The Madwoman in the Attic
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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