The Madwoman in the Attic Themes
by Sandra Ellen Mortola, Susan Gubar

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The Madwoman in the Attic Themes

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.

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 insanity and later, with the influence of Freudian psychology, hysteria, were used to control women.

The “attic” as well is both a literal space, as in Bertha’s area of confinement, and a concept. The attic can the confinement of false identity, similar to the concept of the “closet” regarding sexual identity. For female authors, Gilbert and Gubar explain, the social construction of rationality as inherently male worked against their being taken seriously as intellectuals. The domination of the publishing industry also worked to keep female authors’ from being signed. Here not only Charlotte Brontë but also her sisters figure into their analysis, as they initially published under male pseudonyms. Women also had to resist male-imposed stereotypes about audience appeal, often disguising content about female sexual desire through metaphors and analogies.