Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces The Madwoman in the Attic Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1485

In keeping with the spirit of “re-vision” that Gilbert and Gubar see as essential to the worldview of nineteenth century women authors, The Madwoman in the Attic analyzes how these “outsiders” reformed the patriarchal house of literature they had inherited. The authors’ discussion of Jane Austen’s work notes the conflict...

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In keeping with the spirit of “re-vision” that Gilbert and Gubar see as essential to the worldview of nineteenth century women authors, The Madwoman in the Attic analyzes how these “outsiders” reformed the patriarchal house of literature they had inherited. The authors’ discussion of Jane Austen’s work notes the conflict between criticism of patriarchal domination and the desire to conform to the virtues of modesty and self-effacement considered fitting a female, particularly one who dared enter the male realm of authorship. Austen’s response to sentimental novels, upon whose heroines many young women modeled themselves, was Love and Friendship, a work written in 1789 which at once ridicules the extremes of exaggerated, melodramatic events and characters and yet portrays the personalities and daring of such heroines as preferable to the saccharine sterility and passivity of the well-bred young lady of the day. In such novels as Northanger Abbey (1818), Gilbert and Gubar see a tension in Austen’s uneasy acceptance, through parody, of an inherited masculine form of fiction that idealizes female passivity and silence.

In the writings of Austen and the other authors treated in this work, doubles act as more than mere foils to heroines; they allow for female authors to express their ambivalence about patriarchal customs and their own place as writers within a misogynist literary tradition. “Jane Austen’s Cover Story (and Its Secret Agents)” explores Austen’s later work, showing how she reveals this duality within her own nature in the characters of her novels. In Sense and Sensibility (1811), for example, Marianne Dashwood’s emotionalism is almost flatteringly portrayed as the lively imagination of the Romantic poet. Her sister Elinor, while the model of sense and self-restraint, is not purely appealing for an author such as Austen, whose art comes, after all, from verbal expression, not from silence.

Austen can use negative characters to express her dissatisfaction with the status quo, for, as Gilbert and Gubar point out, “mad matriarchs . . . reflect her discomfort with the glass coffin of female submission.” Authorship and art provide an escape not allowed to standard model heroines, entrapped in silence. Austen finds the voice closest to her own in such characters as Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, and Anne Elliot, who express themselves, yet who avoid the extremes of self-destructive acquiescence or the vulgarity and thoughtlessness of speaking too brashly.

In “Milton’s Bogey: Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers,” Gilbert and Gubar discuss possible meanings of Woolf’s phrase “Milton’s bogey,” particularly in reference to Milton’s portrayal of Eve. They argue that Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley (1849), in which Eve is a Promethean Titan, is an indirect critique of John Milton’s portrayal of a relatively submissive Eve. According to Gilbert and Gubar, Eve is identified with Satan, not only in a negative sense but in a positive one as well, in the light of the tradition of Romantic heroism. Like the Byronic hero, both Satan and Eve question hierarchical authority and limitation, seeking autonomy and enlightenment. Unlike the male imaginings of this relationship, however, the authors note the tendency of some female authors not only to identify with but also to feel a sexual attraction for the satanic figure and to view this male as a sadistic father, all simultaneously. In this complex association resides the threat of death and annihilation as a result of incestuous breeding; herein lies the bogey for the female artist.

This description leads naturally into a discussion of the effects of Milton’s bogey in “Horror’s Twin: Mary Shelley’s Monstrous Eve.” Beginning with an analysis of how Dorothea’s and Casaubon’s relationship in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-1872) echoes Milton’s relationship with his daughters, the chapter points out how, like Dorothea, many female authors envision an apparent submission to the literary father combined with secret study and mastery.

Another famous Romantic rereading of Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) is Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), in which the roles of God, Adam, and Satan are all, suggest Gilbert and Gubar, subsumed by the spirit of Eve, whose desire for self-knowledge, definitions, and origins echoes the motives for each of the characters at various times throughout the novel. The figure most strongly identified with Eve, however, is the monster, who has no notion of his origins, who bitterly protests his exclusion from Victor-Adam’s privileged relationship with not only God but human society as well. Gilbert and Gubar point out the biographical and psychological connections between this motherless figure and Mary Shelley herself, who, having lost her mother at birth, would continue throughout her lifetime to search for her literary and emotional roots.

