Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 884
SOURCE: “The Return of the Repressed,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 9, No. 16, November 25, 1979, pp. 4, 6.
[In the following essay, Heilbrun praises The Madwoman in the Attic as a major work of feminist critical theory.]
The pens of authorship have not only been,...
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SOURCE: “The Return of the Repressed,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 9, No. 16, November 25, 1979, pp. 4, 6.
[In the following essay, Heilbrun praises The Madwoman in the Attic as a major work of feminist critical theory.]
The pens of authorship have not only been, until the 19th century, entirely in the hands of men: the pen has also been male, a part of the male anatomy. Women could possess it only as a monstrosity. With the beginning of the 19th century, this attitude, taken less obviously for granted, began to be stated: Gerard Manly Hopkins called the artist's creative gift a male gift, a male quality. Jane Austen, Anthony Burgess latterly remarked, “lacks a strong male thrust.” Women who wrote, therefore, became by that act anomalous creatures.
Nor was this all. Woman had no story of her own; men have always told her this, and woman has believed it. She must be either silent and angelic or, rebelling, try to tell her story and become monstrous. The woman writer's battle had been, therefore, not so much against the male reading of society, as against the male reading of her.
As women now labor to create a tradition for themselves in which female stories are possible, the need for a profound study of women writers and of the female literary imagination has become apparent: feminists need not only examples of their despair and enforced passivity, they need a theory to explain the cause of that despair and to establish a base for the rebellion against it. Professors Gilbert and Gubar have now given us such a study. It is imperative reading not only for feminists, but for any scholar, particularly of the 19th century, who thinks he or she has understood the great novels of that time.
As a creature “penned by man,” the authors tell us, woman has been penned in and penned up. As woman began her “journey through the looking glass toward literary autonomy,” her choices were few. The story of Snow White neatly embodies these choices. Like Snow White, woman may be passive, worshipped in a glass coffin or, like the stepmother, she may tell her own story. Gilbert and Gubar show how women authors, by projecting their rebellious impulses not onto their heroines, but onto mad or monstrous women, like Bertha in Jane Eyre, have dramatized their own desperate divisions. These monstrous women act out the subversive, if unconscious, impulses every woman feels before the patriarchy.
If a lovely young girl like Austen's Catherine Morland believes she can become the heroine of her own life story, the author of herself, she discovers, no less than Frankenstein's monster (another female creation), that she is an actor only in someone else's plot. As Charlotte Bronte was to observe, “the good woman is … half doll, half angel; the bad woman almost a fiend.”
The great dazzle of this book arises from its analysis of female texts. Consistently, the authors are able to show how the true vision of women's destiny lies hidden beneath the surface story. Women's great literature, the sort everywhere studied by grad students, is a palimpsest, and the picture the artist painted with her soul lies beneath the surface colors, has long so lain, waiting to be revealed.
Let me speak plainly. This book's importance lies partly in its awareness that women will starve in silence until new stories are created which confer on them their own power of storymaking. But its major contribution is its careful development of theory and of a reading of literature which needs no excuses before the proud and closed male establishment. This work must come as a revelation to all readers, not least of all those male scholars who will be unable to ignore it in their own work. Gilbert and Gubar have written a pivotal book, one of those after which we will never think the same again.
The Madwoman in the Attic is long and expensive and worth every penny, although one hopes soon for a paperback edition. Gilbert and Gubar, have not, of course, sprung full blown from nowhere. In addition to their own brilliance, this book reflects the work of many scholars of both sexes; it is particularly encouraging that much of its analysis incorporates what other women scholars have expressed, or adumbrated. At last, feminist criticism, no longer capable of being called a fad, is clearly and coherently mapped out.
Woman has always known the costly destructiveness of anger; as she has raged to escape from male houses and male texts, she has known the cost to herself and has rewritten the male plots, especially Milton's, taking for herself the role of devil. Allowing the doubles in her writing the violence she could not allow herself or her heroines, woman has revised male genres to record her own story in disguise. Like the mythic Ariadne, woman has known the way through the labyrinth for men, but has been unable herself to escape. Now, women novelists and poets, no longer alternatively either scorned as feminine or put down as deficient in femininity, may begin to use their skills for their own, and not male, purposes. The Madwoman in the Attic, by revealing the past, will profoundly alter the present, making it possible, at last, for woman writers to create their own texts.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2661
SOURCE: “Re-creating Eve,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. XXVI, No. 20, December 20, 1979, pp. 6, 8.
[In the following essay, Dinnage agrees with Gubar and Gilbert's views regarding the frustrations of nineteenth-century women as authors, but nevertheless asserts that they “insensitively” force “nineteenth-century attitudes into twentieth-century molds.”]
Women's situation, Charlotte Brontë wrote, involves “evils—deep-rooted in the foundation of the social system—which no efforts of ours can touch: of which we cannot complain; of which it is advisable not too often to think.” Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's closely argued interpretation of nineteenth-century women's writing is concerned to show that, even in writers such as Brontë who were openly concerned with the “woman question,” pent-up frustration over the evils of which it was best not to think produced images of rage and violence: vicious doubles of submissive heroines, saboteurs of conventional stereotypes, coded messages between innocuous lines. Mad Mrs. Rochester, creeping from the attic to tear and burn, stands for them all.
Though ultimately, I believe, Gilbert and Gubar belittle their women subjects by ignoring their generosity and detachment, by representing them—as they particularly wished not to be—as women before writers, and by imposing a twentieth-century gloss on nineteenth-century imaginations, they have an important subject to explore. They are equipped (if one accepts the bias produced by ignoring male writers and most male critics) with a scholarly knowledge of the period, including its obscure corners—Frankenstein, Aurora Leigh, Maria Edgeworth, Jane Austen's juvenilia—and they ingeniously bring in myth and fairy tale to support their arguments.
Lilith, Snow White, Beth March; the angel in the house, Salome, Swift's sullied Celia; the Blessed Damozel, Medusa, Cinderella; Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp; the witch and the nun, stepmother and fairy princess, mermaid and Virgin Mary: as women are the first gratifiers and punishers in all our lives, so they reappear in the imagination for ever after in opposed images of goodness and badness. In the nineteenth century the split reached its most grotesque proportions: the spotless Victorian lady, in London, lived in a city of 6,000 brothels. Thackeray's repellent image, quoted by Gilbert and Gubar, condenses the angel and the monster into one:
In describing this siren, singing and smiling, coaxing and cajoling, the author, with modest pride, asks his readers all around, has he once forgotten the laws of politeness, and showed the monster's hideous tail above water? No! Those who like may peep down under waves that are pretty transparent, and see it writhing and twirling, diabolically hideous and slimy, flapping amongst bones, or curling around corpses; but above the water line, I ask, has not everything been proper, agreeable, and decorous … ?
Gilbert and Gubar argue that women's conception of themselves as writers has been deeply overshadowed by this ambivalence, by the lack of an appropriate model, and the threat of monstrous unwomanliness; if, with a part of themselves, women writers endorsed the ideal of woman as modest and self-abnegating (and I think they did so more often than the twentieth century or Gilbert and Gubar imagine), it was in conflict with the part that, just by writing, defied the unforgettable reply of the Poet Laureate Robert Southey to Charlotte Brontë: “Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation.” The options open, in their writing, therefore, ranged from violence to irony and from deliberate to unconscious. Brontë was an honest woman, but what are we to make of her reply to Southey?
I had not ventured to hope for such a reply; so considerate in its tone, so noble in its spirit. … You kindly allow me to write poetry for its own sake, provided I leave undone nothing which I ought to do. … In the evenings, I confess, I do think, but I never trouble any one else with my thoughts. I carefully avoid any appearance of pre-occupation and eccentricity, which might lead those I live amongst to suspect the nature of my pursuits. … I trust I shall never more feel ambitious to see my name in print; if the wish should rise I'll look at Southey's letter, and suppress it.
Southey, commended her “receiving admonition” so “considerately and kindly.” We must, I think, make the imaginative leap necessary to see the letter, as Mrs. Gaskell did, as written quite without irony (though fortunately soon disregarded). The position of Victorian females not only had moral nourishment in it but great histrionic appeal.
But the lilies festered. Gilbert and Gubar, quoting Emily Dickinson's “infection in the sentence breeds,” postulate a tradition of anxiety and confusion passed down to women writers, and link it with “the vapours,” with anorexic, wasting heroines, with Emily Dickinson's agoraphobia, and above all with claustrophobia, recurrent images of women trapped in stuffy parlors, gothic mansions, isolated attics. Certainly the world that their interpretation re-creates is a suffocating one, without humor or light or mutuality, and breeding a thousand ugly and distorted forms of female rage; if not violent, as in the Brontës’ books, then cunningly subversive as in Jane Austen's.
But is it the world of women's novels themselves? Often, comparing Gilbert and Gubar's interpretations with the texts, one finds nineteenth-century attitudes insensitively forced into twentieth-century molds. They feel very free to decide when their authors do and do not mean what they say; when the latter endorse, for instance, conventional virtues, married love, or religious faith, they assume them to be consciously or unconsciously falsifying; where they conform to twentieth-century assumptions they find them honest. This is a dangerous practice, as we know from psychoanalytical literary criticism; here it reduces rather than enhances the dignity of the writers discussed. Where Gilbert and Gubar find pessimism and rancor one often finds, on the page, an actual relish for the otherness of masculinity, a fair-mindedness about the relations between the sexes. Because these writers lived closer to the imagination than to rational argument they often did fuse the “angelic passivity” / “Satanic revenge” dichotomy. “I am so glad,” wrote George Eliot, “there are thousands of good people in the world who have very decided opinions and are fond of working hard to enforce them—I like to feel and think everything and do nothing, a pool of the ‘deep contemplative’ kind.”
But they should, we now feel, have been as embattled and anxious as Gilbert and Gubar find them. If they were not always so, can we be misreading the context? Perhaps we are unable to imagine how, in an age with fewer illusions than ours about controlling nature, submission to inscrutable Providence was everyone's rationalization; women's task, certainly, but they knew it as part of a joint endeavor in which they were a significant part of the pattern. “Our wills are ours, to make them thine”; every period provides its formula to keep despair in check. Or are we perhaps prevented from seeing childbearing, and its relation to women's status, through the eyes of previous centuries? Gilbert and Gubar, in the context of Wuthering Heights, talk of women's “horror of being … reduced to a tool of the life process”—a recently invented horror; and it is new, too, to have to see birth as a kind of selfish environmental pollution like dropping beer cans. There may have been, in the days of high infant mortality, a deeper implicit respect for the “tools of the life process” than we can now imagine.
In any case, when these fictions go beyond sex hostility it is because, simply, the stronger the imaginative power, the wider and more objective the sympathy; Gilbert and Gubar's critique works better with minor novels than with major ones. The authors refer back often, for instance, to the dark shadow of Paradise Lost—to Virginia Woolf's criticism in her journals of its “aloofness and impersonality,” to Dorothea Casaubon as amanuensis to Miltonic father/husband, to Shirley Keeldar's “His brain was right; how was his heart?”—and interpret some of the novels’ plots as female reworkings of the Genesis myth; this is perhaps ingenious in the case of Frankenstein, but Wuthering Heights’ satanic tension seems to belong to a different, self-sufficient world. Villette is indeed a novel of despair, in which submission is almost parodied, as concentration-camp inmates took over the behavior of their guards. We feel Lucy Snowe's very calm to be poisonous with anger—though it is worth noticing that in her bitter essay on “Human Justice” (not “Human Nature” as Gilbert and Gubar say) Lucy represents justice not as masculine but as a cruel slatternly woman, like the wet-nurses Victorian babies depended on, or the mother who deserted Brontë so early. Gilbert and Gubar are also acute about the more florid fantasies of Jane Eyre; but they maltreat Shirley. They pinpoint ambivalence and masochism in The Mill on the Floss, but fail with Middlemarch.
An obvious instance is their view of the marriage of Tertius and Rosamond Lydgate in that book. Eliot sets this unhappy partnership beside the equally incongruous one of Dorothea and Edward Casaubon; both Dorothea and Tertius are shown to have embarked on these disasters through a combination of idealism and foolishness, and both must suffer for their choice and be schooled in generosity toward their partners. Dorothea does, as Gilbert and Gubar show, experience Casaubon in images of coldness and sterility, and chafe desperately against a “nightmare of a life in which every energy was arrested by dread.” But Eliot equally shows Lydgate's suffering, hurt and ignored by a wife unable to love: beautiful Rosamond is as enclosed, as frozen as the aging Casaubon. Like him, she is both timid and self-satisfied, entirely engrossed in her own interests; Lydgate is an appendage, not a person, to her, just as Dorothea is only a convenience for Casaubon. Like Casaubon, Rosamond is incapable of an original thought; she finds Lydgate's doctoring “not a nice profession, dear,” and is made anxious and stubborn by the discovery that he has any ideas that differ from hers.
This is the conventional reading, and Eliot makes it absolutely plain. No one is blamed but, simply, we like the generous, energetic, straightforward Dorothea and Tertius better than their stunted partners. It is a balanced enough picture of the difficulty, for everyone, of seeing clearly and acting generously. Gilbert and Gubar's reading of both the women as victims, both the husbands as oppressors, simply denies the sympathy and subtlety of the book.
What Eliot makes clear is that Dorothea and Lydgate are strong characters who painfully learn—learning being the point for characters in nineteenth-century fiction—some compassion for their weaker partners. Rosamond learns salutary lessons too, but it is her husband who pays for his mistake of rashly hoping for a compliant angel, for the rest of his life: “Lydgate had accepted his narrowed lot with sad resignation. He had chosen this fragile creature, and had taken the burthen of her life upon his arms. He must walk as he could, carrying that burthen pitifully.” Casaubon, equally, is a fragile creature for whom Dorothea has to recognize responsibility. When she struggles with her rage and overcomes it with mercy, she is rewarded by seeing plainly his loneliness and timid affection, and feels “something like the thankfulness that might well up in us if we had narrowly escaped hurting a lamed creature.” To call, as Gilbert and Gubar do, this choice of hers “repression” (which is an unconscious defense, not a moral decision) is to make nonsense of what George Eliot has made so clear.
Shirley, too, is at times mutilated by one-sided interpretations. “Brontë's heroines are so circumscribed by their gender that they cannot act at all,” say the authors, but in fact the action, both for the two “heroines” and two “heroes,” is to find a workable solution to the problem of women and men coexisting affectionately; an evenhanded combat is played out by opponents who enjoy each other. Shirley and Caroline are benign female doubles, the one softer than she likes to appear, the other tougher. Caroline's odious uncle—“These women are incomprehensible”—represents the view that good relations between the sexes are impossible. All marriages, at bottom, are unhappy, all husbands and wives “yoke-fellows,” “fellow-sufferers.” But “If two people like each other, why shouldn't they consent to live together?” asks Caroline; and she and Shirley thrash the question out, distinguish good and bad behavior from sex roles:
“We know that this man has been a kind son, that he is a kind brother: will any one dare to tell me that he will not be a kind husband?”
“My uncle would affirm it unhesitatingly. ‘He will be sick of you in a month,’ he would say.”
“Mrs. Pryor would seriously intimate the same.”
“Miss Yorke and Miss Mann would darkly suggest ditto.”
“When they are good, they are the lords of the creation. … Indisputably, a great, good, handsome man is the first of created things.”
“I would scorn to contend for empire with him,—I would scorn it. Shall my left hand dispute for precedence with my right?—shall my heart quarrel with my pulse?—shall my veins be jealous of the blood which fills them?”
Before the marriages at the end, all four characters have learned lessons: Robert has been chastened, Caroline fortified, Louis—the poor tutor, male equivalent of Jane Eyre—learned to put love before pride and property, and “Captain” Shirley tamed, in a delightfully erotic game of submission to her tutor (who is in turn supported by her: “I thought I should have to support her and it is she who has made me strong”). The two women clear-sightedly like their chosen men—“I do like his face—I do like his aspect—I do like him so much! Better than any of these shuffling curates, for instance—better than anybody; bonnie Robert!” and the regard is mutual—“It delights my eye to look on her: she suits me. …” The four have struggled with the problem that the sexes must have differences in order to attract each other, and come up with excellent compromises. The remarkable thing is that there is honesty, not repression; amicable erotic teasing, not festering hostility; and the marriages at the end, far from being “unreal,” “ridiculous fantasy,” and “a fairy tale,” as Gilbert and Gubar assert, have been well worked for.
Gilbert and Gubar, with Brontë's use of stone as an image of masculine lovelessness in mind, see the setting of Robert's proposal—by a stone wall and fragment of a cross—as a deliberate suggestion of the barrenness of marriage. But, as with other images they interpret throughout the book, there is a different meaning that they ignore: in Yorkshire the outcropping stone seems the very image of strength and constancy, and Charlotte Brontë uses it in this sense, not only in Rochester's “brow of rock” and Louis's “great sand-buried stone head” but in the tremendous metaphor in her preface to Wuthering Heights—“a granite block on a solitary moor … there it stands colossal, dark, and frowning, half-statue, half-rock. …” The very use of “Moore” as the brothers’ surname is a use of the Brontës’ central image of timeless and austere sustenance.
Shirley's vision, of the true Eve which she opposes to Milton's is of “a woman-Titan. … She reclines her bosom on the ridge of Stilbro’ Moor; her mighty hands are joined beneath it. So kneeling, face to face she speaks with God.” The male and female images coalesce. Gilbert and Gubar's aim is also to reconstruct an Eve, a mother-artist “whom patriarchal poetics dismembered.” Indeed they do open up a new dimension in these works, and one will always see them differently. But “we must dissect in order to murder” the fetid angel in the house, they say, and their Eve is not re-created without further dismemberment.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1508
SOURCE: “The Madwoman in the Attic,” in Victorian Studies, Vol. 23, No. 4, Summer, 1980, pp. 505–07.
[In the following essay, Auerbach commends Guber and Gilbert's “liberated” readings of nineteenth-century women writers in The Madwoman in the Attic.]
Feminist criticism seemed to spring alive in the 1970s when Kate Millett's Sexual Politics smashed into patriarchal myths about womanhood; it is fitting that The Madwoman in the Attic should finish out the decade by recomposing this mythology in feminist terms. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's rich compendium of the images, fears, and dreams of power that haunted nineteenth-century woman writers is a definitive, if not totally consistent, study of the mythos of subversion out of which the woman's tradition arose.
The Madwoman in the Attic begins by indicting an overweening patriarchal culture that imposed Otherness on its women by forcing on them the twin myths of angel and monster. Though Gilbert and Gubar seem at first to share Virginia Woolf's gallant intention of killing both the angel in the house and the monster out of it, their book suggests that they are half in love with their antagonists’ projections; their composite paradigm, the madwoman in the attic, is a haunting figure who blends angel and monster in a new, unforgettable shape that is woman's own.
Just as Gilbert and Gubar find conventional male images behind the incendiary force of Jane Eyre, so they elaborate upon Harold Bloom's Oedipal paradigm of literary criticism to define a woman's art that rises in wounded resistance from the assault of the male pen/penis. The heart of their book is a feminization of William Blake's myth of Albion, whereby the giant form of a single woman artist, Gertrude Stein's “mother of us all,” writes first like Jane Austen in pseudoangelic code, then “falls” into the Gothic/Satanic mode with Charlotte and Emily Brontë and Mary Shelley, then dizzily withdraws from the searing patriarchal sun into the convoluted feints and personae of George Eliot and Emily Dickinson. Though this myth rests on assumptions that do not always make historical sense, it does reconstruct the traditional canon of woman writers in a resonant way.
Many individual readings, particularly the long central section on Charlotte Brontë, will be familiar to feminist critics already saturated in the nineteenth-century woman's tradition; in general, The Madwoman in the Attic is less a revolutionary manifesto than a bible of revolution, giving definitive form to the collective work of a decade. Gilbert/Gubar (who for the purpose of this review exist as one corporate giant form) admittedly build on the work of Ellen Moers and Elaine Showalter; but whereas Moers and Showalter presented themselves as literary historians, restoring the “lost Atlantis” of the woman's tradition to the continent of English literature, Gilbert/Gubar is a sibylline persona, reweaving the threads of a timeless tapestry.
Moreover, while Moers and Showalter stressed the masked strength of their hidden continent, Gilbert/Gubar present us with a community of radical anxiety, blended by the dis/ease engendered by the male pen/penis. Their writing madwoman reverses Edmund Wilson's paradigm, for the bow of her ambition strikes open the wound oppression generates: “the pulse of ambition seems itself to be an impulse of disease, the harbinger of a wound, or at least a headache” (p. 330). Their free woman is one who can break out of male authorization to tell her own story, but the art discussed is radically maimed. The book's central aim is to translate the coded essence of an essentially duplicitous canon, and it yearns implicitly for a literary atmosphere which would allow a Jane Austen or an Emily Dickinson to speak out, free from wiles and disguises. But the critic in me doubts whether Austen or Dickinson should have put their cards on the table. A wound does regenerate into a perfectly apposite bow, and I wonder whether a less oppressed art would be a more memorable legacy.
Like the madwoman in the attic herself, then, this book has the flaws inherent in its strength. For one thing, though much literary criticism ignores history, Gilbert/Gubar defy it. Thus, they argue less by amassing evidence than by weaving a pastiche whereby one woman artist speaks for all in a timeless world. It is brilliantly suggestive to cite Emily Dickinson as a gloss on Mary Shelley, Sylvia Plath as a spokeswoman for Emily Brontë's Catherine, May Sarton as an image of George Eliot's female Gothic, but it also disturbs me in its blurring of individual contours. For me, the choric method within which the argument takes shape works best when some documented kinship is available; for example, a brilliant discussion of “Milton's cook” places Emily Brontë's Nelly Dean by citing Charlotte's distilled portrait of Emily in Shirley, as the sister artists combine to slay Milton's bogey and restore the primacy of the first woman. The family bond here is literal and essential. Elsewhere in the book, I feared the reconstruction of a corporate womanhood as undifferentiated as the angels and monsters Gilbert/Gubar began by wanting to slay.
