer Spacks appreciates the boldness and importance of Gubar and Gilbert's feminist readings of literature, however she argues that the dogmatism of their ideological commitment causes them to distort the literature they interpret in The Madwoman in the Attic.]

New questions generate new answers, new focus refracts new light. Sometimes ideology provides the crucial focus: Marxism, psychoanalysis, structuralism, now feminism. Feminist criticism has flourished with increasing vitality in the last decade, demonstrating ever more surely its validity as a mode...

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Rosemary Ashton (essay date 8 August 1980)

SOURCE: “The Strongly Female Tradition,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4,037, August 8, 1980, p. 901.

[In the following essay, Ashton argues that the feminist thesis in The Madwoman in the Attic is unconvincing.]

“Is a pen a metaphorical penis?” ask the authors of this study [The Madwoman in the Attic]. If it is, “with what organ can females generate texts?” Both questions are put rhetorically. Indeed, how could they be answered without exposing the paradox at the basis of the “feminist poetics” the authors wish to construct? On the one hand, they aim to show how women have been cabined, cribbed, confined, kept “mute” in a...

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Annette Kolodny (review date March 1980)

SOURCE: A review of The Madwoman in the Attic, in American Literature, Vol. 52, No. 1, March, 1980, pp. 128–32.

[In the following review, Kolodny praises The Madwoman in the Attic for opening up a new way to read women writers, but regrets that the authors, despite their fine chapter on Emily Dickinson, do not distinguish between British and American conditions of authorship for women.]

Following upon a richly detailed anatomy of the ways in which women in general have found themselves “enclosed in the architecture of an overwhelmingly male-dominated society,” and would-be women writers, in particular, have discovered themselves “constricted and...

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Valerie Miner (essay date 11 February 1980)

SOURCE: “Those Proper Ladies Writing in the Attic,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 72, No. 54, February 11, 1980, p. B12.

[In the following review, Miner praises The Madwoman in the Attic for “uncovering a discernible female imagination.”]

The grand success of this study is that it stimulates us to re-read those books by proper ladies from the 19th century. As Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar reconsider each work, they introduce us to The Madwoman in the Attic, the author's double, hiding in the seams of her writing, reflecting her anxiety and rage.

Gilbert and Gubar shatter the images of Jane Austen as the timid parlor...

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Phoebe Pettingell (essay date 25 February 1980)

SOURCE: “A Prey to Madness,” in New Leader, Vol LXIII, No. 4, February 25, 1980, pp. 16–17.

[In the following essay, Pettingell expresses ambivalence towards The Madwoman in the Attic, seeing it as intelligently insightful but marred by “questionable theorizing,” and “simplistic” feminist “jargon.”]

What nightmare inspired a quiet teenage mother to create Frankenstein? Was it necessary for the Brontë sisters and Mary Ann Evans to publish under masculine pseudonyms? Why did Emily Dickinson choose to immure herself in her parents’ house all her life and write poems in secret, when she might have exercised her vivacious talents on the...

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Louise Bernikow (review date February 1980)

SOURCE: A review of The Madwoman in the Attic, in Ms., Vol. 8, No. 8, February, 1980, p. 39.

[In the following review, Bernikow admires the way Gubar and Gilbert support their arguments in The Madwoman in the Attic.]

[The Madwoman in the Attic] is long, rich, and brilliant. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, their voices blended, the seams mended, write as one, and that one sees deeply into literature. They shed light on the relationship between 19th-century women living imprisoned in men's houses and female writers of the time imprisoned in masculine texts. They look closely, anatomizing the work of Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, and Emily...

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Margaret Miller (review date 1981)

SOURCE: “Angels and Monsters of Feminist Fiction,” in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 57, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 358–61.

[In the following review, Miller contends that in The Madwoman in the Attic Gubar and Gilbert are more successful when applying their theories to certain authors, such as Charlotte Bronte, than when they critique George Eliot or Jane Austen.]

It is unquestionably true that Madwoman in the Attic is an ambitious and substantial work of criticism and scholarship. It offers important feminist rereadings of many of the major texts by women writers in the 19th century. In it, Gilbert and Gubar demonstrate an impressive command not...

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Penny Boumelha (review date August 1982)

SOURCE: A review of The Madwoman in the Attic, in Review of English Studies, Vol. 33, No. 131, August, 1982, pp. 345–47.

