The Madwoman in the Attic

by Sandra Ellen Mortola, Susan Gubar

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated September 5, 2023.

When first published in 1979, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s study of women in literature quickly attracted attention. Their perceptive insights into major female writers’ works drew scholars to their critical analyses and their well-thought-out, painfully evidenced findings held them captive. Since its initial publication, the book has been updated and republished several times.

Gilbert and Gubar's central argument orbits the misconception that female authors wrote as supplements or compliments to the work, style, and form of their male counterparts. Instead, they argue, female authors wrote in a canon of their own creation and often in resistance to the constraints of male-imposed literary traditions. However, female authors found it necessary to write in subtle codes, so literary resistance skewed toward the covert rather than the overt. Disguising their early feminist messaging within the framework of contemporary male literature allowed female writers to gain the respect of their male counterparts without compromising their intended messaging.

Rereading this canon of "women's literature" with Gilbert and Gubar's discerning gaze, the hidden nuance of these nineteenth-century feminist texts becomes clear. Not only do the intentions of each work clarify but so do the ways that the literary profession had deliberately excluded women. The Madwoman in the Attic uncovered a potent, underacknowledged layer of some of Western literature's most paradigmatic texts, and Gilbert and Gubar's study became a lightning rod in continuing discussions of the role of feminism in cultural studies and fiction.

Their 1979 work uncovered feminist dimensions in well-known works that are not primarily about women that had long gone neglected or obscured. For example, the pair settle on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and address the lingering questions of gender in the creation and birth of the monster. Discussions of Shelley's famous work customarily ignore or dismiss the gender of its author, choosing instead to view the text as othered from the hand of its creation. The Madwoman in the Attic rejects this conventional analysis as limited and ignorant, instead choosing to discuss the implications of Shelley's personal experiences, the fact that she was a woman in the male-dominated ranks of the literary Romantics, and the implicit, female-oriented meaning hidden between the pages of Frankenstein. 

The authors use other female authors to consider the issues of confinement, isolation, and silence in the "attic" as they appear across the board. An "attic," in their view, is more than a physically restrictive space. Indeed, the "attic" refers to the intellectually narrow sphere of "proper" writing, characterization, and narrative that female authors were encouraged to occupy. Another work central to Gilbert and Gubar's study is Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. The novel is traditionally read as a Gothic bildungsroman but undergoes a reconfiguration in The Madwoman in the Attic, becoming a feminist exploration of self and sexuality amidst strict nineteenth-century social mores. 

The authors challenge many aspects of male-dominated literary criticism, which they criticize as an instrument of patriarchal control because of the critics’ myopic attitudes toward women writers. The psychologically-based introspection that has been praised for male writers, they note, is often not recognized or is likely to be trivialized for female writers. The countless additional analyses of English literature, as well as the substantial revision of the canon, are long-lasting effects that their work stimulated.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access