Similarly, the book posits a patriarchal oppressor who is more gargantuan than any I have met, in the nineteenth century or our own. It begins with a rhetorical question that does not stay for an answer: “Is a pen a metaphorical penis?” (p. 3). “Well, no,” I mumbled, but the book galloped off without my qualifications, assuming a universal conspiracy between writing and patriarchy and ignoring an equally timeless and, for me, even more oppressive metaphorical equation between literary creativity and childbirth. Throughout the book, Gilbert/Gubar seem to me too quick to erect a giant straw penis to explain the shapes of woman's art, thereby reverting to Virginia Woolf's stinging definition of woman's primal role: “reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”
Thus, while I think it is a brilliant idea to discuss the impact of Milton's misogyny on woman's art, the book entangles Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights so deeply in Paradise Lost as almost to rob these great novels of autonomous life, ignoring Milton's similar impact on canonical works by men, such as Tom Jones and Great Expectations. While it is indisputable that repression and resistance are the germs of woman's art, too much deconstructive power may be conceded here to a spectral antagonist, too little to the restorative creations of the artist herself.
There is a more perplexing way in which giant hand of man rests on this book. Male myths about womanhood which many of us have found dubiously compelling buttress the authors’ own mythology with no analysis of their validity in a woman's pantheon. The first quotation in the book evokes George MacDonald's femme fatale, Lilith, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti's outsize Astarte Syriaca illustrates the introductory quest for a feminist poetics. In fact, all six of the prefatory illustrations are paintings by men; in a book that strains toward isolating the undiluted female voice, we need a discussion of the status of these male images. At one point, the authors conclude a fervent discussion of woman's need to free herself from the prison of character in a male-conceived plot by citing Chaucer's wife of Bath as if she too were writing the book; a later discussion of the female hell of Wuthering Heights is supported by Robert Graves's The White Goddess. One recurrent motif rests upon a dashing feminist interpretation of Snow White, a tale which many feminist folklorists deplore. While I admire the authors’ boldness in appropriating traditional male stereotypes of womanhood, I miss an attempt to place them. Few feminist readers will grant Graves's white goddess the imaginative integrity of the madwoman in the attic without some impulse toward demystification. Here and elsewhere, patriarchal structures are granted a power they do not seem to have earned.
But one of the strengths of this strong and massive book is its intensification of the reader's urgency to break free and tell her own story. The impact and excitement of the demands it makes, the questions it asks, and the readings it establishes transcend its sometimes shaky methods and generalizations. Many readers will probably approach a book of this length and density by reading around in it piecemeal at need, and the individual readings are always compelling and definitive: never again can Mary Shelley be seen as the domestic angel to Percy's Prometheus, Jane Austen and George Eliot as the obedient dolls of patriarchy who inflict sense and renunciation on their rebellious readers, or Charlotte Brontë as patriarchy's flattering scapegoat, the frustrated spinster who longs only for a mate. Though like the authors they write about, in abstaining from attacking their male antagonists directly, not deigning even to cite traditional critics, Gilbert and Gubar have won the battle of the books: the madwoman has been unleashed from her hiding place, and the rage and power cloaked in the woman's tradition are out of the attic at last. Such a jubilant achievement assures us that woman writers of the nineteenth century can never again be adored and patronized in the old way.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1670
SOURCE: “New Questions,” in Yale Review, Vol. 69, No. 2, Winter, 1980, pp. 266–70.
[In the following essay, Meyer Spacks appreciates the boldness and importance of Gubar and Gilbert's feminist readings of literature, however she argues that the dogmatism of their ideological commitment causes them to distort the literature they interpret in The Madwoman in the Attic.]
New questions generate new answers, new focus refracts new light. Sometimes ideology provides the crucial focus: Marxism, psychoanalysis, structuralism, now feminism. Feminist criticism has flourished with increasing vitality in the last decade, demonstrating ever more surely its validity as a mode of inquiry and of assertion. The Madwoman in the Attic, scholarly, authoritative, and imaginative, reinterprets a large body of literature in a fashion that demands and creates serious attention. Nineteenth-century fiction and poetry will never look quite the same again.
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar know precisely what questions they wish to ask. “What does it mean to be a woman writer in a culture whose fundamental definitions of literary authority are … both overtly and covertly patriarchal? If the vexed and vexing polarities of angel and monster, sweet dumb Snow White and fierce mad Queen, are major images literary tradition offers women, how does such imagery influence the ways in which women attempt the pen? … Does the Queen try to sound like the King … ? Or does she ‘talk back’ to him?” In an effort to resolve such problems about female voices, female images, they range over nineteenth-century fiction and poetry, mainly but not entirely English, with excursions back into seventeenth-and eighteenth-century poetry and prose and with reference to men as well as women writers. Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Christina Rossetti, and Emily Dickinson supply central texts for investigation, but the authors skillfully interweave allusions to other works. They also demonstrate their command of a large body of criticism, and they articulate their own “feminist poetics.” They have written, in short, a strikingly ambitious book.
Ambitious, and in many respects impressive. Gilbert and Gubar confront Harold Bloom, responding to his male mythology of precursors and swervings and anxieties not merely with anger but with a valuable transformation of terms. Given the patriarchal tradition, they argue, women authors cannot experience the “anxiety of influence.” The “strong precursors” not only embody alien natures themselves, they seek to reduce the woman to stereotypical angel or monster, to deprive her of creative selfhood. She feels, therefore, a more radical “anxiety of authorship,” troubled by her separation from the line of precursors, fearful that “the act of writing will isolate or destroy her,” fearful even that true creativity cannot belong to her. She struggles not against the influence of her male predecessors but against their restrictive definitions of her, which threaten to deprive her of power and even of full humanity. Her characteristic solution, these critics believe, depends on disguise, on the construction of “works whose surface designs conceal or obscure deeper, less accessible (and less socially acceptable) levels of meaning.” Thus the woman writer manages simultaneously to conform to and subvert patriarchal standards.
Gilbert and Gubar try to penetrate beneath the surface in order to locate the subversive energies of female literary depths. They find such energies expressing themselves in recurrent patterns: rewritings of Paradise Lost, for example; parodic structures of allusion; ambiguous evocations of monstrosity and madness. Through such recurrences they (and their readers) discover unexpected connections. Wuthering Heights turns out to resemble “Goblin Market” not in its play with the supernatural but in its fundamental reversal of Milton's myth; Mary Shelley as writer reveals affinities with Dorothea Brooke as character. The readings of individual works often produce startling and persuasive insights. Victor Frankenstein, we learn, has a female as well as a male aspect, resembling not only Adam but Eve, not only Satan but Sin. Catherine Earnshaw, in Wuthering Heights, terrified by what she sees in the mirror, struggles to recapture a “true lost self,” destroyed partly by the image of the fine lady she has become. The symbolic identification of witch and nun in Villette expresses the impossibility of escape for women; if, like Lucy Snowe, they avoid becoming witch or nun, they suffer haunting by both.
Isolated from their context, such summarized readings may sound thin or strained; in the critical setting this study provides, they reverberate richly. The force of The Madwoman in the Attic derives from its wholeness, its insistence on a total vision, its own radical subversion of Bloomian theory. Although the detailed interpretations of texts offer their own rewards, such interpretations function more importantly as contributions to a new mode of literary history and criticism. Gilbert and Gubar display their skills as readers and as scholars, but their commitment means more to them than their skills. Their book demands response to that commitment.
As a guide to critical inquiry, however, the commitment has its troubling aspects. To say that new questions engender new responses implies that the shape of questions determines that of answers: new shapes, necessarily; but perhaps distortions. Take, for example, the extended treatment of Jane Austen. A third of the way through the first of two chapters on Austen, Gilbert and Gubar cavalierly dismiss the claims of other critics in order to assert their own. “Austen demystifies the literature she has read” not for the reasons assigned by Mary Lascelles, Marvin Mudrick, or Marilyn Butler, “but because she seeks to illustrate how such fictions are the alien creations of writers who contribute to the enfeebling of women.” This categorical assertion does not appear to emerge from readings of the texts; on the contrary, it determines those readings. Northanger Abbey thus describes a girl “entrapped in a series of monstrous fictions which deprive her of primacy.” By means of other fictions, Emma leads its heroine to utter submission and to identification with Jane Fairfax “in her realization of her own powerlessness.” Elizabeth Bennet's refusal to answer Lady Catherine (Pride and Prejudice) testifies to her diminishment, as does her effort not to laugh too soon at Darcy. All these young women surrender their self-sufficiency and responsibility to adopt humiliating strategies of apparent submission by which alone they can succeed.
Generations of readers, male and female, have responded to Elizabeth's defiance of Lady Catherine's bullying as triumph, not defeat, and have seen her restraint of the impulse to ridicule as an enlarged capacity to function without the defensive mockery she has learned from her father. Catherine Morland appears to have far more “primacy” at the end of Northanger Abbey than at its beginning, freed of her own enfeebling fantasies and of the gullibility which makes her subject to the fantasies of others. The interpretations of Austen here offered, in other words, however ingenious, contradict the direct experience most readers have of the books. Gilbert and Gubar might argue the naïveté or the patriarchal corruption of those who deny their claims; yet literary texts possess their own authority. One must take seriously the emotional effect Pride and Prejudice has on its large audience—and one must worry about a critical procedure which ignores or denies that effect.
The Madwoman in the Attic in its interpretations sometimes neglects textual evidence for dogmatic assertions of essentially political “intuition.” Aunt Norris, in Mansfield Park, we are told, should be forgiven her moral failures because of her harsh circumstances. Living on a small fixed income, she must resort to flattery, the critics suggest, as her only means of gaining pleasure. Moreover, she indulges the Bertram daughters “in part out of genuine affection and loyalty.” Little in the novel's language supports this statement; moreover, the writers ignore Aunt Norris's real cruelty to Fanny, as though “flattery” represented her most serious failing. Emily Dickinson's wearing of white “announces that she herself incarnates the paradox of the Victorian woman poet—the Self disguised as the Other, the creative subject impersonating the fictionalized object—and as such she herself enacts the enigma that she perceives at the heart of her culture, just as Melville's ‘albino Whale’ embodies the enigma nineteenth-century culture saw in nature.” Anything can mean anything, one begins dizzily to feel. When young Catherine Earnshaw complains of Hindley and his wife “kissing and talking nonsense by the hour—foolish palaver we should be ashamed of,” Gilbert and Gubar conclude, with no textual substantiation, that “she understands, perhaps for the first time, the sexual nature” of the adult relationship. Catherine's “self-deceptive decision to marry Edgar” requires no moral response from the reader because she has no choice: “Given the patriarchal nature of culture, women must fall—that is, they are already fallen because doomed to fall.”
Everywhere, in short, these authors find evidence for the oppression of women which they initially posited: their answers precede their questions. And despite the splendid readings (notably of “Snow White” and Frankenstein), the provocative linkages and comparisons (Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, for a particularly striking instance), the care for detail as well as pattern—despite all these virtues, and despite the skill, intelligence, and energy of the authors, one must feel reservations about The Madwoman in the Attic. Exemplifying the large claims that feminist criticism now can make, it does not altogether support those claims. To inquire why a writer's femaleness matters, what specifically it means, can sharply illuminate familiar works. Such questions generate the most meaningful results when posed with genuine openness and answered on the basis of close attention to the text. So asked, so answered, they avoid the weaknesses of this study, where apparent complexity of interpretation often reduces itself to the reiteration of female misery, and the special focus of the inquiry on occasion obscures a novelist's or a poet's true power. The imaginative boldness of The Madwoman in the Attic, inseparable from its ideology, unquestionably demands attention for this book. Its brilliant vision and its intermittent blindness derive alike from the commitment which informs it, a commitment which has here generated sharp perception and commanding generalization but which, given more flexibility in its literary application, might produce criticism less marred by astigmatism.
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SOURCE: “The Strongly Female Tradition,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4,037, August 8, 1980, p. 901.
[In the following essay, Ashton argues that the feminist thesis in The Madwoman in the Attic is unconvincing.]
“Is a pen a metaphorical penis?” ask the authors of this study [The Madwoman in the Attic]. If it is, “with what organ can females generate texts?” Both questions are put rhetorically. Indeed, how could they be answered without exposing the paradox at the basis of the “feminist poetics” the authors wish to construct? On the one hand, they aim to show how women have been cabined, cribbed, confined, kept “mute” in a patriarchal society which requires sewing and submission from its women while men “father” or “author” texts, wielding the exclusive power of the pen/penis. On the other, it is part of their intention to account for female authorship, that contradiction in the terms in which they set their study. Hence the title of the book, a reference to the “mad double” who subverts the apparently docile adherence of the female writer to a “male” tradition.
That the authors are under some strain in this task is apparent from the first chapter, in which they deal with Anne Finch, Countess of Winchelsea, who, according to them was “cut off from generative energy, in a dark and wintry world” and was yet a poet, and therefore—though the authors do not say so—in one important sense not cut off. In order to establish fully the repressiveness of the tradition, they stress “the curious passivity with which Fiuch responded (or pretended to respond) to male expectations and designs”, ignoring, except for that glance in brackets, the irony and wit which bespeak her power as an author. Perhaps the real subject of the book ought to be “the centuries-long silence of so many women who must have had talents comparable to Finch's”, but of course that is no subject.
The problem remains intractable. This is a purposefully written book essentially without a thesis. In its ambitious attempt to place its authors—Jane Austen. Mary Shelley, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Emily Dickinson—in a “female tradition”, it sends readers in contrary directions without providing a Penelope to lead them through the maze of threads. The authors write of George Eliot:
Although until quite recently she has been viewed almost exclusively in terms of male literary history, Eliot shows in “The Lifted Veil” that she is part of a strong female tradition: her self-conscious relatedness to other women writers, her critique of male literary conventions, her interest in clairvoyance and telepathy, her schizophrenic sense of fragmentation … place Eliot in a tradition that still survives today.
In what sense is the “female tradition” here “strong”? “The Lifted Veil” may yield interesting psychological material about George Eliot, but it is not one of her strongest works. One wonders what is gained by focusing on the female strength of this story at the expense of the works belonging to “male literary history”, such as Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda. Certainly our expectations of “feminist” insights into Middlemarch are disappointed: the section on this novel is little more than a repetition of previous criticism. Of Daniel Deronda very little is said. Moreover, many of their comments on George Eliot could apply equally to male authors. Sterne offered a “critique of male literary conventions.” Bulwer and Browning were interested in clairvoyance. Dickens in images of confinement, and so on.
Some of what the authors say of George Eliot is suggestive:
Perhaps even her placing of her novels in pre-industrial historical settings can be related to her nostalgia for a time when women's work was important to the maintenance of the human community. In any case, Eliot's troubled movement from Evangelical self-denial to a religion of humanity is only one index of the juggling she had constantly to perform between her identification with male culture and her undeniable consciousness of her self as a woman.
Here is a proper tentativeness about the part such considerations may have played in George Eliot's career. Mostly, however, the authors attempt a bold inclusiveness. Not content with assessing Mary Shelley's “retelling” of Paradise Lost in Frankenstein, they seek to make further sexist points:
Animal and misshapen, these emblems of self-loathing [in Sylvia Plath's “In Plaster”] must have descended at least in part from the distended body of Mary Shelley's darkly parodic Eve/Sin/Monster, whose enormity betokens not only the enormity of Victor Frankenstein's crime and Satan's bulk but also the distensions or deformities of pregnancy and the Swiftian sexual nausea expressed in Lemuei Gulliver's horrified description of a Brobdignagian breast, a passage Mary Shelley no doubt studied along with the rest of Gulliver's Travels when she read the book in 1816, shortly before beginning Frankenstein.
This passage is one of many in which logic is stretched. A common syntactical formula is:
Thus if all women writers, metaphorical orphans in a patriarchal culture, seek literary answers to the questions “How are we fal'n, / Fal'n by mistaken rules … ?” motherless orphans like Mary Shelley and Emily Brontë almost seem to seek literal answers to that question, so passionately do their novels enact distinctive female literary obsessions.
The reader is not offered the freedom to dissent from a) (that “all women writers … seek literary answers …”) but pushed on to accept b) (“Mary Shelley and Emily Brontë almost seem to seek literal answers …”). What, by the way, does “literal” mean here?
The strain is apparent, too, in the mixing of metaphors. A sentence like “Authored by a male. God and by a godlike male, killed into a perfect image of herself, the woman writer's self-contemplation may be said to have begun with a searching glance into the mirror of the male-inscribed literary text” is so overreaching as paradoxically to fall short of accessible argument. For 650 pages these indefatigable authors exhaust the reader with such formidable but unconvincing rhetoric. Is this their conscious revenge for centuries of enforced female muteness? Much energy and scholarship lie behind this book, yet its importance is minimal. The authors claim in their preface to have been “surprised” that they had “found what began to seem a distinctively female tradition.” It is hard not to suspect that they found just what they were looking for, and equally hard to give acceptance to their “findings.”
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SOURCE: A review of The Madwoman in the Attic, in American Literature, Vol. 52, No. 1, March, 1980, pp. 128–32.
[In the following review, Kolodny praises The Madwoman in the Attic for opening up a new way to read women writers, but regrets that the authors, despite their fine chapter on Emily Dickinson, do not distinguish between British and American conditions of authorship for women.]
Following upon a richly detailed anatomy of the ways in which women in general have found themselves “enclosed in the architecture of an overwhelmingly male-dominated society,” and would-be women writers, in particular, have discovered themselves “constricted and restricted by the Palaces of Art and Houses of Fiction male writers authored” (p. xi), Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar observe that, despite all obstacles, “by the end of the eighteenth century … women were not only writing, they were conceiving fictional worlds in which patriarchal images and conventions were severely, radically revised” (p. 44). To delineate what they perceive as “a common, female impulse to struggle free from social and literary confinement through strategic redefinitions of self, art, and society” (p. xii), and thereby account for the artistic development of those “nineteenth-century women writers who found viable ways of circumventing” (p. 72) the encumbrances of what Gertrude Stein called the “patriarchal poetry” of our literary inheritance, Gilbert and Gubar set themselves the formidable task of constructing “a feminist poetics” (p. 17).
A healthy corrective to the habit of explaining away women's writing as the irregularity in an otherwise regular design, The Madwoman in the Attic quite literally excavates the imputed “‘oddity’ of women's writing” (p. 73) to discover the underlying coherence of an art designed “both to express and to camouflage” (p. 81). Swerving “from the central sequences of male literary history,” according to Gilbert and Gubar, women writers “achieved essential authority by telling their own stories,” but—and this is the key—they did so “by following Emily Dickinson's famous (and characteristically female) advice to ‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—In short,” they conclude,
like the twentieth-century American poet, H. D., who declared her aesthetic strategy by entitling one of her novels Palimpsest, women from Jane Austen and Mary Shelley to Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson produced literary works that are in some sense palimpsestic, works whose surface designs conceal or obscure deeper, less accessible (and less socially acceptable) levels of meaning. Thus these authors managed the difficult task of achieving true female literary authority by simultaneously conforming to and subverting patriarchal literary standards.
The readings that result from Gilbert's and Gubar's skillful joint peeling away of the layers of that palimpsest are nothing short of breathtaking, uncovering—in even the best known of these texts—shapes and strategies we had never really seen before.
What may prove troublesome to the readers of this journal is the book's imbalanced and sometimes indiscriminate yoking together of American and British materials. For, despite numerous references to and, in some instances, even extended discussions of Anne Bradstreet, Margaret Fuller, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, Kate Chopin, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, among others, the only American to whom a full chapter is devoted is Emily Dickinson. As a result, the “feminist poetics” developed here is developed largely out of British sources; and that inevitably raises the crucial question as to whether the conditions of authorship were contemporaneously identical for women in England and America. Certainly, their social, economic, and political contexts were not. And while it cannot be denied that the works of the English “satirists of the eighteenth century,” with their “virulent visions” of what Gilbert and Gubar call “the female monster” (p. 30), were greedily imported to American shores, moving periodicals like The Ladies Magazine to declare, in 1792, that, where women writers are concerned, “we admire them more as authors than esteem them as women,” it is also the case that that same century saw the publication of Parts I and II of Charles Brockden Brown's treatise on female equality, Alcuin, and heard Susannah Rowson's young charges annually recite her decidedly egalitarian maxim, “It would be absurd to imagine that talents or virtue were confined to sex or station.”
The issue becomes even more confused in the decades following the Revolution and on into the first half of the nineteenth century when, for reasons of patriotic pride, American writers sought to divorce themselves from slavish adherence to contemporary European—especially British—models; their aim, instead, was to develop an indigenously “American” literature. It might even be argued that, during the first half of the nineteenth century, American authors, generally, suffered before the dominance of the enormously rich European literary inheritance the same kind of “inferiorization” which Gilbert and Gubar attribute to eighteenth-and nineteenth-century women writers’ response to a past rich with maledesigned literary forms. If this can be admitted, then it must also be the case that American women writers entered upon the revisionary stage of literary history with a role somewhat different from that assumed by their English counterparts. For, like their sisters across the sea, denied both classical education and genuine societal encouragement to authorship, American women, too, experienced a profound alienation from the inherited Great Tradition; but, unlike them, they also shared with their American brothers a nagging distrust of any desire to wholly participate in such continuities. Whether this sense of double removal—by virtue of both sex and nationality—from dominant literary traditions proved an added burden or offered an unforeseen liberation, only a comprehensive study focused primarily on American women writers could assess. But that kind of study is neither promised nor offered here. Still, the lack of attention to questions of national differences does tend to weaken—but never vitiate—the persuasiveness of their analyses of American authors.
Happily, however, it does not seriously diminish either the power or the originality of the chapter on Emily Dickinson. Placing Dickinson within the context of contemporary fiction by and about women—as explored in the preceding chapters—and thus relating her life and work to “the proliferation of fictional Victorian women in white,” Gilbert and Gubar discover in Dickinson's poses an “acting out both [of] her reading and its implications” (p. 621) which permitted this “apparently timid, even … neurotically withdrawn” (p. 582) young woman to escape “the Requirements of Victorian reality by assuming the eccentricities of Victorian fiction” (p. 621). “The fantasies of guilt and anger” that were expressed in the writings of her female contemporaries “were literally enacted by Dickinson in her own life, her own being,” they argue:
Where George Eliot and Christina Rossetti wrote about angels of destruction and renunciation, Emily Dickinson herself became such an angel. Where Charlotte Bronte projected her anxieties into images of orphan children, Emily Dickinson herself enacted the part of a child. Where almost all late eighteenth-and nineteenth-century women writers from Maria Edgeworth in Castle Rackrent to Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre, Emily Bronte in Wuthering Heights, and George Eliot in Middlemarch, secreted bitter self-portraits of madwomen in the attics of their novels, Emily Dickinson herself became a madwoman—became … both ironically a madwoman (a deliberate impersonation of a madwoman) and truly a madwoman (a helpless agoraphobic, trapped in a room in her father's house).
