The Madwoman in the Attic

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

The Work

In the preface to their book, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar note that their study began with a course in literature by women that they had taught together at Indiana University in 1974. During that course, as they read the writings of women such as Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath, they were surprised by recurring patterns in literature by women who produced their works independent of one another and who were also distanced from one another geographically, historically, and psychologically. Despite distances, these writers shared a sense of literal and figurative confinement. Trapped within a male-dominated society, they struggled with an internal rage against their confinement and with a complexity of anxieties they inherited as a result of their confinement. They dealt with these tensions by creating a metaphor; they created their own double, a “madwoman in the attic.”

Having identified this metaphor, Gilbert and Gubar set out to explore its presence in the work of nineteenth century, mostly British female writers, including Austen, Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, and George Eliot. The only American writer who is explored extensively is Emily Dickinson, a woman whose life and career were dramatic embodiments of the madwoman in the attic. Studied together, these writers offer a treasure trove of ideas about the pressures exerted on female artists not only of the nineteenth century but of previous and perhaps subsequent centuries.

Among these pressures is the fundamental problem that faced nineteenth century female writers: the notion that an author fathers his text similar to the way God fathered the world. This kind of patriarchal theology created, in turn, a patriarchal literary theory that posited what Gilbert and Gubar refer to as “a belief in female literary sterility.” Women who attempted to challenge this belief, who asserted their authority as legitimate writers, were considered suspect members of their gender, overreachers who, like Eve, deserved to be punished for their sin of ambition.

To deal with this dilemma, female writers in the nineteenth century engaged in complicated, subversive strategies, most notably the use of doubletalk and the creation of doubles who act out the authors’ guilt, rage, and anger. Some writers, notably Charlotte Brontë, did this by creating a double such as Bertha Mason, the insane wife of Rochester who lives locked in the attic of Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). Jane is Brontë’s double or stand-in, and mad Bertha is the double of both the author and her main character. Subversively, then, Brontë lashed out against the male- dominated culture that expected proper ladies to...

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The Madwoman in the Attic

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

The Madwoman in the Attic is not light reading in any sense of the word. Its 650 pages of thoroughly researched, intricately argued literary theory and analysis demand close and constant attention from the reader. However, neither its length nor its complexity should be allowed to deter the student of literature from reading it through, for it is one of the most detailed, substantial, and provocative considerations of the special problems of women writers yet published. It should immediately take its place beside such works as Ellen Moers’s Literary Women, Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own, and Patricia Meyer Spacks’s The Female Imagination as an indispensable resource for the study of nineteenth century fiction and poetry.

Authors Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have attempted to discover and describe the assumptions nineteenth century women writers had about themselves as human beings and as artists and to see how these assumptions affected the content and style of their works. Essential to the self-image of the woman writer, they suggest, was the “patriarchal theory of literature” that connected literary production with male sexuality and thereby implicitly denied to women the possibility of creating significant works. They further argue that in addition to barring the way to women through theory, the patriarchy also blocked them through the images of women presented in its literature. The female characters in men’s works fall predominantly into two categories, the angel and the monster, seen most vividly in their archetypal forms in “Little Snow White.” The “good” woman is Snow White, innocent, beautiful, passive, “dead and self-less in her glass coffin . . . an object, to be dead and desired.” Her antithesis is the wicked stepmother, the “mad, self-assertive Queen,” author of plots, initiator of action, who is condemned as a result of her actions and plots to dance herself to death in shoes of red-hot iron.

The nineteenth century woman writer, then, had only two choices: to identify herself with the passive, submissive, often death-linked heroines idealized by the patriarchs (the prelapsarian Eve, Amelia Sedley, Coventry Patmore’s “The Angel In the House,” and Little Nell) or to ally herself with the monsters who asserted themselves (Becky Sharp, Satan and Sin, Goneril, Regan, and Lady Macbeth). Such a choice, to be angelic and therefore silent, or articulate and thereby monstrous, inevitably produced in the would-be women writers what Gilbert and Gubar term “anxiety of authorship.” It is not surprising that their works are filled with images of enclosure, imprisonment, and claustrophobia.

However, Gilbert and Gubar suggest, enclosed spaces are not necessarily destructive. As they point out in their chapter entitled “The Parables of the Cave,” the enclosure can also be a life-giving, creative womb. Mary Shelley’s brief fable about her discovery of inscriptions on leaves and bark in the cave of the Cumaean sibyl is turned into the authors’ own myth of a “feminist poetic.” They say that this book is “an attempt at reconstructing the Sibyl’s leaves, leaves which haunt us with the possibility that if we can piece together their fragments the parts will form a whole that tells the story of the career of a single woman artist, a ’mother of us all.’”

