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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 362

One major theme of The Madwoman in the Attic is feminism. In their work of literary criticism, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar apply feminist perspectives to nineteenth-century literature, they show how male and female authors differently rendered the gendered character of society and gender relations, noting feminist roots in several early cases. Closely related is the theme of patriarchy as the dominant social system and the extreme difficulty, and sometimes impossibility, for female authors to overcome male dominance in their careers as writers. In addition, the authors show how male authors enforce patriarchal domination through the themes, plots, and characters of their fiction. While the authors primarily address British fiction, they also consider American authors and poetry, especially Emily Dickinson and her works.

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The most specific “madwoman” that Gilbert and Gubar analyze is Bertha Rochester, confined in the “attic” of her husband Edward’s home in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre . The wild, out-of-control Bertha must be hidden away from society; she is painted in sharp contrast to Jane, who seems submissive and obedient. Bertha provides an alter ego to Jane, they demonstrate, and upon Bertha’s death, Jane become a more fully realized person who is decisive and sexually active. By extension, the “madwoman” theme is applied to almost every aspect of female personality and behavior that nineteenth-century authors—primarily men—applied to non-conforming women. The ideas of innate...

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Critical Essays