When first published in 1977, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s study of women in literature quickly attracted attention. Their perceptive insights into major woman writers’ works was part of what drew scholars to their critical analyses. The book has been updated and republished several times. They pointed out that female authors wrote not as supplements or complements to male authors, but often in resistance to the constraints that literary traditions imposed. This resistance, however, was sometimes covert rather than overt. By rereading what had become the canon of “women’s literature,” as well as revealing ways that the literary profession had deliberately excluded women, their study became a lightning rod in continuing discussions of the role of feminism in cultural studies, not only in interpreting fiction.
One significant area of contribution has been to uncover feminist dimensions that had been neglected or obscured in well-known works that are not primarily about women. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, is addressed both for the underlying questions of creativity that Shelley raises in presenting the “creature,” but also for the Zoraida character in a sub-plot linking gender, to nationality and ethnicity. They address head-on rather than dismiss, as had been customary the implications of Shelley’s female gender identity within the Romantics, a male-dominated movement. The issues of confinement in the “attic” concept are considered across the board, as both physically restrictive spaces and as the intellectually narrow “proper” sphere that female authors were encouraged to occupy. A work that had been regarded as a traditional romance, Jane Eyre, is reconfigured as a feminist exploration of self and sexuality.
The authors challenge many aspects of male-dominated literary criticism, which they criticize as an instrument of patriarchal control, for 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.
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.
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