[In the following excerpt, Boumelha stresses Harold Bloom's methodological influence on The Madwoman in the Attic.]

… [In The Madwoman in the Attic,] Gilbert and Gubar take their methodological point of departure from Harold Bloom's parables of the anxiety of influence—a theory which has on occasion been attacked as patriarchal, but which they commend for making central and explicit the male dominance of Western literary history that is naturalized and allowed to remain unspoken in most other accounts. The Madwoman in the...

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David Porter (essay date March 1984)

SOURCE: “Dickinson's Readers,” in New England Quarterly, Vol. 57, No. 1, March, 1984, pp. 106–10.

[In the following excerpt, Porter discusses The Madwoman in the Attic in an essay reviewing feminist reading strategies used to interpret Emily Dickinson's poetry.]

Seven recent studies of Emily Dickinson seek the crucial thing that is missing from her life and work: a center that will finally arrest the freeplay of inference about the poet's reclusive existence and her large aggregation of brief poems. All but two of these critical works approach Dickinson from an acute feminist angle. The remaining two attempt to find coherence in the manuscript books that...

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Phyllis Rose (essay date August 1985)

SOURCE: “Women Writers and Feminist Critics,” in Atlantic, Vol. 256, No. 2, August, 1985, pp. 88–91.

[In the following essay, Rose praises Gubar and Gilbert's literary analyses in The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, but is concerned about the effect of establishing a female literary canonon on future women writers.]

At more than 2,000 pages and over two pounds, [The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women] is not in any sense to be taken lightly. Intended as a textbook for courses in women's literature, it is likely to be widely used, because of the prestige of its editors, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in the field of women's studies,...

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Laura Shapiro with Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (interview date January 1986)

SOURCE: “Gilbert and Gubar,” in Ms. Magazine, Vol. 14, No. 7, January, 1986, p. 59.

[In the following interview by Shapiro, Gubar and Gilbert discuss their work together, and the strategies they used in compiling The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women.]

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar met in an elevator 13 years ago, and by the time it arrived at the fourth floor, an extraordinary partnership had gotten off the ground as well. Gilbert, professor of English at Princeton, and Gubar, professor of English at Indiana University, have collaborated on some of the most invigorating work to date in a field they helped to establish: the study of literature by women....

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Denis Donoghue (essay date 10 March 1986)

SOURCE: “A Criticism of One's Own,” in New Republic, Vol. 194, No. 10, March 10, 1986, pp. 30–4.

[In the following essay, Donoghue examines several feminist critics, and observes that feminist criticism is often reductionist and politically motivated. Donoghue maintains that The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women adversely affects feminist criticism because of Gubar and Gilbert's selection of works in the collection.]

I have been reading a good deal of feminist criticism and scholarship. Not all of it—I am sure to have missed many books and essays I should have read. But I have made an attempt to see what has been happening in feminist criticism...

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Elizabeth Boyd Thompson (review date Winter 1988)

SOURCE: A review of No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth-Century, Volume 1: The War of the Words, in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 34, No. 4, Winter, 1988, pp. 747–49.

[In the following review, Thompson writes that Volume one of No Man's Land lacks intellectual rigor and a “solid theoretical basis.”]

The publicity sheet accompanying the review copy of No Man's Land quotes Joyce Carol Oates, Carolyn Heilbrun, Elaine Showalter, and J. Hillis Miller in fulsome praise of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's sequel to The Madwoman in the Attic. Oates calls No Man's Land “fast, funny, profound in its theoretical...

(The entire section is 589 words.)

Julie Abraham (review date 2 July 1988)

SOURCE: “Modern Romancers,” in Nation, Vol. 247, No. 1, July 2, 1988, pp. 27–8.

[In the following review of No Man's Land: The War of the Words, Abraham objects to Gubar and Gilbert's attempts to validate women's literature by placing it in the mainstream of twentieth-century critical categories.]

Feminist literary criticism can still be a marginal enterprise in an intellectual universe that also contains William Bennett, Allan Bloom and Gertrude Himmelfarb. But in the almost twenty years since Kate Millett's Sexual Politics helped to inaugurate the field, feminist criticism has also prospered: It now has its own establishment, its own mainstream...

