No Man's Land

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, the feminist team which has produced the fine The Madwoman in the Attic (1979) on women writers in the nineteenth century and The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1985), now turn their attention to twentieth century materials. When complete, No Man’s Land will comprise three volumes; the first installment, The War of the Words (1988), was “an overview of social, literary, and linguistic interactions between men and women” for the past century, focusing on the literal and figurative battle of the sexes begun by the first wave of feminism in the nineteenth century. The ambitiousness of this effort is exceeded only by the audacity of their thesis. Modernism, they argue, “is a product of [this) sexual battle,” and is at least in part “a reaction- formation against the rise of literary women.”

The title of the second volume, Sexchanges, is Gilbert and Gubar’s shorthand for changing definitions of sex and sex roles, as well as for literal, symbolic, and iconographic sex changes themselves. These cultural changes are followed through three phases: the “repudiation” of the “Victorian ideology of femininity” at the end of the nineteenth century; the “antiutopian skepticism” of writers such as Edith Wharton and Willa Cather toward a “crippling feminization of women”; and the “apocalyptic engendering of the new” fostered both by a visible lesbian community and by the traumas of World War I. The book, therefore, is divided into three sections, corresponding to these phases.

As was the case in the first volume, Gilbert and Gubar here continue to assume that history is knowable, and that texts have authors who are a part of material contexts. Certain well-known texts, therefore, are not privileged aesthetic or philosophic objects to be studied in a vacuum; each is seen as authored by a gendered human being. Individual narratives can be “conflate[d] and collate[d],” say Gilbert and Gubar, “so that they constitute one possible metastory, a story of stories about gender strife in this period.”

In support of their bold thesis, the authors marshal a huge amount of evidence, including not only belles lettres but also biography, journals, and correspondence, photographs, posters, and popular songs. They resurrect lost or little-known works (by both women and men), and do not fear to reread and interpret such standards as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929).

The present book begins with an exhaustive analysis of H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887), the material used ranging far afield in both time and space. In analyzing the femme fatale in this best-selling fantasy, Gilbert and Gubar draw upon Greek mythology, the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Arthurian cycle, and the Romantics. She is also read in relation to the nineteenth century’s fascination with Egypt, archaeology, and mummification. In Gilbert and Gubar’s reading, Haggard dramatizes the idea that “women and colonized peoples were analogically a single group”—both were “the Other.”

The second chapter contrasts the “masculinist mythology” of She with two creations of the “New Woman,” Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (1883) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915). These two authors, “the two major feminist-polemicists” of the period, “both sought to imagine a female primacy that transcended debilitating sex roles.” The two works, so different in many ways (Schreiner’s purports to be “realistic,” Gilman’s is a “utopian fantasy”), are both located “on the outskirts of civilization” (the South African veldt and a South American jungle). Both criticize traditional Christianity and its position on women, and, most important, valorize women’s biology, specifically, the power of the womb. Schreiner and Gilman, according to Gilbert and Gubar, “counter the paternal curse with a maternal blessing.”

Schreiner explored the relation of sexism to imperialism in Women and Labour (1911), which explained her concept of sexual parasitism. She argues that female idleness is possible only when there are slaves or subject classes, so that the dominant group has so many material goods “that mere physical toil on the part of its own female members has become unnecessary.” Schreiner also makes clear that the interdependence of the parasite and the host models the interdependence of the colony and its imperial parent; also, the male’s biological dependence on the female has this same parasitical nature.

The second chapter’s title, “Home Rule: The Colonies of the New...

(The entire section is 1971 words.)

No Man's Land

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

At the beginning of the long-awaited first volume of No Man’s Land: Volume I, The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar describe the problems they faced in producing a sequel to The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), their path-breaking study of nineteenth century women writers. “Comical colleagues ... insisted that it would be hard to construct ’Daughter of Madwoman’ or ’Madwoman Meets Abbott and Costello’ (or even ’Madwoman Meets the Lost Generation’),” Gilbert and Gubar recall in their preface. Their colleagues proved to be correct. As the study of British and American women writers progressed, it expanded into an investigation of works by men as well as by women, viewed in the social as well as the literary context of the last one hundred years. Eventually, the single-volume No Man’s Land that the collaborators had originally projected became three books, with volume 1, entitled The War of the Words, laying the groundwork for Sexchanges and Letters from the Front.

In Sexchanges, Gilbert and Gubar plan to examine some precursors of modernism, offering close readings of works by, among others, H. Rider Haggard, Olive Schreiner, Willa Cather, and Edith Wharton. In Letters from the Front, they will discuss works by such feminist modernists and postmodernists as Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, and H. D. The War of the Words is thus a transitional and pivotal book, broader and in some respects more complex than its predecessor and one infers, its successors. Written for an audience acquainted with literary history, this first volume of No Man’s Land draws on literary and nonliterary, canonical and noncanonical works to argue that the rise of the New Woman, the suffrage movement, and the increasing importance of women in the literary marketplace, far from being marginal historical events, have played major and previously overlooked roles in the development of modernist and postmodernist literature.

