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

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 873

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...

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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 Gubar, Brontë’s most overtly and despairingly feminist work. The protagonist, Lucy Snowe, is, from beginning to end, outside society, without parents or friends, lacking physical or mental attractiveness, without wealth or confidence or health. Lucy creates a self against overwhelming odds and, as author of her self, mirrors Brontë’s creation of a literary self that subverts patriarchal art by sheer will. Lucy/Brontë moves from being a victim of objectification to imagining herself as subject, inviting the reader to experience the interiority of the other. For these reasons, Brontë is a powerful precursor (to use Bloom’s word) for women writers.

In part 5, which is dedicated to the life and fiction of George Eliot, the authors trace Eliot’s development of Charlotte Brontë’s double consciousness into a concern for female internalization of male values and the problematic role of women in a male-dominated culture. She is also, like Brontë, fascinated by the gothic, an element that is visible especially in “The Lifted Veil,” an early story that shows the curse of vision when no one will heed it. The veil is another attic, a wall of secrecy and imprisonment that confines and enrages the monster. Later works, including The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch, expand on these themes by creating female monsters of goodness, women who use their unavoidable suffering to “torpedo” the male plot.

The sixth and final section weaves the images from earlier parts into an analysis of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, particularly her use of sewing and weaving metaphors. Gilbert and Gubar argue that Dickinson’s life in the attic was her way of enacting female entrapment without being maddened by it. They also point to biographical and literary moments, however, to suggest that the choice of isolation enraged as well as freed the poet.

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