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Jenny Turner (essay date 1 April 1988)

SOURCE: “Very Much Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” in New Statesman, Vol. 115, No. 2975, April 1, 1988, pp. 24–5.

[In the following essay, Turner examines the literary and social contexts of the gender conflict presented in No Man's Land: The War of the Words.]

Hitting London in 1908, Ezra Pound looked forward to a career of ramming imagism's “phallic direction” right into the city's “great passive vulva.”

His good friend William Carlos William's long poem “Paterson” was padded out and/or enriched with letters quoted verbatim, without permission, from Marcia Nardi, an ex-lover and herself a fine but struggling poet. These letters refer...

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Anne Herrmann (review date Fall 1989)

SOURCE: A review of No Man's Land, Volume 1: The War of the Words and No Man's Land, Volume 2: Sexchanges, in Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts, Vol. 31, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 507–12.

[In the following review of volumes one and two of No Man's LandThe War of the Words and Sexchanges—Herrmann argues that Gubar and Gilbert have “abandoned” the notion of the separate literary tradition for women, which they had offered in The Madwoman in the Attic, and devalue lesbian writers, especially Gertrude Stein.]

I remember walking down a tree-lined street in New Haven, between the library and a small, set-back...

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Elizabeth Boyd Thompson (review date Winter 1989)

SOURCE: A review of No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth-Century, Volume 2: Sexchanges in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 35, No. 4, Winter 1989, pp. 867–68.

[In the following excerpt, Boyd calls Sexchanges—volume two of No Man's Land—a better book than the series' first volume, The War of the Words; but holds that Sexchanges is still full of unexamined assumptions.]

According to Carolyn Heilbrun, “No Man's Land challenges the very basis of interpretation for a whole period. The study of modernism will never be the same.” I hope she is right. For although I often doubt the success of Sandra M....

(The entire section is 663 words.)

Kathleen Blake (review date July 1989)

SOURCE: A review of No Man's Land: The War of the Words, in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 88, No. 3, July, 1989, pp. 454–57.

[In the following review of the first volume of No Man's Land, Blake contends Gubar and Gilbert ought more strongly to have stressed their argument that patriarchal forms are not embedded in language.]

Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar have followed up their Madwoman in the Attic with a “Daughter of Madwoman” as powerful as its progenitor. No Man's Land is the first volume in a projected three-volume series. It gives the grounding and grand scheme of literary history that recasts Modernism and...

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Terry Castle (essay date 2 June 1989)

SOURCE: “Pursuing the Amazonian Dream,” in Times Literary Supplement, June 2, 1989, pp. 607–08.

[In the following essay, Castle discusses Sexchanges, and reviews Gubar and Gilbert's argument that men's deaths have sparked women's creativity.]

In Sexchanges, the latest instalment of No Man's Land, their ambitious multi-volume study of woman writers of the twentieth century, the feminist critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar edge, not without anxiety, towards a disturbing yet suggestive theory of the female imagination: that women's creativity is unleashed, if not powerfully excited, by the deaths of men. Describing the tremendous outpouring...

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Celia Patterson (review date Spring 1989)

SOURCE: A review of No Man's Land, Volume 2: Sexchanges, in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 128–30.

[In the following review of Sexchanges, Patterson explores Gubar and Gilbert's emphasis on World War I as a cause and metaphor for the sexual struggle between men and women at the beginning of the twentieth century.]

Sexchanges explores revisions of gender that occurred in society and were reflected in literature from the 1880s through the 1930s. As in their first volume (1988), in volume two Gilbert and Gubar continue to associate sexual difference with sexual antagonism, although they focus here on the...

(The entire section is 941 words.)

Pamela L. Caughie (essay date Spring 1989)

SOURCE: “The (En)gendering of Literary History,” in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring 1989, pp. 111–20.

[In the following essay, Caughie contrasts Gubar and Gilbert's The War of Words—which explains modernism as a male reaction against the appearance of women writers—with Michael H. Levinson's A Genealogy of Modernism: A Study of English Literary Doctrine 1908–1922.]

Engender: 1. Of the male parent: To beget; “Thanne sholde he take a yong wyf and a feir / On which he myghte engendre hym an heir” (The Merchant's Tale, 28–29); 2. Of the female parent: To conceive, bear; “O Error, soon...

