In The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar explore 19th Century literature by women from a feminist perspective. The book is a lengthy text that examines many literary works and theories. However, two major themes include female writers' search for identity and the binary view of female characters as either angels or monsters.
THe book describes how writing has traditionally been viewed as a male profession. Some of the most famous writers, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, equated the act of writing with male sexual function, referring to creativity as a "spermatic aura." This philosophy left no room for women writers who did not possess the same anatomy.
Gilbert and Gubar explain the challenges of being a female writer in the 19th Century when gender roles were extremely restrictive. Very few women published poetry or novels that were taken seriously. A woman could either engage in the kind of writing that was accepted within the female domestic sphere, such as diary writing, or she could model her writing after that of male authors. In the latter case, she would often be criticized for being unfeminine or when praised, would be labelled an atypical female who surpassed the normal level of skill of her sex. For these reasons, women often needed to publish under a male pen name. Thus their identity as writers was fractured and incomplete.
Gilbert and Gubar describe Harold Bloom's theory, the "anxiety of influence," which states that writers have to symbolically kill their literary fathers, learning from previous writers but ultimately creating something that is entirely their own. Women, however, have few or no literary mothers, and the relationship between mother and daughter is not one of violent struggle but support and kinship. Female writers today face the challenge of recovering the writing of the women who came before them and giving it the critical attention it was once denied.
The title of the book refers to the character of Bertha in the novel Jane Eyre, who is kept in the attic because she is insane. Gilbert and Gubar point out that female characters can only fill one of the two roles in literature. Some are "angels," that is, personifications of domestic ideals who conduct polite conversation in the parlor. Others are "monsters," that is, women who are insane, deformed, criminal, or who generally behave badly and must be imprisoned or in some way marginalized. This is another way of saying that women can be either virgins or whores, nothing in between. The authors argue that we must explore both extremes fully if we are to transcend these restrictive boundaries.