Working during the 1970s, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar were pioneers in identifying underlying themes and motifs that recur in the writings of the previous century. In their now-classic literary study, Gilbert and Gubar use the concepts of “madwoman” and “attic” to shed light on female contributions to literature in the nineteenth century, as well as address ideas about females 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: authorship equals authority. Females who write have been denigrated as inferior intellectually and for their chosen subjects. Their literary production exemplifies the ideas of confinement and irrationality to which the authors refer, as female authors found it necessary to hide their brains and their activities by being secret scribblers. The relative lack of female antecedents also works against females deciding to embark on the career of writer; 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 obviously Bertha Mason Rochester, Edward’s wife, Gilbert and Gubar argue that she is also, and more importantly, Jane’s alter ego. Jane has been...
(The entire section is 517 words.)