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

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The Madwoman in the Attic Summary

The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar was first published in 1979. It is considered a landmark of feminist literary criticism. A second updated edition appeared in 2000.

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The Madwoman in the Attic takes its title from the iconic early-Victorian novel Jane Eyre. In this novel, Rochester's first wife, Bertha Mason, has gone mad and is kept locked in an attic. Because Bertha Mason Rochester was a wealthy Creole woman from Jamaica, she represents a sort of monstrous "other" in the nation: passionate, exotic, and mad, demonized by the novelist and the characters of the novel. In Gilbert and Gubar's survey of Victorian female novelists and the portrayal of women in Victorian literature, they consider Bertha to be a prototypical exemplar of the "woman as monster." Among the major authors considered in the book are Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot.

Gilbert and Gubar argue that, within the patriarchal environment of Victorian England, women struggled to create an identity as authors. As part of this struggle, their portraits of women bifurcated female nature into two extremes: "the angel in the house" (who was traditionally "good," submissive, and virtuous) and the "madwoman in the attic" (the image of woman's suppressed anger, rage, and power). Neither of these two emblems of femininity, though, are whole or complete women, and many novels by women would have paired characters each representing half of the emotional range—with the monstrous woman often channeling the author's genuine anger at patriarchal oppression.

Although the book remains a landmark in feminist literary criticism, more recent scholars consider the analysis presented in the book oversimplified and somewhat reductionist. It has also been criticized for focusing on a very limited canon of white female authors and excluding entire novelistic genres (such as the sensation novel, the Gothic novel, and "penny dreadfuls" and writers such as M. E. Braddon or Anna Laetitia Barbauld) as well as the lower class female experience.

Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination addresses the struggle that nineteenth century women writers underwent in order to determine their identities as writers. The work particularly analyzes the portrayal of women’s identity in female authors’ works of fiction and poetry. The Madwoman in the Attic quickly became a classic of feminist literary criticism. The book is notable for the incisiveness and for the clarity with which it recognizes a single theme in women’s literature and for the encyclopedic breadth of information that it contains. The authors divided responsibility for drafting the chapters, and together wrote the introductory material.

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue that nineteenth century women writers were faced with two debilitating stereotypical images of women; women were depicted in male writing as angels or as monsters. The pen in the male literary imagination was metaphorically seen as a penis, excluding women from the...

(The entire section is 747 words.)