By seriously attending—as no male critic ever has—to the iconic significance of Dickinson's ubiquitous white dress, Gilbert and Gubar are able to trace for us “a series of characters” informing both the life and the poetry. “Impersonating simultaneously a ‘little maid’ in white, a dead woman in white, and a ghost in white,” they show how “Dickinson split herself into a series of incubae, haunting not just her father's house but her own mind.” And “the ambiguities and discontinuities implicit in her white dress became,” they conclude, “as much signs of her own psychic fragmentation as of her society's multiple (and conflicting) demands upon women” (pp. 621–22).
Neither all Americanists nor all feminist scholars will feel equally satisfied with the readings of particular poems generated by such a context; and Americanists, in particular, may note the omission of other factors influential upon Dickinson's language and imagery, including, most obviously, her acquaintance with the meeting-house and the familiar vernacular of New England Calvinism. Nonetheless, Gilbert and Gubar make a persuasive case for examining “Dickinson's reading of fiction, especially fiction by women,” as relevant to her poetry, and they clearly demonstrate how much has been lost in the earlier critical disposition to dismiss “her self-dramatization as ‘mere’ girlish posing” or to ignore “the magnitude of the problem Dickinson had to solve as a woman poet” (pp. 583–84).
Precisely these emphases make The Madwoman in the Attic an indispensable addition to every Americanist's bookshelf, taking its place beside Ann Douglas’ The Feminization of American Culture, Nina Baym's Woman's Fiction, and Emily Stipes Watts's The Poetry of American Women from 1632–1945, as at least a partial approach, and a necessary building-block towards a fully comprehensive rewriting of women's literary history in the United States. Fluently written, with every page attesting to the “exhilaration” of a successful collaboration (p. xiii), The Madwoman in the Attic is also essential reading for anyone who wants to grasp the key questions motivating feminist literary criticism as it is currently practiced in the American academy. For, whether or not one finally assents to the Gilbert and Gubar model for “understanding the dynamics of female literary response to male literary assertion and coercion” (p. xii), there can be no doubt that it represents a bold new step in understanding what it means “to be a woman writer in a culture whose fundamental definitions of literary authority are … overtly and covertly patriarchal” (p. 45).
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SOURCE: “Those Proper Ladies Writing in the Attic,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 72, No. 54, February 11, 1980, p. B12.
[In the following review, Miner praises The Madwoman in the Attic for “uncovering a discernible female imagination.”]
The grand success of this study is that it stimulates us to re-read those books by proper ladies from the 19th century. As Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar reconsider each work, they introduce us to The Madwoman in the Attic, the author's double, hiding in the seams of her writing, reflecting her anxiety and rage.
Gilbert and Gubar shatter the images of Jane Austen as the timid parlor mouse, the Brontës as contented rural lasses. George Eliot as the ugly, mannish scourge: “… almost all late 18th and 19th century women writers from Maria Edgeworth in ‘Castle Rackrent’ to Charlotte Brontë in ‘Jane Eyre.’ Emily Brontë in ‘Wuthering Heights,’ and George Eliot in ‘Middlemarch,’ secreted bitter self-portraits of madwomen in the attics of their novels. …” These “madwomen,” according to the authors, railed about the sexual double standard, the domestic entrapment of women and other feminist issues.
“Feminist” is an approach taken by these two scholars without apology, despite the notable risk to their critical credentials in the male academic establishment. Gilbert and Gubar, associate professors of English literature at the University of California, Davis, and Indiana University respectively, insist on assessing art within the context of sexual politics.
The Madwoman in the Attic discusses female literature as a response and a contrast to “male writing.” For instance, Miltonian morality loomed large in the consciences of Victorian women: they were carefully schooled in his themes of incest, woman's evil power man's godliness. But by use of the “madwoman” and other palimpsests, they were able to refute and reinterpret his mandates.
If novelists wrote about “madwomen” to express their feminism, the authors suggest, female poets became “madwomen” because the barriers to lyric poetry were almost impermeable. They cite Emily Dickinson's poems as offering both the ironic impersonation of the madwoman and the realistic reflection of Dickinson's genuine eccentricities: “Dickinson's life itself, in other words, became a kind of novel or narrative poem, in which, through an extraordinarily complex series of maneuvers, aided by costumes that came inevitably to hand, this inventive poet enacted and eventually resolved both her own anxieties about her art and her anger at female subordination.”
“I'm Nobody! Who are you?” asked Dickinson. “How dreary—to be—Somebody— / How public—like a Frog— / To tell one's name—the livelong June— / To an admiring Bog!”
Thanks to Gilbert and Gubar, the admiring Bog grows larger. We return to the writing of these 19th-century women with renewed curiosity, with intimations of a discernible female imagination.
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SOURCE: “A Prey to Madness,” in New Leader, Vol LXIII, No. 4, February 25, 1980, pp. 16–17.
[In the following essay, Pettingell expresses ambivalence towards The Madwoman in the Attic, seeing it as intelligently insightful but marred by “questionable theorizing,” and “simplistic” feminist “jargon.”]
What nightmare inspired a quiet teenage mother to create Frankenstein? Was it necessary for the Brontë sisters and Mary Ann Evans to publish under masculine pseudonyms? Why did Emily Dickinson choose to immure herself in her parents’ house all her life and write poems in secret, when she might have exercised her vivacious talents on the world at large? Do the violent images all these writers employ have a common denominator in their experience as women?
These questions are addressed in a radical new study, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, by feminist critics Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. As their central postulate they assert that the female imagination differs significantly from the male. And because the woman writer is treated as an interloper in that male club called the English Literary Tradition, they argue, to the extent that her work is not merely imitative it has to be subversive. Outwardly “one of the boys,” she clandestinely foments rebellion against their values and revises their mythology. “Even the most apparently conservative and decorous women writers obsessively create fiercely independent characters who seek to destroy all the patriarchal structures which both their authors and their authors’ submissive heroines seem to accept as inevitable.” They must be careful, however, to disguise their feminine perspective as a masculine one, for to be caught rebelling would be fatal: The male archangels who guard the Miltonic literary bastion would cast the offenders into the outer darkness of “lady novelists” and “female poetasters.” Yet ignorance or denial of the female imagination, Gilbert and Gubar insist, has hitherto prevented an authoritative interpretation of their subjects’ works—a lack they seek to remedy in this volume.
The madwoman referred to in the title is Bertha Rochester of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Though her husband denies her existence and locks her in the attic, she eludes her keeper at night to haunt the sleeping members of his household like the spirit of Darkness. Gilbert and Gubar perceptively demonstrate that rather than the stock Gothic bogy critics have usually seen, Bertha is really the character all women fear to become—“intemperate and unchaste,” as Mr. Rochester describes her, aggressive to the point of murderous half-beast/half witch. He contrasts the demure Jane Eyre, his “good fairy,” with this demon, but Jane knows the anger she was capable of during her repressive childhood and is afraid that in the role of Rochester's mistress she might be driven to lose her control and find herself taking Bertha's place in the attic. Jane and Bertha are, in a sense, doubles. The madwoman can also be seen as a fictional release for the dark, repressed side of Charlotte Brontë's life, straining against unendurable frustrations.
The authors trace their twin preoccupations with confinement and monstrosity through the novels of Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, and George Eliot. Noting that Austen might at first seem an outsider to this company, they contend that her writing, too, is a “cover story” that conceals resentment. Her heroines defend themselves against male gibes about woman's proverbial inconstancy and flightiness with their only weapon, wit, although Austen, in the role of Fate, often comes to their aid before book's end by humbling their powerful opponents. “Men have every advantage in telling their own story,” remarks Anne Eliott during one barbed exchange in Persuasion. “The pen has been in their hands.” Women, she dryly adds, “live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey on us.”
Milton, the grim patriarch of Romanticism and something of a misogynist, forced his daughters to read Latin and Greek aloud to him in his blindness, a task the girls bitterly objected to because they could not understand the languages. Gilbert and Gubar liken 19th-century women writers to Milton's daughters trying to cast off their yoke: Mary Shelley rewrote his creation story in Frankenstein; Emily Brontë reversed the values of his heaven and hell in Wuthering Heights; and George Eliot criticized the ambiguous results of compelling dutiful sacrifices.
But all these women paid the price of suffering from the classical anxiety of rebellious children: Wishing to be accepted on their own terms, they needed at the same time to be approved of on Milton's. This double-bind, in which the very aggressive powers required to create are reckoned unwomanly, drives women to write with repressed violence. It was a reading of Paradise Lost, our critics infer, that gave Mary Shelley her famous nightmare. In the resulting novel, she subverts the Miltonic order: When Frankenstein peruses that epic, he is convinced that he is the is “the new Adam”; simultaneously he fulfills many of the roles Milton assigned to the put-upon Eve. As for the Brontës and George Eliot, they hid behind masculine names because they worried that their subject matter might be thought unfeminine.
The American poet Emily Dickinson, a devout admirer of these female English novelists, was so impressed by the figure of the madwoman in the attic that she decided to take the role upon herself. Dressed ever in white, she kept to her room, writing “half-cracked” notes or poems to people she refused to see. This persona was deliberately cultivated, Gilbert and Gubar insist, because so long as she knew that others thought her crazy, she did not need to worry about the unorthodoxy of her verse; madness was a pose that gave her artistic freedom. “When what her world called ‘sanity’ threatened, she steadied her hold on [madness] … in which she imagined fierce flights of escape like the one Milton's Eve takes.”
The close textual readings Gilbert and Gubar give the novels are often insightful and valuable. Moreover, the critics display scholarly responsibility in not forcing their material to fit their argument. They do not attempt to portray their authors as modern feminists, or suggest that they were attempting to overthrow their societies; these novelists, after all, were conservative about most everything except their art. Gubar's perceptions about Jane Austen are delicate and, ultimately, poignant. Gilbert's study of Milton's ambiguous influence on Mary Shelley and Emily Brontë is brilliant and original. Her portrait of Charlotte Brontë burns with an emotional conviction very much in the spirit of that passionate writer's work.
George Eliot presents more of a problem. Her themes are not so succinct and her complex personality is harder to capture. It is too bad that so much space is wasted on “The Lifted Veil,” a Gothic story of little merit that is being given too much attention by critics after years of deserved neglect. Still, Gubar offers fascinating insights into the influence of the American feminists Margaret Fuller and Harriet Beecher Stowe on Eliot. The English novelist praised Fuller's sense of “the Nemesis lurking in the vices of the oppressed.” While she found this quality lacking in Stowe's fiction, Uncle Tom's Cabin served to bolster her faith in “the possibility of a uniquely female tradition in literature characterized by love rather than anger.” Thus Eliot meted out strong punishments to her characters, yet allowed her heroines to develop “resources that transform the vindictive noose of the author's revengeful plot into a kind of lifeline held out to other creatures threading their way through the labyrinth” of an unhappy and imperfect world.
In contrast to the largely persuasive mid-section of The Madwoman in the Attic, the theoretical introduction and the two chapters on women poets at the end are shrill and combative. Out come the feminist bludgeons (“patriarchal society”) coupled merrily with the Freudian (pens equal penises). Gilbert and Grubar claim that their theory of the “anxiety of female authorship” was inspired by Harold Bloom's “anxiety of influence.” “For our purposes,” they announce sententiously, “Bloom's historical construct is useful not only because it helps identify and define the psychosexual context in which so much Western literature was authored, but also because it can help us distinguish the anxiety and achievements of female writers from those of male writers.” They fail to realize, though, that Bloom's is not a theory of social influence; it holds that human nature would dictate the same literary pattern under any conditions. Gilbert and Gubar appear to believe that “society” was responsible for the schizophrenia of the 19th-century woman writer, just as they think that Freud's theories are “an analysis of patriarchal society” rather than a statement about basic human nature. They are reminiscent of the Marxist critics who are convinced that if society were changed, our attitudes would alter as well.
The real inspiration for this book seems not to be Harold Bloom but Virginia Woolf, whose A Room of One's Own the authors quote reverently on innumerable occasions. Unfortunately, Gilbert and Gubar mistake her aphorisms for profundity; where Woolf trips lightly, they galumph. (Even if Woolf took the ideas presented in that essay as seriously as her disciples do, her treatment of them was superficial.) Dubious judgment is evident as well in the treatment of poetry. Elizabeth Barrett Browning's tedious “Aurora Leigh” is defended because these critics like its “message.” Because they have no ear for Emily Dickinson's nuance, their readings make her into one of the worst poets of all time!
I wanted this book to be better than it is, for Gilbert and Gubar have seized on a powerful image and some strong ideas. Alas, their combination of the original and the rigid gives The Madwoman in the Attic, like many of its subjects, a schizophrenic personality. It is a pity that so much intelligence and insight should give way to questionable theorizing and simplistic jargon.
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SOURCE: A review of The Madwoman in the Attic, in Ms., Vol. 8, No. 8, February, 1980, p. 39.
[In the following review, Bernikow admires the way Gubar and Gilbert support their arguments in The Madwoman in the Attic.]
[The Madwoman in the Attic] is long, rich, and brilliant. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, their voices blended, the seams mended, write as one, and that one sees deeply into literature. They shed light on the relationship between 19th-century women living imprisoned in men's houses and female writers of the time imprisoned in masculine texts. They look closely, anatomizing the work of Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, and Emily Dickinson.
The authors have a big picture: the effect of life on art, archetypes of the female imagination, the meaning of recurrent images of enclosure and madwomen in attics. And they have infinite detail: close reading of Charlotte Brontë's novels, a chapter for each; careful treading through Dickinson's poems. These readings are subtle, entwined—take time to read, return to the original, read again. On Brontë's Villette, especially, they open doors. The section on “white” imagery in Dickinson's life and poems takes off like a jazz riff. White, they begin, frequently represents white heat and polar cold. Both. They spin this thread of thinking, stop, spin another.
Many feminists have been waiting for someone to counter Freudian critic Harold Bloom's “anxiety of influence” theory of literature. Against his theory of how (male) writers enact struggles with their literary fathers in order to create, Gubar and Gilbert posit an “anxiety of authorship” to describe what happens to women writers. They speak of “dis-ease” and “infection in the sentence” as the literary manifestations of female anxiety. This is a piercingly articulate chapter, provocative and hearty.
Having The Madwoman in the Attic at hand is like having a good friend nearby. She is enormously well read, sharp, visionary in what she sees when she reads a book. You love to talk with her. You thank her for what she shows you; you always come back to her; count on her insights; and you like her enormously.
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SOURCE: “Angels and Monsters of Feminist Fiction,” in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 57, No. 2, Spring, 1981, pp. 358–61.
[In the following review, Miller contends that in The Madwoman in the Attic Gubar and Gilbert are more successful when applying their theories to certain authors, such as Charlotte Bronte, than when they critique George Eliot or Jane Austen.]
It is unquestionably true that Madwoman in the Attic is an ambitious and substantial work of criticism and scholarship. It offers important feminist rereadings of many of the major texts by women writers in the 19th century. In it, Gilbert and Gubar demonstrate an impressive command not only of the primary texts but also of the biographies, letters, juvenilia, and criticism of the writers covered; the range of allusion goes beyond the 19th century to include 17th- and 18th-century literature, as well as myth, fairy tale, psychoanalytic literature, and literary theory. The book provides more than a series of illuminating readings: these readings arise out of a general theory about the problems faced by the female literary subculture in the 19th century and about the techniques which evolved among women writers to deal with these problems.
Gilbert and Gubar begin with the assumption that 19th-century women writers had a different relationship with their literary predecessors than their brothers had. The woman writer, before being able to move on to self-definition, had to struggle with the two “paradigmatic polarities” (p. 76), angel or monster, in terms of which she was defined by male writers and which were so alien to her sense of herself as a woman and as a writer. In creating versions of the self in her fiction, therefore, with the help of her female precursors she radically revised those conventions. Monsters appear, yes, but they are madwomen, burning down the patriarchal mansion. Angels show up as well, but strangely afflicted with anorexia, agoraphobia, claustrophobia, aphasia, and amnesia. Moreover, the angel and the monster seem strangely related, the madwoman acting out the subversive impulses of the good heroine and, as the authors would have it, of her creator. Further, since those impulses cannot be expressed directly by any woman who wants the approval of her culture, she writes conventional novels or poetry with concealed levels of meaning, “palimpsestic” works “whose surface designs conceal or obscure deeper, less accessible (and less socially acceptable) levels of meaning” (p. 73).
Given their interest in male predecessors, it is not surprising that a section of the book is concerned with that great Nobodaddy among male writers, Milton. The authors’ expressed concern with Milton is in his effect on creative women, not in what he may have intended by his portrayal of females (both Eve and Sin) in Paradise Lost. Nevertheless, that distinction is lost when the authors offer their feminist reading of the epic rather than focusing on the articulated distress of women writers from Wollstonecraft on about his portrayal of Eve. This reading of Milton forms the background for the analysis of two other works which they consider responses to Paradise Lost: Frankenstein, which articulates Shelley's acquiescence in Milton's cosmology, and Wuthering Heights, an attempt to rewrite the epic “so as to make it a more accurate mirror of female experience” (p. 220; italics theirs). The choice of Frankenstein seems reasonable enough, given the prominent references to Milton in that book, and their reading is a valuable extension of the work done recently by Ellen Moers and others to see it as a text written by a woman. Wuthering Heights seems at first an irritatingly eccentric choice, as they themselves admit; despite the weakness of the connection, however, their focus on the heaven/hell imagery in the book turns out to be extremely fruitful.
This book originated from work Gilbert and Gubar did on Charlotte Brontë, on whom each of them has previously published articles. Brontë, more than any other novelist in the 19th century, has received attention from feminist critics, primarily because of the passionate rebelliousness that has so disturbed critics as different as Miss Rigby and Virginia Woolf. The section on Brontë is the strongest in the book: without being redundant, they build on recent feminist perceptions about her work, which in Brontë's case have surely provided explanations of puzzling or disturbing elements that have been ignored by conventional criticism. The endings of her novels are a primary focus; when a novel like Shirley concludes with the prospective bridegroom saying that his bride “gnaws her chain,” a radical dissatisfaction with the conventional happy ending and with what marriage meant in reality to women might reasonably be inferred. Their discussion of the significance of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre (who provided the title for their book) is particularly good: they see her as the embodiment of Jane's anger, which far more than her sexuality disturbed Victorian critics. Their treatment of Villette focuses on the even more oblique ways in which Lucy's repressed rage at being perhaps the most deprived heroine in English fiction is displayed: through imagery, through the unreliable narration, through her use of other female characters—nuns, young girls, witches—to represent aspects of her self, and so on.
The chapters devoted to the more conservative Jane Austen and George Eliot are not as convincing as the one on Brontë. In them, despite many good insights, we see some of the characteristic weaknesses of the book, which surface occasionally in the best chapters as well. Here the tendency to focus on minor works as keys to the major fiction becomes irritating: Eliot's “Lifted Veil” is given a strained reading and assigned too much importance in indicating characteristic attitudes in Eliot's major fiction. Gilbert and Gubar share with some other modern feminist critics a tendency to regard female characters as victims, no matter how clearly the writer places them in an unfavorable light. Both Austen and Eliot give short shrift to female characters who do not manage to live according to a rigorous moral code in spite of the evident restrictions on their lives and training, and very few readers perceive, as Gilbert and Gubar do, any secret sympathy from these writers for characters like Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park or Rosamond in Middlemarch. The authors also have a tendency to assert points that are then treated as proven or are supported by muddled reasoning: in the Austen section, for instance, the assertion that bitchy women “enact impulses that make them doubles not only for the heroines but for their author as well” (p. 170) seems more counter-intuitive than it does with Brontë and surely calls for some cogent defense. Their case is by its very nature hard to prove—secret, oblique meanings in a text are harder to argue for convincingly than obvious ones—but the jaggedness of Brontë's fictional surface gives them a better toehold than the smooth, authoritative polish of Eliot's and, especially, Austen's.
The book concludes with a section on Emily Dickinson, nicely prepared for by a discussion of several English poets, most notably Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti. In Dickinson they see the conflicts and symbols they have been tracing embodied not just in her poetry but also in her life. Emily Dickinson the angel, dressed in white; Emily Dickinson the madwoman, the agoraphobic afraid to leave her father's house: it is an intriguing view and provides us with a thread by which to find our way through the poetry of that very puzzling artist.
Madwoman in the Attic is probably the most ambitious and comprehensive book of feminist literary criticism yet written, and as such it is to be reckoned with. It provides us with a fresh look at the major female texts of the 19th century, and if it occasionally seems wrong-headed, it is never inconsequential. No one interested in the 19th century or in women writers can afford to overlook it.
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SOURCE: A review of The Madwoman in the Attic, in Review of English Studies, Vol. 33, No. 131, August, 1982, pp. 345–47.
[In the following excerpt, Boumelha stresses Harold Bloom's methodological influence on The Madwoman in the Attic.]
… [In The Madwoman in the Attic,] Gilbert and Gubar take their methodological point of departure from Harold Bloom's parables of the anxiety of influence—a theory which has on occasion been attacked as patriarchal, but which they commend for making central and explicit the male dominance of Western literary history that is naturalized and allowed to remain unspoken in most other accounts. The Madwoman in the Attic attempts to supplement that theoretical work with an account of the traditions of women's writing, traditions established as such writing struggles to make a space for itself within (or beside) Bloom's Oedipal scenario of the strong male poets. The woman writer, they argue, must confront not only the anxiety of influence which she shares with the male writer, but also a primary and potentially crippling ‘anxiety of authorship', as she seeks among the works of her female precursors the enabling legitimation of her own act of defiance. Faced with the choice between becoming a ‘lady writer’ (with all the trivialization that that condescending and circumscribing phrase implies) or a male mimic, she enters through her texts into a dialogue with those precursors, from which she learns to seek out strategies for the subversion of the patriarchal traditions.
After a theoretical exposition, the larger part of The Madwoman in the Attic is given over to a detailed examination of that dialogue and those strategies. Gilbert and Gubar persuasively demonstrate elements of a conscious tradition within women's writing by drawing out recurrent narrative paradigms (such as the Fall), female figures (like Snow White or Lilith), and images (among them the activities of sewing and mirroring, and the ‘women's diseases’ of anorexia and agoraphobia). To set against this tradition, they examine some ways in which women's fictions have undermined the authoritative male texts. Jane Austen's novels are made to reveal how parody and silence can subvert what appears to be the most submissively conventional of structures; while in Charlotte Brontë's fiction, a self-division verging on self-hatred brings forth the image of Bertha Mason which gives Gilbert and Gubar their title, and which exemplifies the projection of the destructive potentialities of sexuality, rage, and revenge on to a demonic alter ego; George Eliot, on the other hand, adopts a masculine persona which enables her to enforce retributive narrative resolutions upon the rebellious impulses that threaten the coherence of her texts. Other, and rather less satisfactory, chapters chart the relation of Mary Shelley and Emily Brontë to the Miltonic version of Eden and the Fall, and examine the work of nineteenth-century women poets.
