The Madwoman in the Attic

by Sandra Ellen Mortola, Susan Gubar

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, literary critics working during the 1970s, pioneered a unique analytical gaze that identified underlying themes and motifs often found in the writings of nineteenth-century women. In their now-classic literary study, Gilbert and Gubar use the Charlotte Brontë-inspired concepts of “madwoman” and “attic” to shed light on female contributions to literature in the nineteenth century, as well as address ideas about women that male authors used. Both terms have concrete, physical, and abstract metaphorical applications.

Images of enclosure and escape, fantasies in which maddened doubles functioned as asocial surrogates for docile selves, metaphors of physical discomfort manifested in frozen landscapes and fiery interiors—such patterns recurred throughout this tradition, along with obsessive depictions of diseases like anorexia, agoraphobia, and claustrophobia.

One key area that the authors explore extensively is the role of patriarchy in shaping female authors. Literary production and criticism have traditionally been heavily male-dominated; in this respect, authorship equals authority. Women who write were often denigrated as inferior intellectually and derided for their chosen subjects and narratives. Their literary production exemplifies the ideas of confinement and irrationality to which the authors refer, as female authors found it necessary to hide their intellectual activities beneath a veil of readily consumable and masculine-coded material. The relative lack of female antecedents also worked against women deciding to embark on a writing career; women were compelled to resist the negative forces of their male precursors.

Not only do these precursors incarnate patriarchal authority . . . they attempt to enclose her in definitions of her person and her potential which by reducing her to extreme stereotypes (angel, monster) drastically conflict with her own sense of her self—that is, of her subjectivity, her autonomy, her creativity.

In the chapter on Jane Eyre, “Plain Jane’s Progress,” the authors explicitly address the “madwoman” figure of the title. While the character who is confined to the attic is Bertha Mason Rochester, Edward’s wife, Gilbert and Gubar argue that she is also, and more importantly, Jane’s alter ego. Jane has been aware that there is a madwoman in the house, as she had attacked her brother Richard, but she does not know that Edward is already married and is preparing to commit bigamy with her. Jane’s equivalency with the mad Bertha is indicated in part by the strangeness that her appearance prompts on the morning of her wedding, and the nighttime appearance in which that veil is viciously ripped apart. Jane:

turns toward the mirror and sees “a robed and veiled figure, so unlike my usual self that it seemed almost the image of a stranger” (chap. 26) . . . . [A]nother and more mysterious specter, a sort of “vampyre,” . . . appear[s] in the middle of the night to rend and trample the wedding veil . . . .

Literally, of course, the nighttime specter is none other than Bertha Mason Rochester. But on a figurative and psychological level, it seems suspiciously clear that the specter of Bertha is still another—and indeed the most threatening—avatar of Jane . . . Bertha . . . is Jane’s truest and darkest double: she is the angry aspect of the orphan child, the ferocious secret self Jane has been trying to repress . . . .

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