After establishing in their first section the theoretical premises for their criticism, Gilbert and Gubar turn to an exploration of the various strategies adopted by women writers to combat the patriarchal stereotypes and give an authentic picture of the female experience. Many readers will find their book most valuable for the extensive analyses of single works. While Part I is really essential for an understanding of the rest of the study, its later sections could, if necessary, be read separately. The discussions are, however, closely interrelated, and the full impact of the work will be found only by following Gilbert and Gubar all the way through their search for the mythical “mother” artist.

Their individual studies begin with Jane Austen, in whom they find “an implicitly rebellious vision and an explicitly decorous form.” Many of her heroines, from the preposterous Laura and Sophia of Love and Friendship to Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey and Emma Woodhouse, are young women trying to author their own lives by the exercise of their imagination. While Austen generally makes them renounce their plots in acceptable patriarchal fashion in order to win husbands and “comfortable space,” she cannot erase the effect produced by her characters’ creative, energetic attempts to control their own destinies.

Gilbert and Gubar suggest that Austen’s subconscious may not always have acquiesced in the conventional patterns she established for her heroines, and they find evidence to support their view in her “mad matriarchs.” Characters like Aunt Norris, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, Mrs. Ferrars, and the unseen Mrs. Churchill are powerful women who act out the “rebellious anger repressed by heroine and author” and exert considerable influence over the fates of the other characters in the novels.

Austen’s resistance to patriarchal concepts was, on the whole, restrained. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, the opposition was much stronger and more impassioned. Both novels are analyzed in relation to Paradise Lost. Milton scholars might legitimately disagree with some of the interpretations of the epic stated here,...

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Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Growing out of a course in women’s literature taught by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar at Indiana University, The Madwoman in the Attic traces the development of a distinctively female response to the male-dominated literary tradition of nineteenth century England. Based on Harold Bloom’s assertion that literary history is a tale of powerful action and reaction, the work first establishes the standard ways in which women are depicted, defined, and confined in the male literary tradition. Gilbert and Gubar then go on to distinguish the female tradition and literary response from that of their male counterparts.

Beginning with Jane Austen’s juvenilia and mature works, The Madwoman in the Attic...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination began as a course on British and American women writers team-taught by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar at Indiana University in 1974. These two feminist scholars found, in teaching such writers as Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Emily Dickinson, that the works of these authors shared, to a great extent, themes and images, despite the fact that they were created in different places at different times. Based on this revelation, they developed a definition of a female literary tradition, the existence of which had often been intuited by readers but which had never been thoroughly researched. The central image of...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Since its publication in 1979, The Madwoman in the Attic has given critics new strategies and issues to consider in reading women writers. Their encyclopedic array of primary and secondary material gives Gilbert and Gubar’s argument great authority. While the texts they analyze do not receive equal attention, the writers’ tracing of parallel images and themes creates an impressively coherent argument, especially given the length of the book (719 pages). Some critics have noted that the same images and themes can be traced in male authors, but no one has yet pursued the research necessary to make that case. The fact that The Madwoman in the Attic is scholarship begun in the classroom and based on female conversation is evident in its readability and its practical use of literary theory.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Abel, Elizabeth, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland, eds. The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1983. A collection of essays on the female Bildungsroman, or novel of development. Interesting considerations of the relationship between gender and development in nineteenth and twentieth century British women writers.

Auerbach, Nina. Romantic Imprisonment: Women and Other Glorified Outcasts. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. A collection of essays that examine many of the same authors and issues analyzed in The Madwoman in the Attic. Auerbach’s interpretations are characteristically provocative.

Homans, Margaret. Bearing the Word. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. An analysis of nineteenth century women writers that uses Lacanian psychology to draw relationships between the maternal and language.

Pratt, Annis. Archetypal Patterns in Women’s Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981. Pratt argues that women’s fiction should be read as an interrelated field of texts reflecting feminine archetypes in conflict with patriarchal culture.

Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977. Cited in The Madwoman in the Attic, Showalter’s work is a source of information on the female literary tradition, breaking down that tradition into three stages: 1840-1880 (the feminine stage of imitation of the dominant male discourse), 1880-1920 (the feminist stage of protest against that dominance), and 1920 onward (the female stage of searching for a new identity).