Bloom is very evidently the precursor of this book, in the preference for visionary authors and Gothic sub-texts, in the serious (solemn?) use of puns and metaphor, and in the occasionally questionable use of biographical material. Though it is over-long and sometimes over-detailed, The Madwoman in the Attic is a remarkable and valuable examination of the significance and modulations of gender as an ideological determination of women's writing. Sometimes, however, the concentration on gender has the effect of confining women authors in a prison of sex which seems to be outside all other social forces, and the result can be reductive. After all, Eliot's difficult and unstable migration between the roles of Romantic visionary and Victorian sage, for example, cannot wholly be ascribed to the subversion of her masculine persona by an inescapable awareness of her own womanhood. To present it as such is to elide all those other ideological determinants—such as the conflict between Evangelical Christianity and moralizing rationalism—that enter into the conjuncture of her texts. …
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SOURCE: “Dickinson's Readers,” in New England Quarterly, Vol. 57, No. 1, March, 1984, pp. 106–10.
[In the following excerpt, Porter discusses The Madwoman in the Attic in an essay reviewing feminist reading strategies used to interpret Emily Dickinson's poetry.]
Seven recent studies of Emily Dickinson seek the crucial thing that is missing from her life and work: a center that will finally arrest the freeplay of inference about the poet's reclusive existence and her large aggregation of brief poems. All but two of these critical works approach Dickinson from an acute feminist angle. The remaining two attempt to find coherence in the manuscript books that the poet put together, systematically and then sporadically, over a period of twenty years, beginning when she was twenty-seven. The persistence of this itch to make sense of Dickinson inevitably raises a basic question about critical validation: how many myths and countermyths can the poet, who called herself a “backwoodsman,” inhabit simultaneously?
Feminist criticism, asserting as its first principle that sexual identity and art are inseparable, is essentially biographical and socially based. Its central topos for the nineteenth century is a patriarchal social structure against which women writers, by overt or covert means, rebelled. The critical objective is to find the terms by which that agenda of subversion, the “subtext,” was encoded in the writing and the hierarchy of power, with its inequality of gender relationships, betrayed. As a basic strategy, feminist criticism tends to split off the writer's motivation from the rest of the literary experience and to overlook what is idiosyncratic as expression and fortuitous as art.
But a poem is two things at the same instant: something said and something made. The making bears on what it is that can be said, and this transaction probably cannot be overlooked if literary criticism is to remain not only critical but literary. Thus feminist criticism, as its single most significant and welcome challenge, has sharpened the need for new thinking about the central concern of poetics, that is, what makes a verbal message a work of art.
The feminist ideology as it applies to Emily Dickinson holds that she withdrew into her father's house deliberately to do her writing and to reject the society that stifled her because she was a woman and because she wrote. Selections from her poems as well as passages from the letters are used to make an autobiographical account. Such critical purposefulness sometimes necessitates an uncritical view of the poems so as to include the most banal of them. Out of this program, a drama emerges in which Dickinson, by one strategy or another, from poor syntax to feigned madness, sustained herself.
That view of self-dramatization links the essays collected in Suzanne Juhasz's Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. The premise, as outlined in Juhasz's introduction, is that the poet's art “is an extension and manifestation of her specific biographical, psychological, cultural situation” and that “Dickinson's actions make sense.” The essays range, with varying perceptiveness, over the poet's metaphorical transformations, her themes of masculinity, love, and childhood, and her language.
Adalaide Morris's even-handed essay on Dickinson's love for men and for women, based on the three “Master” letters and similar poems and the poems and notes she sent to her sister-in-law Susan, shows “the extravagance of Dickinson's commitments” and concludes that “she hesitated to choose any one habit of loving.” The unsustainable assumption, however, is that the 276 poems sent to Susan were actually written for her. Barbara A.C. Mossberg argues too narrowly that the poet was “a career child” whose “obsessive use of the little girl persona” reflects “the lack of society's esteem for and encouragement of her mental abilities.” In a metaphorical tour de force, Sandra M. Gilbert, presenting a variation on her portrait of Dickinson in The Madwoman in the Attic (coauthored with Susan Gubar), asserts that the poet by “a process of self-mythologizing” managed to “recreate herself-and-her-life as a single, emblematic text” in which she exploited “the constraints of nineteenth-century womanhood so as to transform and transcend them.” Evidently outperforming Oscar Wilde, the poet put her creative genius into her life as well as her art. Gilbert's metaphors of transformation abound; for example, she regards Dickinson's white dress first as “an empty page on which in invisible ink this theatrical poet quite consciously wrote a letter to the world” and then, because of its colorless color, as similar to Melville's Moby-Dick.
Three essays examine Dickinson's language. Joanne Feit Diehl skillfully illuminates the poet's originality, seeing her setting her linguistic complexities against the world's “barrenness of circumstance.” Diehl's generalization concerning “misunderstanding” by those Dickinson “hoped would recognize and nurture her genius,” however, is incorrect in view of our knowledge of the importunities over the years of editors, Helen Hunt Jackson, and others. Margaret Homans, in the most sophisticated of the essays, proposes that Dickinson developed a new kind of expression that breaks down the gender hierarchy embedded in language. In arguing that the poet initiated a “critique of the dualistic structure of language and of metaphor,” that is, that she upset rhetorical habits responsible for hierarchization, Homans has made Dickinson, of all dread things, a deconstructionist! Cristanne Miller's essay presents a similar, simplified argument that Dickinson “manifests her (female) poetic freedom in undermining traditional patterns of language.” A typical disruption is said to occur in the phrase “How many times these low feet staggered,” where the poet, Miller states unconvincingly, means “flaming poetic feet” that stagger thought.
The best written of the essays is by Joanne A. Dobson, who seeks to define “that elusive masculine form” that haunts the poetry and, like Albert Gelpi in his essay in Shakespeare's Sisters, concludes that it is “an enduring archetype lodged deep within her psychic makeup,” a “dimly perceived ‘masculine’ self … that had long been deprived in the ‘real’ world of recognition and expression.” Karl Keller's breezy essay entitled “Notes on Sleeping with Emily Dickinson” asserts in a campy reflection of the Gilbert thesis that Dickinson's life “was show biz.” Deliberately outrageous, he explains that there are “those who are in on her, and there are those who aren't” and asks “Are there those genders who get her code … and those genders who don't?” Keller is good on Dickinson's cryptic nature, but he misses the syllabic constraint in her lines that made her muddle her language, and he chooses to misread, for example, a simple poem about flowers as Dickinson's idea about the mixed pleasures of sleeping with a man. One wonders what he might have done with the line “Make this Bed with Awe” had he known that this was her nickname for her brother Austin!
In the background of the Juhasz essays is the assertive theatrical parable from Gilbert and Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic that transforms the poet's life into fiction. The book's vast premise is that nineteenth-century women writers in England and America “almost obsessively create characters who enact their own, covert authorial anger.” Adopting Virginia Woolf (in particular her story of Judith Shakespeare, the mythic sister of William) and a simplified Harold Bloom as presiding spirits, Gilbert and Gubar construct the myth into which Dickinson is fitted: “while the woman novelist may evade … her authorial anxieties by writing about madwomen and other demonic doubles … the woman poet must literally become a madwoman.” Dickinson's “inner novel” shows her, always dressed in white, enacting a little maid, a fierce virgin, a nun, a bride, a madwoman, a dead woman, an empress, and a gnome. “Dickinson's life itself,” they write, “became a kind of novel or narrative poem” in which, aided by costumes, she acted out “her anxieties about her art and her anger at female subordination.”
The strategy of exposition depends often on rhetorical sleight of hand—one thing “suggests” another, certain actions “for all practical purposes” become others—as in the phrase “in some sense,” which attempts to tie down a balloon of generalization: “indeed, almost all nineteenth-century women were in some sense imprisoned in men's houses.” There is more metaphorical freeplay: “In a sense,” the authors write, “we might say that as a private spider artist Dickinson employs her yarn of pearl to resolve her quarrelsomely fragmented public selves—the nun and the gnome, the virgin and the empress—into a single woman pearly white.” Of Dickinson's disclaimer that her poems were confessional, the authors blur the distinction the poet made between fiction and reality: “Even if the poet's ‘I’ … is a ‘supposed person,’ the intensity of her dangerous impersonation of this creature may cause her to take her own metaphors literally, enact her themes herself.”
Imaginative in its staging, The Madwoman in the Attic succeeds by its stolidly thematic method in transforming each woman writer into an ideological model enacting “the paradigmatic female story,” a portrayal of women writers’ “raging desire to escape male houses and male texts. …”
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SOURCE: “Women Writers and Feminist Critics,” in Atlantic, Vol. 256, No. 2, August, 1985, pp. 88–91.
[In the following essay, Rose praises Gubar and Gilbert's literary analyses in The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, but is concerned about the effect of establishing a female literary canonon on future women writers.]
At more than 2,000 pages and over two pounds, [The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women] is not in any sense to be taken lightly. Intended as a textbook for courses in women's literature, it is likely to be widely used, because of the prestige of its editors, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in the field of women's studies, and because of the prestige of the Norton anthology series in university literature departments. Our daughters and granddaughters will lug this book home on vacations from college. With what baggage will it freight their minds?
Happily, it should convince them that writing is not an activity alien to women. From Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe in the Middle Ages to Alice Walker and Leslie Marmon Silko, women have produced a large and varied body of writing in English. This anthology includes close to a hundred and fifty authors, from many countries. The numbers are smaller the further back one goes, but the surprises are greater. In the fifteenth century Margery Kempe wrote about being tempted to commit adultery by a man who refused her when she consented. In the seventeenth century Aphra Behn wrote a poem about male impotence, called “The Disappointment.” It's also good to know that women can write dazzlingly about nothing at all—like the dying Alice James, who described the seductive moment when she felt herself “floated for the first time into the deep sea of divine cessation.”
The burden that Gilbert and Gubar have imposed on women of the future is the burden of a tradition—a nurturant tradition. It used to be that women writers, working in silence, exile, and cunning, sought out other women writers to admire. Virginia Woolf wrote about Dorothy Wordsworth and Christina Rossetti, among others, and these essays helped her “self-definition as a woman writer,” Gilbert and Gubar say. “For if women had written, and written successfully, women could write.” To Virginia Woolf and her successors, the female literary past was, according to Gilbert and Gubar, “empowering rather than intimidating.” Now that the female literary past has been enshrined in this gigantic anthology, the observation that it has been empowering in the past becomes a moral imperative for the future. Finding and loving our literary ancestors is no longer a secret pleasure and private solace but a filial duty.
In editorial comments throughout the book Gilbert and Gubar present a female tradition of support and encouragement, a literature “empowered by female community.” Eudora Welty's debt to Katherine Anne Porter is noted, as is Elizabeth Bishop's loyalty to her “major female literary mentor,” Marianne Moore. Not for women is the kind of literary past Harold Bloom describes, which creates anxiety and provokes rebellion. Not for women is a literary history filled with conflict and marked by aggressive self-definition. Whereas little boys, even wimpy little boy writers, are allowed to hate their literary fathers and have their rebellions, little girls, even rebellious little girl writers, are expected to be good and love their literary mothers.
This anthology takes the model of a women's therapy group and extends it over time and space to art: women join hands across the ages to enhance their self-definition as women writers and to help one another create. Some writers don't want to belong to such a group. Because the editors have been so inclusive, because they apologize for having been “unable to represent such increasingly self-aware movements as those currently being pioneered by Chicanas and Italian-American women,” one wonders at their omissions. A few I noticed among contemporary writers (of whom sixty-one are included): Ann Beattie, Anne Tyler, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Renata Adler, Annie Dillard, Cynthia Ozick. The suspicion arises that at least one or two of these individual talents declined to make one with The Tradition in English. In her lifetime, as Gilbert and Gubar tell us, Elizabeth Bishop refused to let her work be included in collections of women's writings. Her executor allows it now.
Why might a woman writer prefer not to be a Woman Writer? Perhaps for the same reason a frog dislikes to be used as a demonstration of the nervous system. It's afraid that might be all there is to life. A tension, a potential conflict, exists between women writers who sometimes do not want to be thought of as Women Writers or, indeed, even as women, and feminist literary critics who need them to be their material. The conflict of interest is, I think, insufficiently acknowledged. The male tradition, which has never assumed that writers, editors, and critics all have a common interest simply on the grounds of gender, seems to me in this case at any rate the more humane.
“Literature by women” is in fact a controversial category, not self-evidently valid like “English literature” or “American literature.” Who could imagine refusing to be included in The Norton Anthology of English Literature? Who, on the other hand, could take seriously a Norton Anthology of Literature by Men? The editors dodge this important issue and in doing so render the anthology covertly polemical.
The more feminist the writers, the more comfortable the editors seem to feel about including them. Susan Griffin, represented by one poem, is praised for being “consistently productive and persistently feminist in her writing,” whereas excuses must be made for Denise Levertov: “Though she does not define herself as a feminist, her poetry frequently expresses a distinctively female perspective on the world, celebrating the values of nature and nurture.” So a hierarchy is established: women who write, Women Writers, who have a distinctively female perspective and celebrate values that Gilbert and Gubar consider female (like nature and nurture), and self-consciously feminist writers. But in that case, where are the important feminist nonfiction writers of recent times? Where are Betty Friedan, Susan Brownmiller, Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem? The book is too political for a good anthology of literature and yet it is not an anthology of feminist writings. Despite the editors’ conviction that the texts they've included, “at the very least, suggest the contours of the canon into which readers will be able to assimilate the works of many other women authors,” the grounds for their choices are unclear.
Certainly this is a democratic anthology—truly great writers get little more representation that the merely interesting. It is best read as a collection of works about women's experience rather than as a collection of great works by women. Fair enough. Why shouldn't content occasionally be allowed to take precedence over form? The emphasis on female perspective leads to the inclusion of some wonderful pieces—for example, Ursula Le Guin's “Sur,” a story about an imaginary expedition to the South Pole in 1909 by a group of South American women who think, “If Captain Scott can do it, why can't we?” They make it to the pole but find the event anticlimactic. It's a delightful parable about the female preference for affiliation over achievement. And there's the rub. The story has been selected to make a point about female nature. So has story after story, poem after poem. Occasionally, an effect other than that of didacticism is produced. An excerpt from Anaïs Nin's diary about the attraction between her and June Miller overcomes the deadly pointedness of the anthology. Presumably, the passage has been selected to illustrate erotic attraction between women, but the passage wins. It is erotic.
True, if you want the red-hot experience of literature, you do not go to a Norton Anthology. It is a teaching tool, not to be faulted for not being Palgrave's Golden Treasury. Still, the amount of apparatus, as opposed to art, in this volume is appalling. The literature scarcely has a chance. The editors seem to pick the shortest piece by each writer and then engulf it in a critical essay that leaves no question of how you should respond. Isak Dinesen is represented by “The Blank Page,” perhaps the briefest story she wrote. Jean Rhys, a great story-writer, is given only two pages to prove herself, and barely can. One story serves to represent—or misrepresent—Eudora Welty, Tillie Olsen, Carson McCullers, Muriel Spark, Doris Lessing, Willa Cather, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Grace Paley, among others. So you come to depend on the critical essay. How would you know that Dorothy Parker was funny if the editors didn't tell you so, and didn't quote, in the headnote, Parker's quip “Brevity is the soul of Lingerie”? You'd never know it on the basis of her story “You Were Perfectly Fine,” one of her most mannered and dated—but one of her shortest.
Sometimes the literature seems positively to exist so that Gilbert and Gubar may write about its author. Alice Dunbar-Nelson is represented by a twenty-one-line poem and discussed in a considerably longer essay, which tells about her work in behalf of civil rights and world peace (black women are excused from the insistent pressure to join hands with other women—questions of race are allowed to take precedence over those of gender) and also about her marriages to the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and then to the publisher of the Wilmington Advocate.
Indeed, The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women is marked by a courtesy to husbands that we never see toward wives in predominantly male anthologies. Joyce Carol Oates, we are told, is married to “the scholar Raymond Smith.” Ursula Le Guin met her husband, “the historian Charles A. Le Guin,” when she was studying in Paris on a Fulbright. Margaret Drabble married an actor and began writing backstage, when she was pregnant. The domestic details are welcome, of course, as gossip always is, and in some ways useful. They suggest a context of domesticity for women's writing in which every act of creativity becomes a miracle. But sometimes the notations are ludicrous: “The daughter of Isidore and Nan Gordimer, she attended …” And sometimes they are misleading: “The mother of two children, Paley captures …” Would anyone think of saying, “The father of ten children, Dickens captures …”? It privileges experience over art (as does this entire anthology), suggesting that there is a necessary connection between the experience of mothering and the ability to render it in art.
Gigantism afflicts new fields; modesty comes with endurance. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women cannot resist, in its historical introductions, presenting much of human history anew. The rule seems to be that no proper name can go unexplained; the assumption, that the reader knows nothing and must learn all from this anthology. Thus, on one page we have “the poet-suffragist Alice Meynell,” “the colonial apologist Rudyard Kipling,” the “activist-feminist writers Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Crystal Eastman,” and “the Viennese psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856–1939).” Some selections seem to exist to be footnoted, so that essential information may be perpetuated. One of these is Dorothy Parker's poem “Song of One of the Girls,” which names many great women in history and permits explanations like “Sappho was a Greek lyric poet of the seventh century B.C.” and “Madame Récamier (1777–1849) was a French beauty and friend of Madame de Staël.” It is the kind of thing you give to girls to make them proud of being female, like The Great Women of History Cut-Out Book.
Mind-numbing generalizations are endemic to this sort of anthology. They seem more egregious here, because The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women might have limited itself. Instead, in order to talk about the flowering of women's literature in the twentieth century, the editors feel they must recount the rise to power of “Benito Mussolini, Il Duce (‘the leader’)” and of “Adolph Hitler, the so-called Fuehrer (‘leader’).” We must know that bomber pilots in the Second World War were more alienated from their victims than those in the First World War. We must know about DNA and ICBMs as well as IUDs.
This kind of writing generates its own connections. American writers went to Paris in the twenties not because it was cheap to live there but “because the new availability and speed of steamships, railroads, and motorcars had made longrange travel easy.” Blacks, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, “and other disadvantaged groups” move into the decaying cities of America. Members of the white middle class sit in the suburbs watching Ozzie and Harriet. They develop an ethic of togetherness, maturity, and adjustment. The Southern Gothic writers come along to depict immaturity and perversity. Movements sweep across the pages in waves of abstraction. Everything fits. But it has been an effort. Sometimes one's heart goes out to the editors, who have taken on so much. “Charting the movements of twentieth-century writers, painters, and musicians,” they confess, “can be dizzying.” Sometimes one's heart goes out to the student who must stay awake through prose like this: “To complicate matters further, the new researches of anthropologists and archeologists led to a kind of cultural relativism that fostered skepticism about the nature of human society itself.” It seems a lot to ask of the reader, to encompass both the great sweep of twentieth-century history and the marital history of Alice Dunbar-Nelson.
The critical introductions in The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women are better—indeed, they are awesome—when they address themselves more narrowly to women's literature and women in literature. The editors provide a brilliant interpretation of Frankenstein, in which both Frankenstein the creator and his creation, the lonely outcast monster, are seen as images of female experience. They are excellent at describing the female angle in various writers’ work—Le Guin's anthropological interest in gender, Muriel Spark's interest in communities of women. They refreshingly bring together Daisy Buchanan and Brett Ashley as flappers, and see the flapper as an image of the destructive power of women, an expression of male fear. They provide a welcome account of fifties male writing from a female point of view, an account that speculates that Second World War pinups led to a fetishizing of female body parts in the writing of Henry Miller. They zero in with deadly accuracy on male literary sexism, both that of writers, like Norman Mailer, who commit acts of aggression against their female characters and that of critics like William Gass, who criticizes women writers for lacking “that blood congested genital drive which energizes every great style.”
Read as a polemic, The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women constitutes the best extended piece of writing there is on literature by and about women. Gilbert and Gubar have amassed more information about women writers than exists in any other document. They have unlocked what Carolyn Kizer calls “the world's best-kept secret:/Merely the private lives of one-half of humanity.” For finding lines like that, one should be grateful to them. Along with much that is sweet and much that is useful, however, they have thrust into the book bags of the future the ambivalent gift of a female tradition wrapped in a seventies-style political sentimentality that insists we should love one another because we are all in it together. And as an anthology of literature, this one weighs on the spirit like a two-pound balloon.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3165
SOURCE: “Gilbert and Gubar,” in Ms. Magazine, Vol. 14, No. 7, January, 1986, p. 59.
[In the following interview by Shapiro, Gubar and Gilbert discuss their work together, and the strategies they used in compiling The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women.]
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar met in an elevator 13 years ago, and by the time it arrived at the fourth floor, an extraordinary partnership had gotten off the ground as well. Gilbert, professor of English at Princeton, and Gubar, professor of English at Indiana University, have collaborated on some of the most invigorating work to date in a field they helped to establish: the study of literature by women. Their first book, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), examined the means and metaphors by which women writers in the 19th century defied what Emily Dickinson called “the House Without the Door,” the edifice of personal and artistic constraint built up around literary women. Le Anne Schreiber, writing in The New York Times Book Review, said Gilbert and Gubar had offered “the first persuasive case for the existence of a distinctly female imagination.”
But it's their second book, published last spring, that seems destined to turn “Gilbert and Gubar” into campus shorthand all over the country. To that brick-and-board bookshelf that holds the Norton Anthologies of English and American Literature in thousands of dormitory rooms, a new volume has been added: The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. A monumental work spanning six centuries and all the English-speaking countries, the newest Norton is more than a treasure trove: it constitutes a historic first step toward redefining the canon of great literature. With this anthology, Gilbert and Gubar have not only given voice to an amazing range of authors, but enabled us to hear those individual voices as part of a female tradition, even as we recognize the stylistic or thematic traditions they may share with men.
