Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Madwoman in the Attic attempts to study Victorian literature from a feminist point of view. The 1979 work takes up several nineteenth-century female authors to determine how women wrote and appeared in literature. As the title indicates, this study takes inspiration from Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, using Bertha, a madwoman kept captive in her husband's attic, as a center point.
Bertha Mason, a wealthy Creole woman who has seemingly lost her mind, acts as the villain of Jane Eyre. However, contemporary readings suggest that perhaps Bertha was neither mad nor villainous; her imprisonment was merely the result of her Creole background, willful nature, and failure to abide by English standards of female performance. Although her husband, Edward Rochester, is more than willing to paint her as a demented, manipulative creature, readers realize that perhaps there is more to her story than meets the eye. Gilbert and Gubar feel similarly and use Bertha's circumstances as an extended metaphor for how nineteenth-century female writers and characters faced their environment. In their view, women were either "angels" or "monsters" who either chose or refused to conform to expectations.
Jane Eyre, Bertha's mousier counterpart, fills the other half of the "angel-monster" equation. She struggles to advocate for herself and readily conforms to the roles expected of her. After Bertha's death, Jane inherits some of her demeanor, becoming self-possessed and assured. By the end of the novel, the two women have spiraled into a singular form, embodying the nuanced authenticity of women as complex, multidimensional people. Gilbert and Gubar use Brontë's characters as an extended metaphor for recurring traits and tropes of nineteenth-century literature and to indicate the subversive undercurrent of these early feminist novels.
The Madwoman in the Attic uses a selection of female authors writing from the nineteenth century on to discuss the facts and features of women's literary work, including:
Mary Elizabeth Coleridge
The great-grandniece of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose work appears as Gilbert and Gubar muse over the difficulties that present themselves to women who wish to take up the pen. Coleridge's poem "The Other Side of the Mirror" serves as an analogy for feminist writers desirous of shaking off male constructs of an ideal woman.
Gilbert and Gubar reference English author Virginia Woolf and her belief that women who intend to write must first get rid of images and ideals that male-dominated society has foisted on them. Her argument overtly references Brontë's, reminding readers that women are neither angels nor monsters. Woolf wondered about the persistent references in Victorian literature to women being very sweet and nice. These likely originated in the ecclesiastical writings of the Middle Ages that eulogized the Virgin Mary.
Mary Shelley's well-documented preoccupation with pregnancy, following the death of a prematurely born child, is cited as an example of how the womb is often a central motif in the works of female authors. The creature in Shelley's novel Frankenstein is not born of the womb and is bereft of maternal guidance. Victorian society considered the woman in a mother's role as central to the development of a well-adjusted child.