As the general title No Man’s Land and the titles of each volume suggest, Gilbert and Gubar use the motif of sexual warfare to present their sweeping revision of literary history. Throughout The War of the Words, literal and imaginary exchanges between such embattled pairs as Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes are made emblematic of larger, ongoing conflicts between women and men, conflicts that result from a “reaction-formation” on the part of male intellectuals to changes in the status of women in general and of literary women in particular. Reaction-formation, the label Sigmund Freud gave to ego-generated resistance against unacceptable pressures from the instincts—resistance that takes the form of anxiety—is one of many references to psychoanalytic theory that inform The War of the Words. Nevertheless, the orientation of The War of the Words is by no means narrowly or exclusively psychoanalytic; rather, Gilbert and Gubar use the tenets of several critical approaches, resting their analysis on the assumptions that “there is a knowable history” and that “texts are authored by people whose lives and minds are affected by the material conditions of that history,” especially gender.

Proceeding from these assumptions, the argument of The War of the Words, though at times complex, is never dogmatic. Supported throughout by elegant and ingenious readings of key texts, it is informed by the work of other scholars and theorists, and it is scrupulously documented. Like The Madwoman in the Attic, this volume features intriguing epigraphs and illustrations, including reproductions of paintings, posters, and cartoons. Best of all, Gilbert and Gubar’s collaborative method has produced prose that is filled with pleasures for eye and ear and that is, in a few remarkable passages, dense with puns, sometimes delightfully scandalous ones. This witty, allusive approach appropriately lightens the grim theme of warfare that unifies the book.

The motif of sexual battle extends to the structure of Gilbert and Gubar’s argument. The first of the volume’s five chapters deals with “The Men’s Case,” the second with “The Women’s Cause,” the third with “Modernism and Masculinism,” the fourth with “The Female Affiliation Complex,” the fifth with literary men’s and women’s relationships to language; thus, the chapters themselves represent alternations of fire between opposing camps. The collaborators begin chapter 1, “The Battle of the Sexes: The Men’s Case,” with a detailed comparison of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Princess (1847) and W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan’s Princess Ida: Or, Castle Adamant (1884), using these works to explore cultural debate about “the woman question” and to demonstrate growing hostility to women’s advances and achievements in the last half of the nineteenth century. While changes in the status of women have not always appeared on lists of...

(The entire section is 2067 words.)

No Man’s Land

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The first two volumes of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s groundbreaking consideration of modernism and its cultural consequences—The War of the Words (1988) and Sexchanges (1989)—argued so persuasively that literary modernism was a product of a “sexual battle” and demonstrated so convincingly that collapsing conceptions of gender roles and rules informed the work of many major writers in the twentieth century that the necessity to overcome an entrenched position is no longer a prime animating force of their project. It is a testament to the consistently revelatory nature of their encompassing thesis that any previous structuring of literary history that ignores (or is unaware of) it now seems...

(The entire section is 2701 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

With the publication of their critically acclaimed study The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979), Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar began what they envisioned as a sequel that would bring the discussion into the twentieth century. They soon realized that in order to understand the period, they needed to immerse themselves in men’s as well as women’s writing, in social as well as literary history. A single volume could not contain so vast an undertaking. Thus was born a three-part study under the general heading No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century.

Volume 1, subtitled The War of the Words,...

(The entire section is 647 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Some critics have charged Gilbert and Gubar with raising more questions than they have answered, with offering unsubstantiated claims, and with virtually ignoring contemporary feminist thinking and returning to the politics of the 1960’s. Others, however, credit them with identifying the questions that should be asked, with providing a foundation upon which to base further research, and with stirring the waters enough to attract attention and inspire debate. In their forays from the familiar territory of literature to spheres of social history, an area of self-admitted uncertainty, they falter, but not disastrously so. In seeing with the eyes of nonspecialists, they allow the casual reader to explore with them. Even the critics who quarrel with their scholarship, their assumptions, their inclusions of some writers to the exclusion of others, their purported concentration of the works of women but tendency to afford greater coverage to ones by men, and their inability to pass by a chance for a pun or a bon mot do recognize that Gilbert and Gubar have set a standard from which all future scholarship will grow and upon which it will be based.

Their works have given readers a new way of looking at old texts, new ways to assess patriarchal concerns, new methods to detect gender bias, and a new view of underlying causes of tensions that result in battling between the sexes. Though at times bias predominates and scholarship is suited to serve the purpose, these feminist scholars have produced a body of work of seminal importance. Their overstatement and slanting does not negate the existence of troublesome images in literature and the biased language of the creators of that literature. No Man’s Land provides a whole new approach to looking at the period, and, as Carolyn Heilbrun, a feminist writer, critic, and teacher observes, “The study of modernism will never be the same.”

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have coedited The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English (1985) and Shakespeare’s Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets (1979), and they coauthored The Female Imagination and the Modernist Aesthetic (1986) and The Madwoman in the Attic.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Ammons, Elizabeth. Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Deals with seventeen women writers from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. Ammons finds underlying themes of unity as these writers, in a wide range of narrative forms, strove to give voice to women’s concerns.

Armstrong, Nancy. Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Armstrong explores the role of women in shaping modern literary and social institutions. Her detailed historical discussion leads to implicit criticism of Gilbert and Gubar’s stress on victimization.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. An excellent study of major women writers in nineteenth century England, this precursor to No Man’s Land received wide critical acclaim.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London: Routledge, 1985. A useful guide to key issues in feminist literary analysis, this small volume contains a detailed critique of Gilbert and Gubar’s approach.

Showalter, Elaine, ed. Speaking of Gender. New York: Routledge, 1989. These essays by leading scholars and critics offer detailed insights on a wide range of texts. They provide discussion of many of the issues raised in more general fashion by the work of Gilbert and Gubar.