These days Gilbert and Gubar are working on a sequel to The Madwoman in the Attic, to be titled No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth-Century. With jobs and families keeping them half a continent apart, they depend on travel and telephone to get much of their work accomplished; and when they're together, judging from this interview, they do a lot of laughing and shouting and interrupting each other. They also listen to each other, so intently you'd think one had never heard the other speak her mind before. Perhaps this—and a tremendous appreciation for each other's jokes—keeps their collaboration one of the healthiest and most productive imaginable.
[Shapiro:] How did the two of you get together?
[Gubar:] We were asked to team-teach—
[Gilbert:] We weren't asked to team-teach—
[Gilbert:] Once upon a time, in 1973, I got into an elevator in Ballantine Hall at Indiana University—
[Gubar:] And I was already in the elevator—
[Gilbert:] Going to the fourth floor. And I said, you must be Susan Gubar. Because we had both just been hired. So we got to know each other, we spent a lot of time—
[Gubar:] Complaining about the fact that the phone never rang unless it was long distance.
[Gilbert:] So we decided to call each other.
[Gubar:] So we got together, and we began talking.
[Gilbert:] It was very strange. I worked in modern British literature, and I used to go around saying, in what I thought was a very feminist way, that because I was a woman didn't mean I would have to work on women. In fact I would show my feminist strength and independence by working on men, which was obviously a superior thing to do. But something was happening to me. Just before I got the job at Indiana, I was working on a book about death and I started reading about Emily Brontë. And I found that I really was just interested in the Brontës. Susan in the meantime was also interested in the Brontës. You were working on Villette—
[Gubar:] But before that I was teaching 18th-century literature, which is what I had been trained in, and I was pregnant. I was teaching Swift and Pope. And I remember that as I was getting larger in the pregnancy, the course started to revolve around images of monstrous women in Pope and Swift. I was seeing all these horrible images—nursing mothers and monstrous women, stupid, fat, horrible madwomen—but I had not understood that there was a connection between my alienation from the literature and my own body.
[Gilbert:] And the other thing that happened was that my youngest daughter, who was then about eight, was reading Little Women. So I reread Little Women. Then she started reading Jane Eyre, and I reread Jane Eyre with her, and we used to talk about it. And I started developing all kinds of theories about Little Women and Jane Eyre. So I think we were both ready for some kind of conversion experience, but we neither of us were conscious of the fact.
[Gubar:] It's not just that we hadn't thought about it, it was that when we went to graduate school [in the sixties] and when we went to conferences later, and when we were hired, there was no such category as women's literature or feminist criticism. So when we started teaching our course, which was called “The Madwoman in the Attic,” we didn't know where we were going.
[Gilbert:] We had read Mary Shelley and Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Brontë, but we had never read them all together like this. So we had to call each other up on the phone every night and scream for hours.
[Gubar:] “Another image of enclosure and escape!” “Another madwoman!”
[Gilbert:] We were just totally overwhelmed.
Was that when you wrote The Madwoman in the Attic?
[Gubar:] We started to work on the book in 1975, exactly when Sandra went to Davis [University of California], and we were physically separated by miles and miles of the continent.
[Gilbert:] And that's when it began—the phone bills and the mail, the planes.
How did you divide up the work?
[Gubar:] It was clear that the poets were for Sandra. She's a poet and she was getting the poets. Austen I had always loved, so I got Jane Austen.
[Gilbert:] I didn't feel much of an affinity for George Eliot, and she liked George Eliot a lot better, so she was going to get George Eliot. Interestingly, that's where our differences were productive, because we knew we were going to have to sit down and work out a mutually agreeable stance toward the problem of George Eliot.
[Gubar:] With the Brontës, it was obvious that you were going to get Wuthering Heights. You had always loved the book and taught it, and I had always been interested in Villette.
[Gilbert:] And I got Frankenstein, which was nice.
Are your writing styles similar?
[Gubar:] Oh, not at all. We have horrible disagreements about “moreovers”—
[Gilbert:] And “howevers,” and I will not say who is on which side of that.
[Gubar:] One person very much likes to sprinkle transitionary words, and the other person likes to take them out. There are a lot of disagreements, but usually we feel that they go somewhere, they make the prose more interesting.
[Gilbert:] Also, increasingly in recent years we do write together very much more than we used to. In working on the sequel to Madwoman, there are something like five enormous chapters in the opening sections, and we've been writing every word together.
You mean one of you sits at the typewriter and the other leans over her shoulder?
[Gilbert:] We each have a notebook, and we both write the same words in the notebook. We sit there with our notebooks, and we—
[Gubar:] And we talk.
[Gilbert:] We have done a little bit of working on a word processor with one of us typing but it's—
[Gubar:] It's not as easy to write.
[Gilbert:] Sometimes it helps, if we get blocked. But then, sometimes we get blocked at the word processor and we go back to the notebook, and sit by the fire, and have a drink, and write in our notebooks.
Do you ever feel you're losing your separate intellectual identities?
[Gilbert:] I think we have separate ideas. Don't you think so?
[Gubar:] Yes, I think we do. Sometimes there is a desire to go and give a paper on your own, that does remind you that you are a separate intellect. And I think we try very hard to keep that up. Most of the articles that we publish are separately written.
[Gilbert:] And we can distinguish between ideas that we think are ours—this is our position on such-and-such, and it's usually been very carefully worked out together—and something I am writing.
Whose idea was it to have an anthology of literature by women—yours or Norton's?
[Gubar:] We proposed it. They wanted to do some “market research”—whether or not there would be a long-range textbook use, how many courses there are in women's studies, how many courses in women's literature—and they did some of that before they gave us a contract.
Did Norton give you any special directives on style or content?
[Gubar:] We very much decided to go to Norton for the book and do it as a Norton anthology, in Nortonian style, with the critical apparatus and the headnotes and all. That was our decision, because we felt it would be a way of legitimizing women's literature.
[Gilbert:] The Nortons are the standard anthologies, and to call the book the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women is to perform a sort of canonizing or certifying gesture.
What was it like to put together that huge volume?
[Gilbert:] It was an enormous amount of work in rather a short time—I think we took three years on the project. We went through hundreds and hundreds of books, everywhere we went we were schlepping enormous boxes of books, and we would read through the complete works of these people. Some of it was very hard to find; we could only get it in rare book rooms. And we'd go through bibliographies, magazines—we found the Margaret Drabble story in a magazine; it had never been published in book form. And people would tell us about things—that was wonderful, we were very grateful to them.
[Gubar:] The secretarial assistant to our editor at Norton was very interested in Canadian literature, and she made us a list, which included the poems by Margaret Atwood we ended up using. They were very recent, and we hadn't come across them. She also turned us on to Alice Munro. And the wives of our colleagues would give us ideas. People who had done a great deal of work on a particular figure would just put books in the mail for us.
[Gilbert:] We took great pleasure and delight in choosing some people. Jane Lead was a wonderful 17th-century mystic—there are only about four volumes of her work available in the whole country, so it was a particular pleasure to publish some of it. And Rebecca Cox Jackson—she came to our attention late, in an essay by Alice Walker. We were constantly revising and negotiating, because there are women writers whose works are just now being excavated.
[Gubar:] Sandra was lecturing at Oberlin, and two people there got in touch with her. They had discovered Elizabeth Drew Stoddard, a 19th-century short story writer whose work was almost unknown. So she got in very late—we just lucked out. Another time, I was reading an essay about Lorraine Hansberry by Adrienne Rich and she mentioned two feminist essays Hansberry had written, before there was any talk of feminism. I contacted her literary executor, and we came up with this selection. Of course she's never thought of in these terms—everyone thinks of A Raisin in the Sun—but it's a strong feminist statement, very tongue-in-cheek, called “In Defense of the Equality of Men.”
You've been criticized for applying feminist standards rather than literary ones in the selection process.
[Gubar:] We were very aware of the fact that there is a kind of sanctified feminist canon, and that we had to represent those figures who are always taught and who are always looked to; but there is also a canon of, quote, great work, and we had to consider that, too. And we were always thinking about representation from various perspectives—lesbian writers, black women writers, working-class women writers, immigrant women writers. We were also very concerned to include writers like Elizabeth Bishop, who did not place themselves in either a feminist or a female tradition, but who were great writers.
[Gilbert:] Obviously, women are conscious of being women, in the same way that anybody who is in a particular cultural situation is conscious of being in that situation. I mean it would be very odd indeed to have an anthology of American literature in which you didn't include texts by Americans who discussed their American-ness. When Emerson writes “The American Scholar,” you put it in an anthology of American literature because it is a statement by a major figure about how he feels as an American writer. So naturally there are going to be women who talk about being women, and that's a crucial part of the tradition, but we didn't want to just include things like that. I don't think the selection process was politicized. I think that after a while we became conscious of certain themes that seemed to recur, but you would want to do that in any anthology.
[Gubar:] If we had two poems, and one seemed to be more focused on the issue of being a woman, we tended to use it, if it was typical of the work. But of course never when it would misrepresent someone. We wouldn't do that at the price of distorting a literary reputation or oeuvre. If Marianne Moore wrote about animals, we were going to choose poems about animals.
[Gilbert:] But besides writing about all the metaphysical questions of men, women really do write about the problems and pleasures of growing up female. We found themes of women's friendships, the effect of reading upon women, the effect of their lack of access to education, and especially what that meant to them as writers. There was the theme of mothers, and mothering, and daughters. And of course there were changes over time—the issue of women's work, for instance, became increasingly important in the 20th century and it wasn't at all in the 18th. The poet Anne Finch called it “the dull manage of a servile house.”
One reviewer said the critical apparatus—the introductions and headnotes—outweighed the texts, and that you put too much emphasis on biographical and social detail.
[Gubar:] We try to give a lot more information about the fabric of a woman's life, what it felt like to her, her relationship to her husband, her children—and interestingly, this has been taken as a sort of feminine fall into domestic trivia. Aren't we just as good as men? Why don't we just deal with them as intellectuals, why do we have to descend to these petty domestic little details about marriages and children? Our point would be the exact opposite—why don't we approach male literary history too from these, quote, petty domestic issues, which are so interesting and, after all, shape the way art gets produced?
[Gilbert:] Our task in writing those period introductions was overwhelming. We had to cover both Britain and America, and we had to introduce students to the so-called mainstream literary and social history of the period—that is, the male-dominated history—and then we had to explain how women's lives were affected by or, indeed, influenced that mainstream history We began to see connections between texts and times that we probably had not seen quite so clearly before.
[Gubar:] But I think there's something else going on. When there was no canon, and women writers were not available, we could all agree that this was wrong and that women writers should be studied. Now we're in a stage where we're producing a canon. And there's going to be more disagreement about who should be in, who should be out. I think ultimately it's going to be healthy.
[Gilbert:] But I think there are women critics who would always have felt that you shouldn't define a woman's tradition, that women really are part of the mainstream. There's no question that a number of women writers are afraid that to identify themselves as women writers is somehow trivializing. That in itself shows there are problems for women writers, if to be called a woman writer is to be put down. But as a writer myself, I understand that you don't want somebody telling you that you have to consciously write as part of a certain tradition and that you have to write about certain subjects—your imagination has to feel completely free.
How has the book been received on campuses? What do you think its effect will be?
[Gilbert:] Norton sent out little cards with the desk copies, to ask people what they thought of the book, and all the comment cards that we've gotten back have been absolutely enthusiastic.
[Gubar:] And the letters and notes and newspaper reviews have been fantastic.
[Gilbert:] Courses that really explore women's literary history in depth have not existed before because there has been no book that you could use. We know this is the first time so many genres, so many women, so many periods, and so many countries have been brought together, and we know it's not definitive. It's very preliminary—but it will help us to understand the richness of our literary heritage.
[Gubar:] I agree with Sandra that it's tentative, but having it allows us to trace a historical process that was invisible before. This is a kind of gathering together of voices that will allow us to hear each individual voice in a new way.
[Gilbert:] I hope students will be able to see that the literary history in the mainstream anthologies is not the whole story. Particularly for young women students who are beginning to write themselves, we hope this will be heartening.
[Gubar:] We created the book in part to encourage courses on gender and literature, so that students—both undergraduates and graduates—can begin thinking of literary creativity and history in this new way. But of course we're haunted by the omissions—all the writers we couldn't include because of space limitations.
So you have to look at this canon you've created and think about how, down through the ages, nobody will read all the people you've left out?
[Gilbert:] Well, one way to look at it is not to think about the ages. You think about the second edition.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3986
SOURCE: “A Criticism of One's Own,” in New Republic, Vol. 194, No. 10, March 10, 1986, pp. 30–4.
[In the following essay, Donoghue examines several feminist critics, and observes that feminist criticism is often reductionist and politically motivated. Donoghue maintains that The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women adversely affects feminist criticism because of Gubar and Gilbert's selection of works in the collection.]
I have been reading a good deal of feminist criticism and scholarship. Not all of it—I am sure to have missed many books and essays I should have read. But I have made an attempt to see what has been happening in feminist criticism since 1970, when Kate Millett's Sexual Politics, the book usually taken as having started the feminist field by provoking sentiments and passions in its favor, was published. The main problem I have encountered is not the multiplicity of books and essays in the field. That is merely a quantitative matter, endemic in every area of scholarship: Who can keep up with anything these days? The difficulty, rather, is to determine what the present context of feeling is.
The Annual Report for 1984 of the American Literature Section of the Modern Language Association, for instance—but is it an “instance,” and of what?—includes Annette Kolodny's claim that “in the wake of all the new information about the literary production of women, Blacks, Native Americans, ethnic minorities, and gays and lesbians; and with new ways of analyzing popular fiction, non-canonical genres, and working-class writings, all prior literary histories are rendered partial, inadequate, and obsolete.” In the same report, compiled by Donald Yannella, Professor Marianne DeKoven evidently holds “that women have the same claim as men to having ‘invented’ modernism in America,” and cites as evidence three fictions by women: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1891), Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899), and Gertrude Stein's The Lives (1903–6). She also claims that there is “an official version of modernism,” as in Hugh Kenner's A Homemade World, which defines it (these are DeKoven's words, not Kenner's) as “a revolted flight, by means of the ‘fabulously artificed,’ Dedalian wings of male technology, from the primary horror of female (pro)creativity.” I'm not sure whether these sentiments, which seem wild to me, accurately indicate the context of feminist criticism or some bizarre hyperbole; a real fury in the words, or willed turbulence worked up for the occasion.
But there are some tangible episodes, one of which is especially significant. On April 28, 1985, the novelist Gail Godwin reviewed the new Norton Anthology of Literature by Women for the New York Times Book Review. Her account of the book was quietly severe. She disapproved of the editors’ “stated desire to document and connect female literary experience rather than present a showcase of the most distinguished writing by women in English from Julian of Norwich in the 14th century to the present day.” The Norton Anthology, she maintained, forced “the individual female talent to lie on the Procrustean fainting-couch of a ‘dis-eased’ tradition.”
Godwin's review angered several well-known feminist critics, including Elaine Showalter, Alicia Ostriker, Carolyn Heilbrun, Nina Auerbach, Myra Jehlen, Nancy K. Miller, and Catharine R. Stimpson. They accused her of denying “the existence of a female literary tradition” (Ostriker). In her reply, Godwin went a step further than her review: she “mourned the authors who were slighted in the Anthology by having their most trivial or least representative works selected because these works helped the editors establish a sisterhood of themes and images they felt ran through most women's writing.”
It was an interesting moment of telegrams and anger, but the critical issue was not well defined. Godwin made it clear that she wanted to see in a Norton Anthology of Literature by Women an ample selection of the best writing in English by women writers, to demonstrate once if not for all that women have written well and continue to write well. The criteria she silently appealed to were those generally accepted in literary criticism; criteria by which it is agreed, for instance, that Yeats's “Among School Children” is a much better poem than his “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” But she failed to make clear that the criteria adopted by the Norton editors in this anthology are not critical at all. They are political and sociological. The literary merit of the items chosen is not a major consideration for the editors. They are concerned to document the range of experience—and the resultant constraints and anxieties—peculiar to women. George Eliot's minor poem “Brother and Sister” was chosen because “it explores the same sibling relationship she had placed at the center of her semi-autobiographical The Mill on the Floss.” It is evident that “explores” in that sentence suppresses every critical or qualitative consideration; it sets aside the questions of crucial concern to literary criticism in favor of documentary value and thematic relevance.
If literary criticism were to have its way, The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women would be a textbook in sociology rather than in literature. But literary criticism has so often failed to define its way, so often failed to know what its way is, that one more failure won't amount to a scandal. It is common practice for courses in literature to roam into considerations of history, nationality, theology, and indeed sociology. Courses on “the English Novel” are rarely confined to a strict account of forms and genres. But teachers keep their consciences reasonably clear by choosing the best novels; or at least the novels that seem to be the best, according to the criteria of critical discrimination. True, these criteria are rarely defined, and teachers often rely upon a conventional or habitual notion of their deliverances. I suppose most teachers have a general sense of critical discrimination, like a passport; they don't carry it around, but they could produce it if they had to.
But the distinctive mark of the Norton Anthology is that it does not even pretend to select its material according to the criteria of literary criticism. Just as historians and sociologists choose their documents without reference to literary merit, the Norton editors have assembled documentary evidence to support a case against men—or against the world. The fact that some of the items chosen are also works of literary merit is a coincidence, however congenial. The Anthology would make a good textbook in a course in sociology called “Women and Their Fate.” It is flagrantly misleading as a selection of literature by women.
It is my understanding that feminist criticism has two agendas. The first is the larger one: it can be found in Jacques Derrida's several polemics culminating in his Éperons: Les Styles de Nietzsche; in Luce Irigaray's Speculum de l'autre femme (1974) and Ce Sexe qui n'en est pas un (1977); and nearer home, in the Derridean essays by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and other critics. The agenda says that there is no discourse but masculine discourse, that women are trapped in a syntax that is phallocratic and phallogocentric. As a result, women are condemned either to adopt the masculine discourse that leaves them essentially unexpressed, or to engage in a masquerade by which they mime the masculine syntax and take upon themselves, speciously of course, the signs of presence and power. It is the fate of women, therefore, to gratify their masters. The paradigm of this fate is the faked orgasm.
I allude to this agenda so far as I can understand it. Many feminists would claim that by physiological definition I can't understand it. So I quote a passage from Ce Sexe qui n'en est pas un to let Irigaray speak in her own words, though it is crucial to the agenda that no woman has her own words. I give the passage in English, but the French is to me just as opaque:
I am a woman. I am a being sexualized as feminine. I am sexualized female. The motivation of my work lies in the impossibility of articulating such a statement; in the fact that its utterance is in some way senseless, inappropriate, indecent. Either because woman is never the attribute of the verb to be nor sexualized female a quality of being, or because am a woman is not predicated of I, or because I am sexualized excludes the feminine gender. In other words, the articulation of the reality of my sex is impossible in discourse, and for a structural, eidetic reason. My sex is removed, at least as the property of a subject, from the predicative mechanism that assures discursive coherence. I can thus speak intelligently as sexualized male (whether I recognize this or not) or as asexualized. Otherwise, I shall succumb to the illogicality that is proverbially attributed to women. All the statements I make are thus either borrowed from a model that leaves my sex aside … or else my utterances are unintelligible according to the code in force.
Now, virtually every modern writer has claimed that the words available to him or to her are somehow wrong. It could be argued that Irigaray has said what she wants to say not only in words but “in other words.” Or that men don't feel themselves released from what T. S. Eliot called “the intolerable wrestle with words.” But even if we grant—who are the “we” who grant?—that Irigaray's complaint is valid, it is not clear what the same “we” can do to satisfy it, or even to mitigate it. The agenda amounts to an imputation of Original Sin, except that the official Original Sin was ascribed to the whole human race and this one is confined to men.
The charge is so omnivorous, moreover, that no particular man need feel intimidated by it. It reminds me of Hannah Arendt's account of “the banality of evil,” an accusation so grand that it left every individual free to go about his or her business. Am I really guilty of the allegedly phallogocentric enforcement of meaning in discourse? When did I commit the crime? Besides, if a new discourse were to be devised, vaginacentric rather than phallogocentric, a “fault” would remain, wouldn't it? And presumably the whole revisionist process would have to be undertaken again, this time in favor of men. (To be fair to Derrida, he wouldn't want a mere change of center, the Mother displacing the Father; he wants to dislodge every center by an endless play of signifiers.)
So what is to be done to placate Irigaray? The gestures that several critics have made seem to me further examples of patronage. If Jonathan Culler, Terry Eagleton, and Fredric Jameson refer to the reader as “she” rather than the conventional “he,” what purpose is served? I have no answer. I have read several essays that argue that women should keep to their own company, pursuing the possibilities of sisterhood and planning eventually to make a separatist difference. But I don't know the status of this suggestion in feminist rhetoric as a whole.
It may be the case that the first agenda is strictly women's work, and that the best a man can do is keep out of their way. Irigaray is determined to ensure that speech about women is not to be taken as “a recuperation of the feminine within a logic that maintains it in repression, censorship, nonrecognition.” I'm not sure what she means, unless she thinks that this recuperation would only be yet another instance of repressive tolerance (Marcuse's phrase), the strategy by which a man's world expands to make room for women and merrily proceeds upon its powerful way. To prevent this from happening, Irigaray proposes, as she says, to jam the theoretical machinery. Instead of trying to construct a logic of the feminine that would still take the “ontotheologic” of masculine discourse as its model, she would aim to disrupt every discourse.
I assume she sees her work as the Luddite phase of feminism. But she also sees herself, more conventionally, as revising Freud's phallocratic psychoanalysis, a job already in the hands of Karen Horney, Melanie Klein, Marie Bonaparte, and other critics. In America the most “reasonable” place for such revisionists is in Deconstruction, which undertakes to reveal discourse as sovereign predicate of the Father. Presumably this project satisfies not only women who resent phallogocentric power, but men who profess to be ashamed of possessing it. The fact that the project seems to me largely specious, and indeed “in bad faith,” is an old quarrel by now.
The second agenda of feminist criticism is smaller, and far more tangible. Women want a bigger slice of the cake, but not a transfigured cake. In practice, this entails readier access to publishers, fellowships, and grants; affirmative action in their favor in the professions; more space and time at the M.L.A. conventions; steadier promotion in the universities; more magazines devoted to feminist issues; women's studies in the curriculum of universities and colleges. The demands on this agenda are now, I gather, universally accepted. They have been implicit in feminist sentiment since Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and Margaret Fuller's Women in the Nineteenth Century (1855), their motto Fuller's: “Let them be sea-captains, if you will.” Or rather: “if they will.”
