The Madwoman in the Attic

by Sandra Ellen Mortola, Susan Gubar

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar was first published in 1979. It gained immediate acclaim and has since become a landmark work of feminist literary criticism, so much so that a second, updated edition appeared in 2000, over twenty years after its original publication.

The Madwoman in the Attic takes its title from the iconic early-Victorian novel Jane Eyre. In this novel, Rochester's first wife, Bertha Mason, has gone mad and is kept locked in the attic of their marital home. Because Bertha Mason Rochester was a wealthy Creole woman from Jamaica, she represents a sort of monstrous "other," who acts as a foil to the virtuous and traditionally-English protagonist, Jane: Bertha is passionate, exotic, and mad, traits demonized both by the novelist and the characters of the novel. In Gilbert and Gubar's survey of Victorian female novelists and the portrayal of women in Victorian literature, they consider Bertha to be a prototypical exemplar of the "woman as monster" and use her treatment as a schematic tool to decoding the Victorian imagination of women as either "angels" or "monsters." Among the major authors considered in the book are Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot.

Gilbert and Gubar argue that, within the patriarchal environment of Victorian England, women struggled to create an identity as authors. They experienced what Gilbert and Gubar term the "Anxiety of Authorship," which refers to female authors' lack of literary companionship. Many of the women writing in this era felt alone in the pursuit of their craft, almost as if they were the first to do so. As such, their work often lingers in conventional settings to achieve widespread approval. However, just beneath the surface of these seemingly mundane narratives lurks subversive, feminist meaning obscured by female authors fearful of limiting their work. 

This hidden meaning regularly appeared in their characterization of women, who were often bifurcated into two extremes: "the angel in the house" (who was traditionally "good," meaning submissive and virtuous) and the "madwoman in the attic" (the image of woman's suppressed anger, rage, and power). Neither of these two emblems of femininity, though, are whole or complete women. Many novels by women paired female characters together, each representing half of the emotional range—with the monstrous woman often channeling the author's genuine anger at patriarchal oppression. Female characters written by female authors embody the rift in women's image of themselves and others; their authenticity was condemned while their performative, external veil received praise. This bleak social reality finds footing in their literature, though such works do not always paint a perfect picture of the struggles Victorian women faced. 

Indeed, Gilbert and Gubar's work allows the lived experience of many contemporary women to slip through the gaps. The authors and works they surveyed occupy a similar social niche, and as such, their findings are limited to this privileged scope. Indeed, more recent scholars consider the analysis presented in the book oversimplified and even somewhat reductionist. It has been criticized for its focus on a very limited canon of white, often wealthy, female authors, its exclusion of entire novelistic genres, its blatant refusal to speak on contemporary writers such as M. E. Braddon or Anna Laetitia Barbauld, and its failure to accurately discuss the experiences of middle- to lower-class women. Despite these criticisms, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination remains a landmark in feminist literary criticism.

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