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Elizabeth Rosdeitcher with Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (interview date 1989)

SOURCE: “An Interview with Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar,” in Critical Texts: A Review of Theory and Criticism, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1989, pp. 17–38.

[In the following interview conducted by Rosdeitcher, Gubar and Gilbert discuss a variety of topics such as their work, women writers, feminist criticism, their critics, and their writing partnership.]

[Rosdeitcher:] I'd like to begin with a discussion of The Madwoman in the Attic, which has come to be regarded as one of the founding texts of American feminist criticism. What did you feel were the most pressing issues it raised at the time of its publication?

[Gubar:] Well,...

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Katherine Fishburn (review date Spring 1989)

SOURCE: A review of No Man's Land, Volume 1: The War of the Words, in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 104–07.

[In the following review, Fishburn praises Gubar and Gilbert for their explication of modernism in The War of the Words, the first volume in their No Man's Land series.]

What was modernism anyway? What were its origins? What distinguishes the work of the female modernists from that of the male modernists? These are the basic questions underlying volume one of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's projected three-volume series No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth-Century. In this...

(The entire section is 2636 words.)

Katherine Fishburn (review date Winter 1990)

SOURCE: A review of No Man's Land, Volume 2: Sexchanges, in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 22, No. 4, Winter 1990, pp. 472–76.

[In the following review, Fishburn praises Sexchanges for the vastness of the authors' scholarship, and the depth and originality of their insights. Fishburn argues, however, that the book is intellectually flat.]

In this, [Sexchanges] the second volume of their projected three-volume series No Man's Land, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar resume their ambitiously comprehensive re-visioning of modernism. As they did in the previous volume, The War of the Words (1988), Gilbert and Gubar work here from the premise...

(The entire section is 2599 words.)

Chandra Mukerji (review date July 1990)

SOURCE: “The Fate of Women Writers,” in Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 19, No. 4, July, 1990, pp. 511–13.

[In the following review, Mukerji discusses the theoretical propositions of volumes one and two of No Man's Land by discussing the two works in relation to Gaye Tuchman's book Edging Women Out.]

There are two quite distinct traditions of feminist studies, one in the social sciences and the other in the humanities. The former looks at women in the world, acting, thinking, and responding to a social and natural environment dominated by males. The latter looks at human cultural forms, from literature and film to scientific epistemology, to consider gender...

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Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (review date September 1990)

SOURCE: A review of No Man's Land, Volume 1: The War of Words, in English Language Notes, Vol. 28, No. 1, September, 1990, pp. 73–7.

[In the following review of The War of Words, Sedgwick praises Gubar and Gilbert's discussion of conflicts between women, but faults the writers for apparent homophobic slips regarding men.]

In his nightclub act, Michael Feinstein has a rather strange song about what happens when women stick together:

Shall we join the ladies?
I mean really join the ladies
And make one great big lady? Whaddaya say—Queen Kong!(1)

Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (who, whatever the pleasures of their...

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Helen Carr (review date 7 October 1994)

SOURCE: “Battle Stations,” in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 7, No. 323, October 7, 1994, pp. 45–6.

[In the following review of the three volumes of No Man's Land, Carr faults Gilbert and Gubar for reductionist and strained readings of the texts they present.]

The phrase “No Man's Land” is a curiously negative and undecided image for women's writing. For the most striking characteristic of a No Man's Land is surely emptiness. Yet if the 1,200 odd pages in the three volumes of this account were to prove nothing else, they make clear that the 20th century is full of women writers.

Gibert and Gubar, both senior US academics, themselves...

(The entire section is 776 words.)

Ann Ardis (review date Fall 1995)

SOURCE: A review of No Man's Land, Volume 3: Letters from the Front, in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 14, No. 2, Fall, 1995, pp. 366–69.

[In the following excerpt, Ardis praises Letters from the Front, but objects to its scanty coverage of the Harlem Renaissance and of black writers in general.]

. … As Gillian Beer has noted, the third and final volume of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth-Century is disappointingly anglocentric.1 Because both [Michael A.] North and [Laura] Doyle argue so convincingly for the historical inseparability of white modernism and the...

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Roberta Rubenstein (essay date Spring 1995)

SOURCE: “Altering the Critical Landscape,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 30–31.