Immense progress has been made on the second agenda. There are dozens of magazines given over entirely to women. Columbia University Press has announced the publication of a new series of books on “gender and culture.” The editors are Carolyn Heilbrun and Nancy K. Miller, and the first batch includes Nina Auerbach's Romantic Imprisonment and Naomi Schor's Breaking the Chain: Women, Theory, and French Realist Fiction. Discourse may still be as Irigaray describes it, but it has not reduced women to silence or to forms of expression that are self-evidently frustrating.
The most obvious merit of feminist criticism is that it has drawn attention to writers and writings that have been neglected. The Norton Anthology prints, complete, Chopin's The Awakening, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, and (hardly a neglected work) Jane Eyre. Other feminist essays make strong cases for Rebecca Harding Davis's Life in the Iron Mills and Alice James's Diary. (It wouldn't worry me, by the way, if I were asked to pay just as much attention to Alice's diary as to her brother Henry's Notes of a Son and Brother.)
But the question of literary merit, as distinct from sociological interest, is rarely raised by feminist critics. When it is, the argument is desperate. We are to believe that literary criteria are incorrigibly man-made values, and are compromised by the power they enforce. Lillian S. Robinson at least faces the issue of merit and value in one of the best essays in The New Feminist Criticism:
Is the canon and hence the syllabus based on it to be regarded as the compendium of excellence or as the record of cultural history? For there comes a point when the proponent of making the canon recognize the achievement of both sexes has to put up or shut up; either a given woman writer is good enough to replace some male writer on the prescribed reading list or she is not. If she is not, then either she should replace him anyway, in the name of telling the truth about the culture, or she should not, in the (unexamined) name of excellence. … It is ironic that in American literature, where attacks on the male tradition have been most bitter and the reclamation of women writers so spectacular, the appeal has still been only to pluralism, generosity, and guilt. It is populism with the politics of populism.
The only swipe in that passage is the reference to “the (unexamined) name of excellence.” The alternative to pluralism is the examined name of excellence; anything less is disgraceful. As for her last sentence, the appeal she refers to is populism without the name of populism—that is, sociology. But Robinson is right. If a feminist critic wants to dislodge a male writer and install a woman writer in his place in the curriculum, she should make a case for her on literary grounds that she would herself choose and expound; or insist on installing her anyway, as Robinson says, “in the name of telling the truth about the culture.” But she should not fudge the issue.
It is also a distinct merit that feminist critics and scholars are compelling attention to forgotten or ignored moments in the past. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg's Disorderly Conduct is exemplary in this regard. Its theme is “the nature and the origins of the separate world of nineteenth-century women.” Smith-Rosenberg's methods are taken mainly from anthropology (Mary Douglas, Victor Turner) and semiology (Roland Barthes). Her documentary materials are gathered for the light they cast upon mothers and daughters, friendship between women, marriage, menstruation, menopause, the New Woman, androgyny, the New York Female Moral Reform Society, prostitution, women in the Second Great Awakening, the American Medical Association and its attitude toward abortion. I can't imagine that an American historian would have studied these moments and issues with such concentration if a context of feminist criticism were not already available to take account of them.
But the context sometimes produces lurid results. Nina Auerbach could have written her essays on 19th-century fiction and poetry even if an official feminism had never existed. But she would not have pressed or pushed her perceptions if extreme feminist motives had not claimed her allegiance. I don't find anything distinctively feminist in her account of the separation of the sexes in Dombey and Son, but this passage from her essay on the Brownings has the feminist ring to it:
Having survived a poet who made epic claims for herself, Robert Browning perpetuated her voice by turning it into his own; he “married” Elizabeth Barrett one more time when he appropriated her after her death, weaving her declarations into the corrosive fabric of his dramatic monologues. According to Irvine and Honan, she had found from the first something sinister in his ability to read her: “She had been frightened of him at first. She felt he had a power over her, that he could read her thoughts as he might read a newspaper.” This initial ability to read Elizabeth ripened into an ability to write her and finally, with love and reverence, to silence her.
I don't find this persuasive. The paradigm seems to have preceded the need of it; it has an air of applied romance. The springs of Browning's poetry are to be sought in his relation to Shelley in particular, and to several other voices offering him a poetic strategy. Elizabeth's voice was one of those, but a minor one. The feminist drama of a man's possession, co-option, and final, loving suppression of a woman seems to have provoked Auerbach into finding it exemplified, however implausibly, in Robert and Elizabeth.
Auerbach also seems to me to claim as distinctively feminist perceptions notions that in fact have long been commonplace. Her essays on Jane Austen, for instance, don't amount to a radical revision of the standard sense of Austen's novels that has been current since D. W. Harding published, many years ago, an essay called “Regulated Hatred,” in which he argued that Austen's artistic problem was to find a form and a style that would enable her to settle her account with a society she in great part hated.
“The task of feminist critics,” according to Elaine Showalter, “is to find a new language, a new way of reading that can integrate our intelligence and our experience, our reason and our suffering, our skepticism and our vision.” The task “should not be confined to women,” though she confines it to women in The New Feminist Criticism. Studying “woman as reader,” she calls for a feminist critique, “a historically grounded inquiry that probes the ideological assumptions of literary phenomena.” For “woman as writer,” Showalter proposes a “gynocriticism” that concerns itself with “the psychodynamics of female creativity; linguistics and the problem of a female language; the trajectory of the individual or collective female literary career; literary history; and, of course, studies of particular writers and works.”
That sounds like a full day's work. In practice, however, feminist critics have much reduced the range of their literary interests. Many of their essays are, so far as critical theory arises, regressive. I have read feminist essays that study the characterization of Emilia in Othello as if L. C. Knights had not shown the penury of such questions 50 years ago (in his famous essay “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?”). Was Jane Austen opposed to marriage? Did she dislike children? What did she think of motherhood? Did Shakespeare restrict women to a narrow range of emotions? Did Yeats patronize Maud Gonne and other women? These are wretched questions, even if they are excused as marking a primitive stage in the development of a more interesting feminist criticism.
Indeed, feminist criticism at its present stage seems to me to be a libel upon women. The questions it asks are insultingly reductive. The situation is very odd: feminist critics are selling their literature short while promoting it at every turn. Promotion belongs to the history of advertising, but not less to the history (with its drifts and turns) of political sentiment. Where women should beware women—that is, where women writers should refuse the embrace of feminist critics—is in their implication that a woman writer can only transcribe the experience she has been given, and cannot imagine experience other than her own. Feminist critics have matronized their writers; they have set them a list of themes, motifs, and situations amounting to one physiologically ordained predicament, and told them that it is their destiny to annotate it. A woman writer is supposed to be merely an amanuensis of her fate. For her, there is one story and one story only.
So I was pleased when Brigid Brophy protested, in the Times Literary Supplement on July 26, 1985, that many feminist critics forget that there are writers “whose imagination is fired by what they have not experienced, Shakespeares who create Romeo and Juliet out of not visiting Verona and Antony and Cleopatra out of never setting eyes on the Nile.” If feminist critics libel women, they also, in the same reductive spirit, deny the imagination.
Specifically, they deny women the imaginative power that Bakhtin calls “dialogic.” His distinction between monologic and dialogic imagination is one of the most valued references in contemporary criticism. The writer with monologic vision insists that every thought gravitates to him as a sign of his power, a power he exerts unremittingly throughout his composition, controlling every ostensibly different point of view. The dialogic vision projects “a plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousness, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices.” What occurs (Bakhtin takes Dostoyevsky as his example) “is not a multitude of characters and fates in a single objective world, illuminated by a single authorial consciousness; rather a plurality of consciousness, with equal rights and each with its own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of the event.” It is evident that feminist criticism denies women writers dialogic imagination; it consigns women to their fate, and recognizes them only when they transcribe their fatality.
What now? The smaller agenda is well in hand. Since it presents itself as a matter of politics and sociology, our institutions know how to deal with its demands, reducing the number of telegrams and appeasing the anger. Women's studies are a new area of growth in university departments, and welcome mainly for that reason. At the end of the Oresteia, the avenging Furies have been transformed into the benign Eumenides, a change of disposition that authorities can indeed bring about by observing the propriety of discourse. Nothing as fundamental as a change of heart is required. As for Luce Irigaray and the large agenda: I can't see anything happening there. A change of heart wouldn't be enough to effect the transfiguration she demands.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 589
SOURCE: A review of No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth-Century, Volume 1: The War of the Words, in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 34, No. 4, Winter, 1988, pp. 747–49.
[In the following review, Thompson writes that Volume one of No Man's Land lacks intellectual rigor and a “solid theoretical basis.”]
The publicity sheet accompanying the review copy of No Man's Land quotes Joyce Carol Oates, Carolyn Heilbrun, Elaine Showalter, and J. Hillis Miller in fulsome praise of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's sequel to The Madwoman in the Attic. Oates calls No Man's Land “fast, funny, profound in its theoretical assertions, and deliciously irreverent in its asides.” Heilbrun finds it “exciting and ground-breaking.” Showalter extols the “ambitious range, scholarly passion, and intellectual panache” of the authors. Miller (the token male?) credits Gilbert and Gubar with rewriting “the history of modernism.” These comments have, of course, been taken out of context, selected from, we must assume, longer, more detailed prepublication reviews, and we must grant the possibility that these prestigious critics might have tempered their praise at some point in a longer assessment of the work. That said, I must beg to differ with these worthies.
Not that I disagree entirely. I too find No Man's Land “fast” and “funny”; but “fast and loose” more accurately describes the book's theoretical assertions. In fact, my major objection to this book is that it lacks a solid theoretical basis; it leaves too many assumptions unexamined, too many terms undefined. The omnipresent puns and self-conscious word play are precious and intrusive, contributing neither insight into the texts engaged nor a healthy sense of ironic balance to the argument. The range is certainly “ambitious,” but there is no depth of perception or analysis to match. On one level Miller's assertion that Gilbert and Gubar “rewrite the history of modernism” is entirely accurate; how accurately they rewrite it is another question altogether.
A quick look at Chapter Five, “Sexual Linguistics: Women's Sentence, Men's Sentencing,” will help to bring some of my objections into focus. This chapter attempts “to integrate the divergent forces of power, language, and meaning” by examining the “relationship between sexual difference and the symbolic contract in an effort to trace the permutations of the modern battle over language and secondarily to place recent ideas about sexual linguistics in a larger historical context.” (“Symbolic contract” is Julia Kristeva's term. According to Kristeva, “Sexual difference … is translated by and translates a difference in the relationship of subjects to the symbolic contract which is the social contract. …”) Precisely what this shadowy, pseudolinguistic relationship might actually signify is unclear, unless Gilbert and Gubar's assertion that “from Fielding's Mrs. Slipslop to Sheridan's Mrs. Malaprop, such verbose creatures dramatize the idea that the more pretensions women have to learning the less they know” might be considered a concrete example. The problem is that the same “linguistic anatomy” might just as well be applied to a number of male characters. Such an application in no way denies the possibility of an undercurrent of misogyny in these female characterizations; it does, however, call into question the validity of Gilbert and Gubar's rather one-sided theories of sexual linguistics. The more serious problem for me is that buried under the puns, the jargon, and the theoretical deadwood are two excellent critics who are wasting their time being shop-front feminists. Simplifying and politicizing intellectual and literary history is not rewriting it. And simplification often fails to confront the most damaging, because least obvious, dangers of patriarchy. They can do better—and have.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2248
SOURCE: “Modern Romancers,” in Nation, Vol. 247, No. 1, July 2, 1988, pp. 27–8.
[In the following review of No Man's Land: The War of the Words, Abraham objects to Gubar and Gilbert's attempts to validate women's literature by placing it in the mainstream of twentieth-century critical categories.]
Feminist literary criticism can still be a marginal enterprise in an intellectual universe that also contains William Bennett, Allan Bloom and Gertrude Himmelfarb. But in the almost twenty years since Kate Millett's Sexual Politics helped to inaugurate the field, feminist criticism has also prospered: It now has its own establishment, its own mainstream and margins.
One of the key works in the process of consolidation was Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's 1979 study, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. They synthesized a decade of feminist analyses and applied the result to the recognized nineteenth-century stars—Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot and Emily Dickinson—while also rewriting Harold Bloom's account of literary history as a fatherson contest to incorporate struggles between fathers and daughters. This established their penchant for the large formulation, their position within the feminist critical establishment and their role as purveyors of feminist critical assumptions beyond its ranks. All these elements were confirmed by their editorship of the 1985 Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, itself a major commercial sign of the impact of feminist criticism on the teaching of literature in the United States.
Gilbert and Gubar present their latest effort, The War of the Words, as the theoretical introduction to a three-volume successor to the Madwoman, titled No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth-Century. This work will be completed by two volumes of close textual readings, one due later this year and the other in 1989. Their subtitle, with its implication that there is such a character as “the woman writer,” indicates in advance that they still aspire to the definitive statement on a grand scale, to the repeat achievement of a critical if not a popular blockbuster.
While mainstream critics of twentieth-century literature are still responding to the challenge of feminist criticism by adding Virginia Woolf but talking about E. M. Forster, in The War of the Words Gilbert and Gubar have brought forward a host of women writers who don't even make it to the footnotes of The Pound Era. They have produced an eminently readable study just when academic criticism is courting the abstruse in order to reassure itself of its own significance. They talk about novels, stories, poems and plays instead of other critics and critical works. They use “minor” and shorter works to make major points, marshaling their sources in bulk—there are no revolutionary theories based on one novel by Balzac, or Great Expectations and a Conrad novella. And they frequently bypass the conventional designations of period and style that often, for example, inhibit serious discussions of the realists writing when modernism was in flower.
But, in order perhaps to insure accessibility, they have chosen to tell us a story, a narrative history of twentieth-century literature they begin as far back as 1848, with the Brontës, and bring up to 1987. And, in order perhaps to deal with the range of the material they are covering, they have chosen the most traditional story for women, the only story women were supposed to figure in before the experiments of twentieth-century literature, a story of their relations to men. Gilbert and Gubar “conflate and collate” the lives and works of individual male and female writers to create “one possible metastory, a story of stories about gender strife,” a “history of [hetero]sexual battle.” These writers are divided into couples as well as camps: “James and Wharton, Yeats and Lady Gregory, Hemingway and Stein, Lawrence and Mansfield (or H. D.), Wells and West (or Richardson), Eliot and Woolf, Graves and Riding, Miller and Nin.” The terms change over the course of the story, for example from “stern Victorian husbands and their maddened wives” to “turn-of-the-century misogynists and rebellious suffragists,” and later “mid-century he-men and ambitious independent women.” At different times different sides claim victory: “At the height of the modernist era … both sexes by and large agreed that women were winning, while postmodernist male and female writers, working in the 1940s and 1950s, reimagined masculine victory.” But the women writers and their works are continually placed in literary history in terms of their relation to male writers and their works. Our heroines cannot be seen to contemplate any other aspect of their existence. Gilbert and Gubar have in effect given us a nineteenth-century novel about twentieth-century women's writing.
Although they argue that the major change that occurred in literary history in the course of the shift into the twentieth century was that women writers could now have literary foremothers as well as father, they attempt to explain the relations between the new generations of women writers in terms of a version of Freud's “family romance.” Women writers are described as “oscillating between” literary mother and father figures, and so female or male peers, in a schema in which women's relations to each other are always still mediated by a father figure, so that Gilbert and Gubar can maintain their heterosexual focus.
The history of Anglo-American literary criticism also becomes part of the battle. In their chapter on “Tradition and the Female Talent,” the authors discuss the politics of literary criticism and in particular of canon formation, suggesting that
the emergence of modern male literary discourse, exemplified by theoretical and canon-forming works like “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” The ABC of Reading (1934), Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), and The Well-Wrought Urn (1947), can be seen as an attempt to construct his story of a literary history in which women play no part.
Even contemporary Lacanian revisions of Freud and “French Feminist theory” can be absorbed into this motif. Jacques Lacan becomes a descendant of Tennyson, Gilbert and Sullivan, Eliot and Pound, incorporated into the discussion of male misogyny and attacks on women's writing. Meanwhile, the writings of the proponents of “écriture féminine” are merged with those of some 1970s U.S. feminists and retrospectively placed in a line of resistance that goes back to Virginia Woolf.
But the battle of the sexes seems an odd narrative framework to choose when one of the distinctive characteristics of twentieth-century women's writing, as Rachel Blau DuPlessis has argued, is its challenge of the male-female romance plot. Virginia Woolf observed in 1927:
We long sometimes to escape from the incessant, the remorseless analysis of falling into love and falling out of love, of what Tom feels for Judith and Judith does or does not altogether feel for Tom. We long for some more impersonal relationship. We long for ideas, for dreams, for imaginations, for poetry.
Exchanging individual stories for a “metastory,” or love for hostility, does not diminish Gilbert and Gubar's familiar emphasis on Tom and Judith. Their record of conflict between the sexes emphasizes male-female differences, obscuring a history of literary experimentation with gender boundaries and stereotypes that they themselves have discussed in earlier essays. It also neutralizes and contains the unprecedented literary presence of lesbians and gay men. Lesbian writers, editors and patrons—including Woolf, Sylvia Beach, Margaret Anderson, May Sarton—were responsible not only for much of the writing Gilbert and Gubar discuss but also for the publication and promotion of works by straight and gay women and men, from Marianne Moore's first book of poetry to James Joyce's Ulysses. Also, during the first part of this century, the “lesbian” functioned as the sign of the modern, in the work of writers as disparate as D. H. Lawrence and Radclyffe Hall, Proust and F. Scott Fitzgerald. As Gertrude Stein declared, “I so naturally had my part in killing the nineteenth century and killing it dead,” and she was not referring to the lessons she gave Hemingway.
What Gilbert and Gubar's battle of the sexes does, however, is insure that their account of twentieth-century women's writing is firmly anchored to mainstream histories of twentieth-century literature and the assumptions on which those histories are based. The War of the Words’ discussion of “modernism” reveals the limits this imposes. Gilbert and Gubar use the term in two different ways. In part it serves as a historical marker for literature produced after the turn of the century and during the interwar period. At the same time, they discuss modernism in more familiar terms as a specific “high culture” phenomenon. Gilbert and Gubar argue that this modernism must be seen as a response to the threatening “rise of the female imagination” as well as to such already recognized nineteenth-and early twentieth-century crises as “the industrial revolution … the fall of God” and the Great War. But their argument depends on upholding (even though now self-consciously) the traditional delineation of literary modernism as the product of Eliot, Pound and Joyce, “a men's club,” as they observe. They cannot pursue the possibility that modernism was also created by the female imaginations of Woolf, Stein, Dorothy Richardson or Djuna Barnes. They cannot ask what “modernism” was or might have been.
Similarly, despite their charges about the politics of canon formation and their own violations of convention in attempting to include women at all, Gilbert and Gubar do not question the principle of the canon. In their preface they ask simply, “What exactly is the canon of twentieth-century literature by women, given that increasing numbers of women have entered the literary marketplace in the last one hundred years and that so many reputations are still in flux?”
Based on the principle of hierarchy implicit in the idea of the canon, their efforts to be inclusive are inevitably constrained. As they work to develop a women's canon parallel to the men's, they incorporate examples of the work of women writers from a “black tradition” or a “science fiction tradition”—Ann Petry, James Tiptree Jr. (Alice B. Sheldon). But these appear as amplifications of arguments based on an implicit mainstream—white, heterosexual women who produce contemporary realist or experimental work. Meanwhile, false parallels are constructed by the designation of black, science fiction or lesbian traditions as subsets within a canon of twentieth-century women's writing. There are obviously greater differences than similarities in the relations of black, lesbian or science fiction writers to their particular “traditions.” The historical experiences such traditions refer to are widely divergent, and the relation of the writing in question to any more conventionally canonical culture varies greatly.
Waving their standard in the battle of the sexes, Gilbert and Gubar have produced the kind of feminist work that looks most threatening. They rework the terrain of male writers’ hostility to women that Kate Millett established, some old favorites making a reappearance beside new entrants to the lists: D. H. Lawrence's phallic politics, Hemingway's lament for Francis Macomber, and Mailer's Rojack, for example, are now accompanied by stories by Henry James and Aldous Huxley, poems by Thomas Hardy, Robert Lowell, Ted Hughes, and T. S. Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes proposing, “Any man has to, needs to, wants to / Once in a lifetime, do a girl in.” But the woman reviewing male abuse of women is, after all, the feminist of conventional literary and political imagination. This feminism is paradoxically much easier to assimilate than more complex feminisms with other concerns. Gilbert and Gubar have taken their overall title, No Man's Land, from the language of World War I trench warfare—battles in which both armies were male. “No man's land” was a place where, if there were no men, there was no one. This seems to be the anxiety at the center of their new work, but some feminist criticism has moved beyond the need to define “the place of the woman writer” in a male territory in order to insure that someone is really there. If Gilbert and Gubar's approach is the result of a desire to mainstream feminist concerns, The War of the Words, in its reduction of both the complexities of its subject and of feminist perspectives, provides an object lesson in the dangers of that goal.
But it seems that Gilbert and Gubar's relation to feminism in The War of the Words is rather nervous overall. Feminist scholarship in the 1980s has included a range of attempts to place the contemporary women's movement in its historical context. Gilbert and Gubar also attempt to contextualize second-wave feminism, but do so in a cultural balancing act that pairs feminism with “masculinism” and “misandry” with “misogyny,” regardless of the differing values of those terms. Feminism becomes one result of the “sex antagonism” they record. Their balance between “masculinist” and “feminist” is established in the service of ideals of “aesthetic excellence,” “great literature,” “effective works of art” and “creativity,” which are explicitly distanced from “doctrinaire politics” and “ideology,” leaving Gilbert and Gubar on the side of “great literature” and superior to “ideology.” This looks like an attempt to locate themselves above and beyond a history in which feminists struggle and, as feminism tells us, ideology is inescapable. It points us back in the direction of the “great tradition” that feminist critics began by challenging.
In The War of the Words, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar present mainstream literary criticism with a wealth of material it prefers to ignore and a new version of an old story. But so far, No Man's Land feels like retrenchment practiced on material that demands daring. Is this postfeminist criticism, and if so, can we afford it?
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1012
SOURCE: “Very Much Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” in New Statesman, Vol. 115, No. 2975, April 1, 1988, pp. 24–5.
[In the following essay, Turner examines the literary and social contexts of the gender conflict presented in No Man's Land: The War of the Words.]
