The Madwoman in the Attic Masterpieces of Women's Literature The Madwoman in the Attic Analysis
by Sandra Ellen Mortola, Susan Gubar

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

The first chapter of the discussion of Jane Austen—“Shut Up in Prose: Gender and Genre in Jane Austen’s Juvenilia”—begins by showing how the reception of the author shows both her double bind as a woman writer and her analysis of the situations in which her heroines find themselves. In Northanger Abbey, for example, Austen plays with the conventions of the gothic novel to show Catherine Morland’s maturation process and to critique a society that gives no room in which a woman can write her own story. The “evil” that Catherine must overcome is thus both her failure to submit to reality and the reality itself. “Jane Austen’s Cover Story (and Its Secret Agents)” shows how the adult novels expand this double bind of growing up female. Austen’s heroines must surrender self-definition to achieve self-knowledge, because what they come to know is their vulnerability.

To lay the groundwork for their discussion of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Gilbert and Gubar show the influence of Milton’s misogynistic mythology on women writers, especially when Milton comes in the guise of the wise father. The influence takes one of two forms: The writer either accepts and rewrites the myth or rewrites it to make it a more accurate reflection of female experience. Shelley chose the first alternative. As the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, she is consciously literary in writing Frankenstein, replaying Miltonic themes and images to show her place in the literary tradition. As Eve’s daughter, however, she cannot escape identification with the monster: Both are motherless, fallen before they are conceived, judged by their otherness, and excluded from a direct relationship with God.

Emily Brontë chose the rebellious alternative to Milton’s influence in Wuthering Heights and thus created a romance of metaphysical passion instead of a fantasy of metaphysical horror. In both approaches, however, Gilbert and Gubar find a shared authorial fascination with origins, abandonment, and exile. In both, the authors seek to solve the problem of good and evil, heaven and hell, in a world where nothing is as it seems to be. Finally, the monster of both—female in situation—is a victim rather than a victimizer of “civilization.”

Charlotte Brontë tried to bury her early fascination with Miltonic themes, elaborately disguising her rebellion against misogynistic myths in “realistic” stories. From The Professor through Villette, she oscillated between nightmare and parable, Byron and Goethe. Her heroines seem to be passionless, proper, and submissive, but they harbor monstrous ambition and a desperate hunger for freedom. In the chapter “A Dialogue of Self and Soul: Plain Jane’s Progress,” Gilbert and Gubar look at this doubleness in Jane Eyre, a novel whose rage at female confinement, orphanhood, and starvation shocked the Victorians. Bertha Mason, the “madwoman in the attic,” represents the rebellious Jane—imprisoned by passion and society. While Jane escapes this extreme, she must also reject the submissive extreme before she can be united with Rochester, her reward for achieving wholeness.

The wish fulfillment of Jane Eyre disguises itself in Shirley, a novel about the real tribulation of women: economic dependence on men. The myths justify this inequity, but seeing through them does not enable one to end the exploitation. Repudiating the fairytale, Brontë is left with no alternative, because the problem of female strength and survival is not subject to change.

Villette is, according to Gilbert and...

(The entire section is 873 words.)