The authors associate this quest for roots with Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847), connecting Bronte with Shelley in some startling yet convincing ways. The self-conscious evidentiary form of the two novels is one respect in which the two works resemble each other; more important, however, is the two authors’ obsession with the question of origins:Thus if all women writers, metaphorical orphans in patriarchal culture, seek literary answers to the questions “How are we fal’n,/ Fal’n by mistaken rules . . . ?” motherless orphans like Mary Shelley and Emily Bronte almost seem to seek literal answers to that question, so passionately do their novels enact distinctive female literary obsessions.

While the connections are striking, they often take a mirror form, for if Shelley represents the obedient daughter of Milton, Bronte is the rebellious one. Shelley’s work, which on the surface seems to be inhabited primarily by male figures and philosophical concerns, seems to contrast sharply with Bronte’s, dominated as it is by strong female figures and an absence of overt references to the Miltonic literary shadow. Nevertheless, in its focus on concepts of Heaven and Hell, of falling from grace, of operating within a framework of no real choice, the work creates a rebellious revision of Milton’s Satan, Adam, and Eve.

Another tale of orphaned protagonists, Charlotte Bronte’s The Professor (1857), also examines a woman’s “fall.” The themes of entrapment, orphanhood, and starvation burst into flames in Jane Eyre (1847), a work that Gilbert and Gubar describe as “permeated by angry, Angrian fantasies of escape-into-wholeness.” The mad wife, Bertha, closeted in the attic, gives vent to Jane’s anguish, while at the same time demonstrating how women are not allowed to behave. Jane comes to view herself as just as much a monster as Bertha in her wounding of Rochester. In her mad orphaned wanderings, she almost turns to the ascetic renunciation of a life with “St. John”—what would be tantamount to spiritual death in the glass coffin of fairy tales. Gilbert and Gubar see her turning to the “marriage of true minds at Ferndean” as carrying a gleam of true hope, although limited and isolated.

In Shirley, Bronte returns once again to the more confusing and confused position of her juvenilia, in a “happy” ending that calls for female submission. Yet Gilbert and Gubar describe Villette (1853) as the “most overtly and despairingly feminist novel.” Associated with Bronte’s own hopeless attachment to M. Heger, a married Brussels schoolteacher, Villette may be viewed as her attempt to reconcile herself to her loveless situation. Following the distinctively female treatment of such themes as imprisonment, escape, isolation, starvation, and search for an acceptable female identity, the work ends inconclusively. Gilbert and Gubar note Bronte’s lasting power as a novelist, and they identify her refusal to reject the passivity of her heroines as a way of advising women not to become like their male oppressors.

In order to demonstrate that George Eliot also partakes of a distinctively female tradition, Gilbert and Gubar analyze extensively the short, relatively little-known story, “The Lifted Veil.” In this work, Eliot presents the imagery of confinement, an interest in extrasensory perception, criticism of male literary conventions, and a sense of connection with other women writers. In this work she departs from her usual tendency to cast herself as narrator in an impersonal, essentially masculine role. The authors also note that in Middlemarch is found yet another pairing, similar to those in other women writers’ works, with Dorothea playing the figure of the Virgin Mary and Rosamond as “Eliot’s most important study of female rebellion.” Suspicious of Romantic tradition, Eliot corresponded with and admired such authors as Margaret Fuller and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who “managed to depict the possibility of women enacting their rage without becoming consumed by it.”

The final section, perhaps the most problematic, deals with Emily Dickinson. Here, Gilbert and Gubar argue that Dickinson, a skilled poseur, reflects feminist concerns in her repeated images of sewing and weaving. Her personal and poetic eccentricities were means of rebelling against the constraints of her sex, and her isolation was a choice of inspiration, not compelled by sentimentality or madness. In essence, Dickinson, rather than create a madwoman character, as many sister novelists did, decided to pose as the isolated madwoman in the attic.

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Masterpieces of Women's Literature The Madwoman in the Attic Analysis