Hitting London in 1908, Ezra Pound looked forward to a career of ramming imagism's “phallic direction” right into the city's “great passive vulva.”
His good friend William Carlos William's long poem “Paterson” was padded out and/or enriched with letters quoted verbatim, without permission, from Marcia Nardi, an ex-lover and herself a fine but struggling poet. These letters refer hysterically to private matters and to Williams’ “complete damning of my creative capacities.”
Today Pound, and even more Williams, are still looked up to for pointing ways away from Eliot-type mystification and into the concrete, into spoken language, poetry as industry, as technic, as Tool. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar see this as part of a great masculinist war effort to colonise the flourishing “mother tongues” of modern vernacular culture and so keep patrio sermo—the word of the father—in the style to which it is accustomed. Once said, so obvious.
Gilbert and Gubar's last collaboration was The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), which explored patterns of “enclosure and escape, maddened doubles as asocial surrogates for docile selves, metaphors of discomfort … along with obsessive depictions of diseases like anorexia, agoraphobia and claustrophobia” in the works of the famous woman writing in 19th century England and North America. This one undertakes the enormous task of working out how feminities fit in to the Anglo-American canon of literary modernism.
The thesis is basically that the grinding liturgies of decline and renewal which gave Pound, Williams, Joyce such creative energy were set going by men anxious at seeing women flooding the public sphere. The damned muse won't sit still and then she starts answering back.
Strategies for coping with this monstrous dispossession were varied but never accommodationist. It is easy to read this book as a bestiary of peevish “no-men” and the stupid sexpots-stroke-omphalosses of all evil they constructed, as codpieces, for protection and glorification of their own. On the one side we have Fisher King, Leopold Bloom, a poet with “dugs” on like Eliot's Tiresias. On the other, tidily seeping orifice piles like Molly Bloom, or liberated evil blue meanies like Lawrence's Gudrun (who, you may recall, liked killing rabbits).
This strand of the argument is given resonance by Gilbert and Gubar's interest in and development of Harold Bloom (US literary critic; no relation of Molly)'s 1973 allegory of poetic misprision. Bloom's “anxiety of influence” reads “strong poets” as locked in primal struggle with their literary pre-cursors for the right to bear the father's word. In tone it is very Adam and God on the Sistine Chapel roof. But the irony of its stature next to little modern men beetling about does add a ring to, say, Lawrence's hideous atavism or Eliot's attempts to wrest a great tradition back for himself.
We will have to wait for volumes two and three of this study to see fully how feminine works transform the myth. In the meantime, Gilbert and Gubar's run some data on how women responded to the great cosmic slagging match and offer what is, however psychoanalytically suspect, a virtuoso reading of Virginia Woolf's critical essays. Long before she was a novelist, Woolf worked hard as the first serious researcher and chronicler of the female tradition from which she wanted to come. Gilbert and Gubar suggest she was also remarkable in being about the first woman writer decisively to overcome a masculinity complex. She was modern enough, and courageous enough, to need no male trappings, no pseudonym, no George Sand suit, no Gertrude Stein gruffness to write. But, no matter what Adrienne Rich says, this wasn't easy or unambivalent.
The writer confronting her possible foremothers is beside herself with anxiety and envy. She is guilty to know their pain yet glories in it. She wants to whisk their mantles from them yet wants to give them her own, yet secretly fears neither can be as good as a man's.
This dimension to Woolf's investigations can be seen in a 1924 essay called “Indiscretions: ‘Never Seek To Tell Thy Love, Love That Never Told Can Be'—But One's feelings for Some Writers Outrun All Prudence.” The author-to-be is tiptoeing up on a harem, we “tremble slightly as we approach the curtain and catch glimpses of women behind it and even hear ripples of laughter …” The voyeurism expresses the daughter's distance from past writers, her entanglement, her desire to rip the veil that can't be ripped. I wonder how Woolf would feel if she could see today's identically structured invocations of the dead, if she could read the countless poems and essays apostrophising her as adopted mother, or view her imagined genitalia served up for devotion at Judy Chicago's Dinner Party.
The War of the Words is very Ivy League in its length (another two volumes to go: the promise of infinite bequests), in its combination of clever close readings with voluminous research done by research assistants, in being all tied up in an alfresco allegorical bow at the expense of socio-historical realism. There is little sense of real social worlds, of the textures of public and private lives, of how public spheres develop not as concepts but institutions.
The modern movement was made up of little magazines, bigger ones, revolutions in ways of understanding sexuality, class, work, the world, the travel and communications industries, so many factors. So drawn onto the plane of myth, the authors miss distinctions between public and private words, conscious propaganda and the dynamic works—never as schematic as they'd like to think—of the unconscious in jokes, slips, dreams and artworks. They don't discuss the coming of feminism as a political option and, therefore, the fact that many women—Isak Dinesen, for example—consciously opted to be anti-feminist. Such details may not alter the basic structures much, but they enrich the ways we see women—and men—in their social and literary existences.
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SOURCE: A review of No Man's Land, Volume 1: The War of the Words and No Man's Land, Volume 2: Sexchanges, in Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts, Vol. 31, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 507–12.
[In the following review of volumes one and two of No Man's Land—The War of the Words and Sexchanges—Herrmann argues that Gubar and Gilbert have “abandoned” the notion of the separate literary tradition for women, which they had offered in The Madwoman in the Attic, and devalue lesbian writers, especially Gertrude Stein.]
I remember walking down a tree-lined street in New Haven, between the library and a small, set-back bookstore, when a fellow graduate student rushed up to me to announce that the first “feminist poetics” had arrived. No longer would the French have a monopoly on discourses that addressed the intersection of literary theory and gender. No longer would members of clandestine reading groups seek out unpublished manuscripts that made such discourses available to those unfortunate few who only read English. No longer would every seminar paper on feminist criticism require a rationale. The year was 1979 and the “poetics” was Gilbert and Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.
Ten years later I find myself reviewing the first two volumes of the sequel to that “poetics.” Ten years is a long time to wait and a long time to sustain the same project, especially in a field as transformational and transformed as feminist criticism. Gone is the exhilaration and trepidation of the “first,” perhaps because Gilbert and Gubar's edition of The Norton Anthology of Women Writers: The Tradition in English has stolen the limelight. Perhaps because so much of the material in No Man's Land is already familiar, having been published elsewhere. Perhaps because Shari Benstock's encyclopedic survey of the modernist women (at least those who made it to Women of the Left Bank) has already appeared (1986). It is not a sense of “belatedness” (the apprehension underlying Harold Bloom's theory of the “anxiety of influence”) that one is left with at the end of almost 800 pages. Rather, it is a sense that even though the co-authors “had to rethink everything we had ever been taught about twentieth-century literature,” that rethinking does not include the category of Literature nor the project of a literary history.
While The Madwoman in the Attic attempted to construct a distinctly female literary tradition in the nineteenth century, No Man's Land focuses on the “social, literary and linguistic interactions of men and women from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present.” Gilbert and Gubar have abandonned both the (feminist literary critical) notion of a separate literary tradition and the (literary historical) notion of periodization strictly by century. Instead they have retained the spatial metaphor, substituting the figure of female confinement and escape borrowed from Jane Eyre with a soldier's description of the trenches from World War I, subsequently borrowed as trope by numerous writers. The self-division of the woman writer has been replaced by the war between the sexes. An internalized conflict between the author and her enraged double has given way to the externalized conflict between an impotent and hostile “no-man” and an anxious because potent New Woman over primacy in the literary marketplace. The pen, which was once a metaphoric penis, has become a metaphoric pistol.
The first volume, The War of the Words, offers “an overview” of literary production from 1850 to 1980 in the United States and England by means of stories and poems which are read allegorically in order to reiterate ad infinitum the meta-story of the sexual battle. The second volume, Sexchanges, focuses on the period between 1880 and 1930 and analyses fewer texts in greater detail, with entire chapters devoted to Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton and Willa Cather. The assumption of the second volume draws on that of the first: “the sexes battle because sex roles change, but, when the sexes battle, sex itself (that is, eroticism) changes.” Because the second volume treats “eccentric subjects” like “necrophilia, parthenogenesis and transvestism,” and because some of its topics are not only “eccentric but painful,” such as imperialist xenophobia, lesbianism and the Great War, the authors feel the need to include a disclaimer: “About such disturbing material, all we can finally say is, Reader, we felt we had to write it, but please don't kill the messenger.” Still hearing the echoes of Bronte's heroine, it doesn't take long to realize that the repressed double, not the Creole but the lesbian writer, has moved out of the attic and into the closet.
The “anxiety of authorship” which named the conflict for nineteenth century women writers between accepting and rejecting a literary tradition based on paternal authority in the absence of literary foremothers has been replaced by the “female affiliation complex.” The source is still Freud (“Female Sexuality”), the woman writer is still a literary daughter and her story is still told as a family romance:
If we translate this model of female psychosexual development into a map of literary paths, we can see that, whether the female artist turns to what Freud would judge a normative renunciation of her desire for a literary mother to the tradition of the father, whether in what Freud might see as a frigid rejection of both allegiances she attempts to extricate herself altogether from her own aesthetic ambitions, or whether in a move that Freud might define as “defiant” and “homosexual” she claims the maternal tradition as her own, she has at last to struggle with what we would provisionally define as a complicated female affiliation complex.
(Vol. I, p. 168)
But given the fact that there is only one metastory, namely the battle of the sexes, how many of these paths will be not just described, but valorized (using terms like “normative” and “homosexual”)? In Freud's own words, the three options are asexuality (the woman gives up on her “masculine proclivities” because boys are better at them), homosexuality (she forms a “masculinity complex” by refusing to give them up) and heterosexuality (the masculine is the love object rather than the source of identification). On the one hand this set of relations between the feminine and the masculine is much more complicated than the simple binarism of the battle. On the other hand, given the metaphor of (hetero) sexual conflict (for Gilbert and Gubar as well as for Freud) the only legitimate battle and/or sex is with men. On some basic level, the two sets of paths are not even comparable, given that Freud never mentions the maternal or the relations between women.
If the nineteenth century was characterized by a powerful father-daughter paradigm, the twentieth is marked by “anxiety and exuberance” over finally having, not a mother, but a choice of literary parentage. Literary foremothers produce as much if not more ambivalence than fathers once did. Rather than “influence” from outside, there is now a choice. And because there is a choice, women writers can decide with whom to affiliate (although one cannot choose not to affiliate). And having chosen, they become linked (once again) to a genealogy with its own “quasi-familial inevitability.” Should one choose the mother,
the literary daughter finds herself in a double bind. If she simply admires her aesthetic foremother, she is diminished by the originatory power she locates in that ancestress; but, if she struggles to attain the power she identifies with the mother's autonomy, she must confront … the peril of the mother's position in patriarchy, the loss of male emotional approval paradoxically associated with male approbation—as well as the intimacy with the mother that would accompany daughterly subordination.
(Vol. I, p. 195)
In other words, the relation to the mother, and thus to other women, is not the solution either. Although Gilbert and Gubar suggest that the “monolithic pattern” of an earlier women's literary history has been displaced by a “variety of patterns,” it is clear that the same patterns keep repeating themselves. The one who wins the battle is the one who keeps it going longest and the author who claims that distinction is Edith Wharton.
The chapter entitled “Angel of Devastation: Edith Wharton on the Arts of the Enslaved” is truly exceptional. Like Gilbert and Gubar, Wharton addresses the same issues “book after book, story after story,” namely “The subject creature. The arts of the enslaved.” In other words, she provides “a feminist analysis of the construction of ‘femininity.’” But presumably unlike her co-critics, she repudiated both the “bonds of sisterhood” (of a woman's separate sphere) and the “shoulder to shoulder feminist solidarity” (adopted by the New Woman). Instead, she was nicknamed “John” and expressed more concern for what she would wear than for what she had written before her first meeting with Henry James. What distinguishes this chapter is that contradiction has replaced dualism, a search for “Herland” (the utopian alternative to “No Man's Land”) has given way to an analysis of patriarchal gender formations (at least for the leisure class of the Gilded Age) and revealing social ills is seen as a separate enterprise from curing them. Wharton was not a feminist but she can be read as offering a feminist analysis of gender relations which ultimately indicts men for the formation and perpetuation of the leisure class. In spite or because of her “ferocious irony” she offers no alternative for the feminine except “contact with the stronger masculine individuality.” She was both a “man's woman” and a “self-made man” and within that contradiction one finds the most complex rendition of “sexchanges,” not as redemption but as critique.
At the same time Wharton's depiction of sexual arrangements can do nothing but repeat itself, finding variations only in the multitudinous character formations and plot structures of her novels and short stories. Because there is no solution, the battle must go on: “For though this writer was never consciously to align herself with the female camp in the battle of the sexes, her secret feelings toward men, even toward men she loved, were often, and not surprisingly, at least subtly hostile.” This statement makes explicit the fundamental paradox of patriarchal gender relations and thus of Gilbert and Gubar's argument. Like the plot of a popular romance, the point is not to avoid or settle the dispute but to keep it going in the name of love for the purpose of marriage. What makes Wharton additionally attractive is that female rage once again undergoes repression and reappears in the subtext, in this case, the ghost story. There Wharton can safely imagine turning on her master by portraying the erotically illicit.
A similar attempt to rewrite eroticism on the part of lesbian writers encounters a quite different critical reception. Even though the chapter “‘She Meant What I Said’: Lesbian Double Talk” ends with the statement that its subject matter has been the “first, fully self-conscious generation of lesbian writers,” the authors nevertheless choose as their analytic categories the loneliness of the lesbian in heterosexual society and thus of the lesbian writer in literary history, an aesthetic of mutuality or “double talk” that can turn collaboration into collusion, and a principle of pain which seems to persist in same-sex relations, primarily because these relationships so isolate the lovers that each one must constantly fear the loss of a separate identity. “Perpetual, ontological expatriation” becomes the plight of those who live in the “supposedly native land which is heterosexuality.” The real danger is not the “no man's land of sex” but the attempt on the part of any woman writer to create “her own land” and thus put into question not only the “female affiliation complex,” but the very notion of a literary history: “In their attempts to write new and strange words that evade the territorial battles between literary men and women, the lesbian expatriates looked back to an ancient, almost mythic literary history or forward to the total annihilation of literary history.” In either case, not to the kind of literary history that Gilbert and Gubar want to construct. Here the chief offender is Gertrude Stein.
The reading of Stein is the least successful in the entire two volumes. At one point the co-critics go so far as to begin a paragraph: “While a number of readers have felt victimized by Stein's impenetrable sentences or resentful about their failure to makes sense of her nonsense, even the responses of her admirers identify her authorial audacity with male mastery.” (A footnote corroborating the first point of view refers the reader to a male critic whose book appeared in 1958). Certainly Gilbert and Gubar include themselves among “a number of readers” and their main complaint about Stein has to do with the fact that she created “her own land,” put herself at its center and from there engaged in a “self-authorizing aesthetics” that exploited not only Alice, but continues to exploit us as readers. Neither a utopian “Herland” nor a battle of the sexes, Alice simply cannot be portrayed as the enraged but repressed dark double of Gertrude nor can Gertrude be described as an anxious and thus hostile “no-man.” Instead (in Gilbert and Gubar's emplotment) Alice becomes the author of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas which she gives to Gertrude as a subversive gift by producing the only readable Stein.
Since even Gilbert and Gubar complain that Stein herself is always the central focus of any treatment of her work, it might be useful to consider what the stakes are, besides lifestyle. Worse than being manly in the most masculinist way, Stein puts into question three fundamental principles underlying the project of No Man's Land: she refuses predecessors, thus rejecting the “female affiliation complex”; she engages in an “aesthetics of solipsism,” thus undermining the very notion of Literature; and she turns collaboration into collusion, thus challenging the premises of co-authorship (“We feel this book is fully collaborative,” Gilbert and Gubar write in their introduction). Paraphrasing their own words: Stein claims all literary history as her own; she refuses to produce representational works; she rejects the notion of revision; and she creates only for herself. What could be more frustrating, more anxiety-provoking, more antithetical for two critics who want to create their own (definitive) literary history based on representational works required to substantiate a meta-story, having done so for over ten years in the hope of reaching the entire community of literary critics? Stein's worst crime is that she turns words into weapons, not against men, but against women readers, and not because her topics might be “eccentric and painful,” but because there are none that lend themselves to recuperation by Gilbert and Gubar's history. Her textual/sexual strategies make us rethink everything, not just “twentieth century literature.”
From Freud's point of view (according to Gilbert and Gubar) “the ‘masculinity complex’ could be carried no further.” For Gilbert and Gubar, “The father had been turned into a fat-her” (based on the insights of six year old Molly Gubar). Perhaps an even more fundamental anxiety lies at the heart of their project, a fear of the female body which in its “excess” usurps the position of the father and/or abuses the role of the mother. In an otherwise interesting and provocative discussion of Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm, one finds the following statement: “If Tant’ Sannie is the only mother figure on the farm, we can understand the dilemma she poses by crystallizing it into the sentence, There is no mother and she is huge.” Both of these sentences, in their aphoristic brevity, in their focus on fatness, in their concern with the parental, point to issues that can't be dealt with simply by including a chapter on lesbian writers or by suggesting that daughters can choose with whom to affiliate. They reflect an unquestioning attachment to the family romance, to Freudian discourses on sexuality, and to quotable quips. What, then, one might ask, has feminism done for anyone besides the publishing industry?
The point is not to reveal and revel in the unexplored anxieties of Gilbert and Gubar. The point is that a feminist criticism which thought that the daughter would be better off having a choice of parentage than an “anxiety of no-authorship,” must eventually recognize that some choices are more valued than others and that choosing peaceful co-existence with a woman can be more threatening than engaging in battle with a man. More importantly, the privileging of analytic paradigms like the “battle of the sexes” not only laments but produces forms of epistemic violence by categorically excluding lesbian writers who can then only be included as nostalgic, lonely expatriates. The move from the attic to a “no man's land” has proven perhaps more advantageous for the modern woman writer than for the feminist literary critic. The fact that there are no men or men with “no-manhood” means that there might be women who embody those attributes once thought to be inherently masculine.
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SOURCE: A review of No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth-Century, Volume 2: Sexchanges in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 35, No. 4, Winter 1989, pp. 867–68.
[In the following excerpt, Boyd calls Sexchanges—volume two of No Man's Land—a better book than the series' first volume, The War of the Words; but holds that Sexchanges is still full of unexamined assumptions.]
According to Carolyn Heilbrun, “No Man's Land challenges the very basis of interpretation for a whole period. The study of modernism will never be the same.” I hope she is right. For although I often doubt the success of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's challenge, I certainly applaud their attempt. Sexchanges returns to many of the issues presented in The War of the Words (the first volume of the three volume series), notably “the relationship between female dreams of a powerful Herland and male fears of a debilitating no man's land” and “the discrepancy between men's hostility toward what they perceived as threatening female autonomy and women's anxiety about what they saw as the fragility or even the fictionality of such autonomy.” This book also elaborates a number of themes mentioned but not treated in depth in the first volume: “the sexual imagery associated with imperialism and its decline, with the intensified consumerism of Gilded Age America, and with the opening as well as the closing of the American frontier”; “the evolution of turn-of-the-century and modernist women's revisionary mythic and religious ideas”; “the relationship of the feminist and free love movements to the female imagination”; “the emergence of a lesbian literary tradition”; and “the asymmetrical impact of the Great War on men and women.”
However, the “principal focus” of the book is on “changing definitions of sex and sex roles as they evolve through three phases.” Gilbert and Gubar identify these phases as: “the repudiation of the Victorian ideology of femininity that marked both feminism and fantasy during what we might call the overturning of the century; the antiutopian skepticism that characterized the thought of such writers as Edith Wharton and Willa Cather … ; the virtually apocalyptic engendering of the new for both literary men and literary women that was, at least in part, fostered by the fin de siècle formation of a visible lesbian community, even more shockingly triggered by the traumas of World War I, and perhaps most radically shaped by an unprecedented confrontation (by both sexes) with the artifice of gender and its consequent discontents.”
In spite of the emphasis on literary men and women, this book leans more toward social than literary history. And as such, the treatment of the effect of World War One on British women (Chapter Seven, “Soldier's Heart: Literary Men, Literary Women, and the Great War”) is far and away the most interesting chapter in the book. Gilbert and Gubar argue that the absence of men in society and the economy during the war “fostered the formation of a metaphorical country not unlike the queendom Charlotte Perkins Gilman called Herland.” Sharp divisions between the men on the firing line and the women in the factories were underscored by recruitment posters the subtext of which was often “dulce et decorum est, pro matria mori,” and the aftermath of the war that had done so much to further women's liberation found women facing a backlash of misogyny, evoked by the nightmare of the trenches.
This is a better book than War of the Words in a number of ways. The theoretical basis is still shaky, based on too many unexamined assumptions, but the style is clearer, and the puns and self-conscious word play are under better control, and consequently more effective. With such an all-encompassing agenda, it is little wonder that Gilbert and Gubar often merely skim the surface. Overall, it is an inconsistent work in which flashes of brilliance alternate with flabby overstatement and flimsy generalizations. In spite of its flaws, it is a good read, especially for those interested in social history. …
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SOURCE: A review of No Man's Land: The War of the Words, in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 88, No. 3, July, 1989, pp. 454–57.
[In the following review of the first volume of No Man's Land, Blake contends Gubar and Gilbert ought more strongly to have stressed their argument that patriarchal forms are not embedded in language.]
Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar have followed up their Madwoman in the Attic with a “Daughter of Madwoman” as powerful as its progenitor. No Man's Land is the first volume in a projected three-volume series. It gives the grounding and grand scheme of literary history that recasts Modernism and Postmodernism as episodes in the gender agon initiated by the nineteenth-century rise of women and women writers. Gilbert and Gubar here extend their historical range to the twentieth century and treat male as well as female authors, exhibiting a greater historicism and theoretical self-awareness than in Madwoman. And while still with a basis in Freud, they present a critique of Freud and Freudian revisions, and their feminist manifestations.
Still frequently referring to Harold Bloom, whose Freud-based “anxiety of influence” helped them formulate their idea of the “anxiety of authorship” of nineteenth-century women writers, Gilbert and Gubar stress a twentieth-century rivalry that is not so much Oedipal as a sibling rivalry between the sexes in a period when women were moving beyond their initial anxiety about writing at all and into full-fledged contention with men. The first pair of chapters offers literary responses to the new aspirations and achievements of women in books by both men and women that represent a heightened battle of the sexes. The next pair of chapters covers the battle of the sexes over literary heritage, the last over claims to language itself.