[In the following essay surveying Gubar and Gilbert's work in The Madwoman in the Attic and the three volumes of No Man's Land, Rubenstein lauds the studies, calling them a “landmark of feminist literary criticism.”]

Sometimes it seems as if Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have read every significant text of fiction, poetry, and drama (as well as a few less significant ones) authored by a woman. In their ambitious and influential project of reconsidering the literary writing of women over two centuries, Gilbert and Gubar have fundamentally...

(The entire section is 1412 words.)

Kathleen Blake (review date October 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Sexchanges, in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 94, No. 4, October, 1995, pp. 591–96.

[In the following review, Blake examines the role of the femme fatale in Sexchanges.]

The second volume of this three-volume project confirms the distinction, authority, and style of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar as commentators on British and American literature of the twentieth century, and the role of women in shaping it. This major study of modernism worthily follows Gilbert and Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic and The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, which have made so large a difference in our...

(The entire section is 2813 words.)

Elaine Showalter (review date 14 June 1996)

SOURCE: “Miss Marple at the MLA,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4,863, June 14, 1996, p. 9.

[In the following review, Showalter praises the satire of Masterpiece Theatre, but finds much of it already dated.]

I was in the audience in 1989 when Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar gave a dramatic reading of Act One of their literary satire, Masterpiece Theatre, at the Modern Language Association's annual conference. Their spirited performance was rapturously received by a ball-room full of professors and graduate students, battered by attacks from the Right and grateful for a few minutes of laughter in the gruelling four-day professional marathon. The...

(The entire section is 826 words.)

Kathleen Blake (review date April 1996)

SOURCE: A review of No Man's Land, Volume 3: Letters from the Front, in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 95, No. 2, April, 1996, pp. 269–71.

[In the following review of Letters from the Front, the third volume of No Man's Land, Blake commends the monumental scope of the collection.]

After reviewing the prior two volumes of No Man's Land the reviewer reaches number three, impressed but tired after close to 1,200 pages of Gilbert and Gubar's critical coverage. Volume 3 is not only monumentally piled on top of Volumes 1 and 2 but on top of the earlier big book The Madwoman in the Attic on nineteenth-century women's...

(The entire section is 1263 words.)

Gayle Pemberton (review date 13 July 1997)

SOURCE: “Minstrels and their Masks,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 27, No. 28, July 13, 1997, p. 4.

[In the following review, Pemberton praises Gubar's Racechanges as a work which contributes to the ability to “envision a post-racist society.”]

Anyone looking for an easy application of Susan Gubar's findings in Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture can travel to a white high school. Look at the dress, hairstyles, hear the music and a considerable amount of slang, watch the high-fives and other gestures of the students to discover racechanges, or whites passing as blacks. Racechanging is “meant to suggest the traversing of...

(The entire section is 837 words.)

Suzanne Juhasz (review date Winter 1997)

SOURCE: A review of No Man's Land, Volume 3: Letters from the Front, in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 22, No. 2, Winter, 1997, p. 458.

[In the following review, Juhasz discusses Letters from the Front, volume three of No Man's Land, and comments on the “constructed” nature of gender in the study of literature.]

Letters from the Front is the conclusion to Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's ambitious and wide-ranging three-volume study of the place of the woman writer in the twentieth century, itself a sequel to their landmark work on the woman writer in the nineteenth century, The Madwoman in the Attic. (1)...

(The entire section is 1002 words.)

Gwen Bergner (review date Winter 1998)

SOURCE: A review of Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture, in Modern Fiction Studies, No. 4, Winter, 1998, pp. 1073–75.

[In the following review, Bergner appreciates the broad scope and ethical concern of Racechanges.]

Comprehensive in scope, Susan Gubar's Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture explores the psychological and ideological implications of cross-racial mimicry in twentieth-century culture. This wide-ranging study of film, literature, and visual arts examines an impressively large number of artifacts that are by now standard objects of cultural studies of race in America, including films such as The...

(The entire section is 759 words.)

Anne Stavney (review date Spring 1999)

SOURCE: A review of Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture, in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1999, pp. 124–25.

[In the following review, Stavney lauds Racechanges as a useful study examining the ideas of “whiteness” and “blackness” in American culture.]

In Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture, Susan Gubar examines instances of cross-racial mimicry and mutability in twentieth-century film, literature, journalism, painting, photography, and plastic art. Asserting the centrality of what she terms “racechange” to modern and postmodern American culture, Gubar maintains that...

