The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar is considered a landmark in the history of feminist criticism of nineteenth-century women's writing. It takes its title from Bertha, Rochester's insane wife who is kept locked up in an attic in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre. The main authors covered in the book are Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson.
The first thing that Gilbert and Gubar note is that as women lacked authority in the period, they struggled to claim their own identities as authors. For Gilbert and Gubar, Victorian images of women were strongly bifurcated between the angelic and the monstrous, with the angelic being passive and domesticated. They note that women are often portrayed as confined or imprisoned in the literature of the period, and morally good women were often portrayed as passive or submissive. For women to break outside confinement and submissiveness, and take an active role, such as becoming an author, was to participate in the monstrous side of this binary opposition.
Gilbert and Gubar argue that the madwoman and the submissive woman portrayed in Victorian literature articulate the two subject positions of the woman author, as the idealized submissive female and the madwoman or monster who steps outside social conventions to become a creator of art and independent agent.