(The entire section is 870 words.)

Scott Heller (essay date 17 December 1999)

SOURCE: “The Book That Created a Canon: Madwoman in the Attic Turns 20,” in Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. 46, December 17, 1999, p. A20.

[In the following essay marking the twentieth anniversary of the publication of The Madwoman in the Attic, Heller reviews the history of the book's influence on students, teachers, and scholarship.]

The story of feminist literary criticism can be told through the fortunes of The Madwoman in the Attic, the classic argument for a women's literary tradition by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar.

Upon its publication in 1979, the big, ambitious volume, subtitled The Woman Writer and the...

(The entire section is 2179 words.)

Susan E. Rogers (review date August 1999)

SOURCE: A review of Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 33, No. 2, August 1999, pp. 368–69.

[In the following review, Rogers lauds the seriousness of Gubar's approach to her subject in Racechanges.]

From Fred Astaire and Virginia Woolf in black face to Josephine Baker in black face and Dick Gregory in white face; from Whoopi Goldberg in a milk bath to a Pears soap advert depicting a black child's skin washed milk-white; and from Man Ray's photograph Noire et Blanche (1926) to Jean-Paul Darriau's sculpture Red, Blond, Black and Olive (1980) the pictorial images in Susan Gubar's...

(The entire section is 489 words.)

Maureen T. Reddy (essay date June 2000)

SOURCE: “A Critic's Work Is Never Done,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 9, June, 2000, p. 17.

[In the following review of Critical Conditions, Reddy pays tribute to Gubar's pioneering feminist criticism.]

Retrospectively, we can all trace epochs in our lives, moments when everything changed. It is more difficult to recognize those moments in the present tense; but I remember knowing I was living through such an epoch-change in my own life in 1979 as I read Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's co-authored The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. I was a beginning graduate student in English,...

(The entire section is 1668 words.)

Lorna Sage (essay date 17 March 2000)

SOURCE: “Learning New Titles,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 5,059, March 17, 2000, p. 26.

[In the following essay, Sage praises Critical Conditions and Gubar's ability to remain committed to explicating the varieties of feminist criticism which have developed since the publication of The Madwoman in the Attic.]

Recent statistics in the United States have apparently revealed that fewer women are being murdered by their husbands, not because there's less misogyny abroad but because there's less marriage. This is a good example of the way in which there have been enormous changes in the patterns of people's lives, which seem only loosely or mockingly...

(The entire section is 1073 words.)

Dana D. Nelson (review date Spring 2000)

SOURCE: A review of Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture, in Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 25, No. 3, Spring, 2000, p. 912.

[In the following review, Nelson suggests that Racechanges is weakened because its conceptualization of race is “ahistorical and transcultural.”]

Susan Gubar prefaces her book Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture with an unsettling catalog of examples drawn from middle-class, mostly academic whites’ “confessions” to habitual modes of blackface minstrelsy. They range from secret imitations of Stepin Fetchit to jive-talking by dog-owners, practices that whites save...

(The entire section is 684 words.)

K. Anthony Appiah (essay date 27 April 2000)

SOURCE: “Battle of the Bien-Pensant,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. 47, No. 7, April 27, 2000, p. 42.

[In the following essay, Appiah discusses the tensions and divisions among academic feminist theorists as they are reflected in Critical Conditions.]


Academic moralism is one of the oldest traditions of the university, which began, after all, as an ecclesiastical institution whose students were mostly destined to be members of the clergy. In the early part of the twentieth century, the ethical voice in the American university was to be heard from the philosophy department as well as the divinity school, both of which were...

(The entire section is 3720 words.)

Further Reading


Beer, Gillian. “Dispersed As We Are.” Times Literary Supplement, No. 4,813 (30 June 1995): 6–7.

Beer praises the “prodigious achievement” of the three volumes of No Man's Land, but notes several shortcomings in the works of method, style, and scope.

Frank, Katherine. A review of The Madwoman in the Attic, by Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert. Philological Quarterly 59, No. 3 (Summer, 1980) 381–83.

Frank calls The Madwoman in the Attic indispensable, and asserts that the book will reform the way audiences will read women authors.

Norris, Margot. A review of...

(The entire section is 158 words.)