In a still-Freudian fashion Gilbert and Gubar associate sexual and artistic energy and associate both with aggression and its release. But the aggressive outweighs the erotic. From the title on, No Man's Land concerns sexual war. Sometimes the terms of the erotic seem almost expendable, introduced in deference to Freudian theory.
But deference to Freud is not the hallmark of this book, for it gives us a Freud and Freudian theory “haunted by history.” Gilbert and Gubar premise their work on the possibility of some meaningful access to historical knowledge and a corollary access to knowledge of authors. They hold that “challenges to history and authorship, radically antipatriarchal as they may seem, ultimately erase the reality of gendered human experience” (p. xiv).
They consider Freud's theories to be in large measure constructed as reaction-formations to the emergence of feminism and new claims and accomplishments by women. Freud knew what the femininity of the future might look like, and he inclined to deplore it, as is tellingly shown by a letter he wrote sometime after translating John Stuart Mill's Subjection of Women. Thus, castration anxiety looks like the theory of a man increasingly aware of threats to male prerogative, penis envy like the theory of a man who might wish that women felt more of it. Freud theorized a female sexuality unfavorable to sublimation, for instance, in the form of artistic creativity; he did so facing an historic upswing in the number of artists who were women.
In reaction to new womanhood, Freud is, in fact, a characteristic male Modernist, according to Gilbert and Gubar's central conception. His psychological theory is haunted by the same history as that haunting twentieth-century literature. Gilbert and Gubar acknowledge the pressures that have been held to shape the period in standard accounts—the loss of faith, Darwinian visions of nature, the new psychology, the discontents of industrial civilization, the great war—all inaugurating an age of anxiety. But they characterize the period as also and above all an age of sexual anxiety. This has been overlooked because “few recent historians have grasped the profundity of the social metamorphosis brought about by the ‘new woman’” (p. 21). And yet all the other anxieties can be seen as variants and feeders of the sexual one. Manhood, the culture of patriarchy, was challenged by the new woman at a time when it lost god the father, and lost man as ancestor and gained the monkey, when it contemplated the patricidal Oedipus complex, when it saw captains of industry confronted by unfilial workers, when a male generation was decimated in the trenches. Thereafter manhood lost jobs in the Depression, family pride of place in the mid-century era of momism, and first-sex standing in the second wave of feminism since the 1970s.
No Man's Land begins with Ted Hughes's “Lovesong”—“His words were occupying armies / Her laughs were an assassins attempts”—and circles back to Sylvia Plath's poems of vengeful female victory, “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy.” Throughout, Gilbert and Gubar deploy representative figures and intertexts. And their study is sweepingly comprehensive. Sometimes it briefly changes the light by which we view a work; sometimes it goes into brilliantly disturbing detail. After these first chapters on the sex war represented in texts, the heat of battle seems to intensify in the middle chapters on competing male and female claims to be heirs of literary history. Gilbert and Gubar present male writers as hard driven by Nathaniel Hawthorne's “damned mob of scribbling [and publishing, popular, and money-making] women” to insist on the masculinity of the great tradition. In literature and in life they show male defensiveness over female literary success, rivalries with literary women, and usurpation of their work. Most interesting is the construction of a “literary history that denies the reality of women writers” (p. 153), especially by Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and “The Wasteland,” and by many others as well.
Women must all the more fend off doubts and affirm the reality of women writers. Gilbert and Gubar trace a relationship of affiliation between many women writers and their female precursors. If inheritance from foremothers is less assured than from forefathers, it is less automatic, and both demands and makes possible a more active choosing of the ancestral lines that count. While in the nineteenth century women suffered anxiety about being authors at all within a male literary tradition, in the twentieth century they increasingly sought a female tradition. This mitigated the anxiety of authorship and even offered a certain advantage as it loosed women from the anxiety of influence that still burdened men. Women were heirs of a less overwhelming great tradition, less belated, freer to form their own affiliations with the female past.
All this is argued through an enormous range of examples too long to list. The sheer number of women writers referred to is impressive evidence of the burgeoning of writing by women since the nineteenth century, and of the need for this book. Gilbert and Gubar give all this writing a place in literary history, and challenge our conception of that history in order to accommodate it. Their work takes part in the battle between the sexes over literary history that it analyzes.
In their last chapter they treat the rival claims of the sexes to be makers of language. Again they may be said to take sides, but here the line they draw falls not only between women and men but between themselves and neo-Freudian theorists of language, and between their own Anglo-American feminism and the French feminist camp.
At stake is whether language is a “materna lingua” or “patrius sermo,” a mother tongue or phallologos. Gilbert and Gubar stress male fears of losing linguistic control, especially an “anxiety of the vernacular.” Losing much of the gender privilege of education in classical and learned languages, men faced the rising power of ordinary language that gave them no special fluency compared to women. Gilbert and Gubar discuss the low status of the mother tongue with reference only to its sexual association. Their book does little to correlate sexual terms with socioeconomic-educational-class terms of analysis. This might certainly be done in the case of the vernacular, which is the language of the nonelite, including but not limited to women.
Male efforts to recapture an elite language appear in difficulty, abstraction, obscurity of style. The examples include not only Stéphane Mallarmé and James Joyce but Jacques Derrida. Gilbert and Gubar show women writers usurping and parodying male high language. Gertrude Stein makes English itself into a foreign tongue. H. D.'s punning is linguistically high-handed. And women also enjoy more exuberance than “vertigo of the vernacular” than men. Gilbert and Gubar might credit male writers such as Joyce with a certain amount of reveling in the linguistically low as well as the high. Throughout, they treat the male case with understanding, but, it must be said, the female case with more. The neuter only could be neutral according to their view of sex antagonism, so that they seem as fair as can be expected.
The main assertions of this chapter are that “the female subject is not necessarily alienated from the words she writes and speaks,” and further that there is an “astonishing priority of that mother tongue which is common to both men and women” (pp. 229, 266). To argue these points Gilbert and Gubar must counter the neo-Freudian language theory of Jacques Lacan, disclaim phallogocentrism, dissociate language acquisition from the Oedipus complex, so concerned with relations with the father, and locate it earlier in relations with the mother who “in many cultures … feeds the child words even as she furnishes her or him with food” (p. 264). In certain funny, punny displays of their own linguistic power, Gilbert and Gubar call for a recognition of grandmatology, and they let it be known that “Mom is not mum.”
They should have extended this whole discussion, for it is one of their most important. They have distanced themselves from Freudian theory enough to stand against its most influential current revision. And since that revision has influenced a whole camp of feminist theory, they stand against that, too. They oppose Julia Kristeva and the French feminism that holds that the Name of the Father is inscribed in language itself. Gilbert and Gubar do not consider women's oppression to be that primal. And their book presents us with a female volubility, a record of publication, an honor roll of powerful women authors sufficient to have helped shape the literary history of the whole period, and to cast in doubt any Freudian or feminist theory of language that makes it out to be a father and not a mother tongue.
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SOURCE: “Pursuing the Amazonian Dream,” in Times Literary Supplement, June 2, 1989, pp. 607–08.
[In the following essay, Castle discusses Sexchanges, and reviews Gubar and Gilbert's argument that men's deaths have sparked women's creativity.]
In Sexchanges, the latest instalment of No Man's Land, their ambitious multi-volume study of woman writers of the twentieth century, the feminist critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar edge, not without anxiety, towards a disturbing yet suggestive theory of the female imagination: that women's creativity is unleashed, if not powerfully excited, by the deaths of men. Describing the tremendous outpouring of women's writing during and after the First World War, they draw a fearsome yet compelling conclusion: that the spectacle of collective male agony and vastation—the abrupt removal of an entire generation of brothers, sons, and lovers—provided a subterranean psychological liberation for women writers. Even while Virginia Woolf, Vera Brittain, Edith Wharton and Katherine Mansfield mourned the devastation wrought by the war, observe Gilbert and Gubar, their fictional and autobiographical works expressed a latent realization “even at the height of the conflict, that not only their society but also their art had been subtly strengthened.”
Vera Brittain noted that when her fiancé, Roland, was killed, “his mother began to write, in semi-fictional form, a memoir of his life,” and added that she herself was “filled with longing to write a book about Roland.” And in A Son at the Front, an admiring tale of an artist-father whose art is mysteriously revitalized by the death of his soldier son, Edith Wharton offered an encoded description of a similar transformation of a dead man into an enlivening muse.
Similarly “enlivening” effects were felt among women poets. In an extreme case, as in the gruesomely jingoistic verse of Jessie Pope quoted by Nosheen Khan in Women's Poetry of the First World War, an unconscious delight in the drama of male maiming and destruction seems almost palpable. Witness Pope's ghoulish urging of the troops off to war in “The Call” (“Who's for the trench— / Are you, my laddie?”) or her jolly refusal, in “The One-Legged Soldier”, to feel sorry for men who've had their legs blown off. “Though one shank may be wooden”, she cheerfully intones, “There's a kick left in the good'un.” Other women, such as the American-born poet Mary Borden, wrote more bitterly of male suffering, yet even here, in the most eloquent anti-war verse, one senses a subliminal freeing up, as though the ordeal of the loved one were also functioning as a powerful licence, an enabling event, imbuing the female poet's voice with new and unprecedented authority.
Gilbert and Gubar, it must be said, seem ill at ease with the notion of a “dead man” at the heart of female creativity. In their preface they apologize, rather nervously, for the dead-man-as-muse idea. “Our analysis of the asymmetrical responses of literary men and literary women to the Great War that haunts modern memory inevitably uncovers a distressing sexual competition which seems to have allowed at least some women to profit from male pain.” Reflecting on this “disturbing material”, they conclude self-protectively, “Reader, we felt we had to write it, but please don't kill the messenger.”
The ambivalence is understandable. It is indeed unsettling to discover that certain kinds of creativity may be enhanced by the displaced fulfilment of hostile, even murderous wishes. Yet once acknowledged, the notion that women writers throughout history have been inspired by a subliminal desire to take the place of men is not so easily dismissed. Given the age-old cultural taboo against female self-expression, a woman can only begin to write, it seems, by activating in herself some fantasy of usurpation: some dream of rivalling or supplanting that man (real or symbolic) who flaunts his power over her. For Gilbert and Gubar, women's writing has, from its beginnings, obsessively revealed a hidden aggressive wish—for revenge against masculine authority, for a silencing of the male voice, for some utopian space from which men or their books have been removed. In women's literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—in the writings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Olive Schreiner, Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes—the wish manifested itself, they argue, in the recurrent figuring of what they call a “Herland” or “No Man's Land”: an imaginative landscape in which men are absent or irrelevant and women live happily on without them.
One could say that feminist literary critics are just now beginning to discover what misogynists have known all along. In earlier centuries, as Janet Todd reminds us in her useful survey of eighteenth-century English women's writing, The Sign of Angellica, male writers realized precisely what antagonistic impulses might be at work when women took up the pen. “In former times”, wrote Samuel Johnson in 1753, “the pen, like the sword, was considered as consigned by nature to the hands of men. … The revolution of years has now produced a generation of Amazons of the pen, who with the spirit of their predecessors have set masculine tyranny at defiance.” At least since the eighteenth century—when women first entered the literary market-place in large numbers—the problem for women writers has been how to come to terms with the aggressive (if disguised) “Amazonian” wish legislating their own creative acts.
In [Janet] Todd's account [The Sign of Angelica: Women, Writing, and Fiction 1660–1800] the psychic freedom of the first professional women writers gives way in subsequent generations to increasing diffidence and self-suppression. In the works and careers of late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century women the urge to compete with men seems relatively uncensored: Todd writes engagingly of the “naughty triumvirate” of Aphra Behn, Delarivier Manley and Eliza Haywood—each of whom enjoyed doing battle with male rivals and inventing stories in which female characters triumphed blatantly over feckless fathers and lovers. She is also good on the rebellious “empress-mongering” of Margaret Cavendish, the eccentric Duchess of Newcastle, who signed her works “Margaret the First” and proudly imagined herself the ruler of a new gynocentric universe. In a characteristically uninhibited gesture, the fantastical duchess disrupted a meeting of the all-male Royal Society by appearing in an over-the-top mixture of male and female clothing and “an immense petticoat requiring six maids for support.”
Later in the eighteenth century, however, as masculine antipathy to the new class of “scribbling women” grew, women writers increasingly veiled their competitive impulses. Todd describes the intensifying pressure on women to conform to what were perceived as acceptably feminine styles of authorship—to exempt from their writing any trace of self-promotion, wit, scurrilousness, or anti-male critique. By the end of the eighteenth century, most women writers had more or less resigned themselves to the genteel model of female authorship: sentimental novels, conduct books and educational tracts flowed from their pens in a polite, inoffensive burble. A writer like Mary Wollstonecraft, whose work preserved something of the forthright utopianism (and rhetorical violence) of the earlier women writers, found herself treated as a pariah.
The aggressive energy informing female authorship surfaced obliquely of course—in feats of productivity (the pious Hannan More published over a hundred works) and in subversive deformations of established plots and genres. In many early novels by women, for example, the conventional happy ending—the marriage of the heroine—more often appears as a species of subtle torture: Burney's beleaguered heroines (as Todd notes) totter into matrimony “like invalids entering an asylum.” Certain genres likewise provided a covert psychological outlet for women writers. As the excellent new volume of essays Writing the Female Voice, edited by Elizabeth C. Goldsmith, suggests, the epistolary novel was from its beginnings associated with residual female power and challenges to patriarchal authority. By masquerading as “private” writing, letter fiction allowed women to “write the female voice” in a relatively unconstrained way and to elaborate, once again, undercover dreams of social and erotic resistance.
The theme of covert resistance is central to Nancy K. Miller's exciting new book of feminist literary theory, Subject to Change. Miller (whose last book The Heroine's Text dealt with the sexual plots of French eighteenth-century fiction) has some claim to being considered the most interesting and thoughtful critic now working on the history of women's writing. (Along with Jane Gallop, she is also one of the wittiest.) The subtitle “Reading feminist writing” is significant: like Gilbert and Gubar, Miller is concerned with the transgressive aspects of female creativity and the ways in which women's texts since the seventeenth century, particularly in France, have incorporated an ongoing “poetics of dissent”—an alternative vision of literature and its production.
A women writer becomes a feminist writer, according to Miller, when her work exhibits (in however veiled a fashion) a “signature” of gender. To discover in women's writing the “marks of a producing subject” the critic must engage in a process which Miller, happily reclaiming a once-suspect term, dubs “overreading.” Overreading is the search for that “icon or emblem within the fiction itself that obliquely figures the symbolic and material process entailed in becoming a (woman) writer.” In Miller's most important historical example, Madame de Lafayette's La Princesse de Clèves, the charismatic sign of female authority is the figure of the pavilion—that space to which the heroine retreats after her decision not to marry the Duc de Nemours. By refusing “male sexuality as a plot”, writes Miller, the princess (along with her creator) also refuses the patriarchal plot of literature itself. The feminized space of the pavilion can be read both as “the iconography of a desire for a revision of story, and in particular as a revision of closure” and as a sign of Lafayette's own resistance to the cultural taboo against female self-expression. Later French women writers—Graffigny, Staël, Sand and Colette—obsessively rewrite Lafayette's “refusal of love” scenario, returning explicitly to the pavilion as a figure for female artistic autonomy. In George Sand's Valentine, for example, the heroine, avoiding the consummation of her marriage to a count, retreats with a male admirer to a folie on the edge of her husband's country estate and embarks on a painting career. In this “transformation of an essentially frivolous place … into a scene of artistic and intellectual production”, writes Miller, one may detect both “a feminist appropriation of the pastoral matrix” and the “anguished alibi of the woman [Sand] who would justify her passage to writing.”
Is Miller's “signature” yet another version of the competitive wish at the heart of women's writing? Interestingly enough, Miller's own appropriations of critical authority seem linked to a half-conscious triumph over a (dead) male mentor. In a number of essays in Subject to Change, Miller, as if motivated by a repetition compulsion, returns several times to Roland Barthes's famous essay “The Death of the Author” precisely in order to assail Barthes for being indifferent to the issue of gender:
The postmodernist decision that the Author is Dead and the subject along with him does not, I will argue, necessarily hold for women, and prematurely forecloses the question of agency for them. Because women have not had the same historical relation of identity to origin, institution, production that men have had, they have not, I think (collectively) felt burdened by too much Self, Ego, Cogito, etc. Because the female subject has juridically been excluded from the polis, hence decentred, “disoriginated,” deinstitutionalized, etc., her relation to integrity and textuality, desire and authority, displays structurally important differences from that universal position.
Women intellectuals, of course, have always been fascinated by Barthes; the loving hommage à Roland has been a staple in women's recent critical writing from Susan Sontag to Helen Vendler. And Miller, in her own way, loves him too, acknowledging with affection the “seductive” influence that Barthes's playful theorizing has had on her own work. Miller's extravagant, ingratiating style is Barthesian in inspiration; likewise her elegant attention to literature's “pleasures, dangers, zones, and codes of reference.” At the same time, however, Barthes operates here, as the blurb ambiguously has it, as a “famously Dead Author”—the dead male muse—whose absence from the scene allows Miller room for her own very powerful assertions of difference. The rebellious psychodynamics of women's writing thus reinscribe themselves in the subliminal spaces of feminist criticism.
After the brilliant coruscations of Miller's work, Tess Cosslett's far more conventional book Woman to Woman: Female friendship in Victorian fiction seems tame. Cosslett's central thesis is not exactly inflammatory: female friendship in nineteenth-century women's fiction, she argues, is contained within “a male—female romance structure” where it functions “to assimilate the women to conventional roles, and to bring about the male—female resolution.” Women's friendships uphold patriarchal order: through a bond with another woman (who may be very different in personality, status, or aspirations) the Victorian heroine “comes to terms” with those problematic aspects of herself which must be resolved before she can be safely married off to a man. Thus the independent heroine may come “to recognize her sexuality through her contact with a ‘fallen women’” or the fallen woman may be “reclaimed for respectability by her ‘pure’ sister.” In readings of Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, Barrett Browning and several lesser writers, Cosslett pursues the same claustrophobic argument with little modification: that far from being a radical assertion of female solidarity, the typical Victorian fictional women's friendship is merely a temporary stage in a larger cultural “parable” of female repression and confinement. The reader must avoid, above all, interpreting such friendship subversively, as displaced lesbian desire: nineteenth-century women writers, says Cosslett, “negotiated” with contemporary conservative ideology “and ‘lesbian’ was not a concept available to them.”
In this questionable assertion, one senses the critic in retreat from the radical potentialities of her own subject. Yet it is perhaps not fair to blame Cosslett alone for a failure of nerve. While feminist critics have begun to explore the competitive urges activating women's writing—the Amazonian dream of usurping male authority—they have been reluctant to connect this separatist fantasizing with any explicitly lesbian poetics. Gilbert and Gubar, it is true, embark on such a project in the last chapters of Sexchanges, where they discuss at some length the lives and works of various lesbian modernists after the First World War. They cite Renée Vivien's droll assertion that men represent the “unaesthetic par excellence” and Woolf's nostalgic plaint that “only on Lesbos” did women possess the ideal conditions for creativity.
Yet even here one senses a lingering anxiety—manifest most strikingly in the curiously intense attack that Gilbert and Gubar wage on Gertrude Stein, the undisputed Penthesileia of modern women's letters. They are hostile to Stein's public and private acts of “male impersonation” and sympathize with Alice B. Toklas, consigned (as they see it) to the thankless role of wife to a pseudo-male genius. On no evidence to speak of they hint that Alice, not the macho Gertrude, really wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. This odd Steinbashing seems significant: Stein may indeed pose a limit case for heterosexual feminists. Stein's dream of repossessing masculine power was shockingly visible, not only in the spectacular high butch drama of her physical presence (and in her unsentimental dealings with male rivals like her brother Leo and Ernest Hemingway) but in the sheer transgressiveness of her writing, in which she strove both to reinvent English prose and to commemorate her sexual love for another woman. We still barely know how to read her—either her dislocations of language or her dislocations of power. And though Gilbert and Gubar might disagree, precisely because Stein lived out her wish for mastery in a less censored way than any woman writer before or since, she remains, still, our most truthful and intransigent image of feminist literary authority.
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SOURCE: A review of No Man's Land, Volume 2: Sexchanges, in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 128–30.
[In the following review of Sexchanges, Patterson explores Gubar and Gilbert's emphasis on World War I as a cause and metaphor for the sexual struggle between men and women at the beginning of the twentieth century.]
Sexchanges explores revisions of gender that occurred in society and were reflected in literature from the 1880s through the 1930s. As in their first volume (1988), in volume two Gilbert and Gubar continue to associate sexual difference with sexual antagonism, although they focus here on the antagonism specifically related to redefinitions of gender and sexuality: “the sexes battle because sex roles change, but, when the sexes battle, sex itself (that is, eroticism) changes” (p. xi).
The book begins with an analysis of Rider Haggard's She (1887). The heroine, She-who-must-be-obeyed, is “a monstrously passionate woman with angelic charm” (p. 6) that no man can resist, the matriarchal ruler of an African kingdom, the possessor of the secret of immortality, all of which make her particularly threatening to the male who has been sent to destroy her. Her misrule is ended when she is annihilated by a “phallic pillar of fire” (p. 46), a denouement that resolves the problem of female power and restores patriarchal authority, thus alleviating male anxiety over the rising autonomy of the New Woman in the second half of the nineteenth century.
This apocalyptic destruction of the heroine sets the standard for the great male hostility toward female power that Gilbert and Gubar extract from every male text they analyze. Male perception of increasing female power as a threat is not matched, however, by female perception of the “fragility or even the fictionality” (p. xii) of that power. This “asymmetry” (an asymmetry that Gilbert and Gubar christen “the MLA syndrome,” “given the ambivalent responses to the visibility of women in our own largest professional organization,” p. 50) sets the measure for comparisons throughout the volume. In the literary battle between the sexes, the male strategy is to win by destroying the enemy; the female strategy is to win “without directly engaging in combat” (p. 50). Sometimes a female author's tactics of avoiding the enemy involve either the heroine's chosen self-destruction or her unavoidable destruction due to natural and cultural constraints placed on her eroticism. Sometimes a heroine is saved by repudiating eroticism, like the women in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland who reproduce through parthenogenesis. Sometimes female desire is ignored altogether or found “unsayable” (p. 168), as in works by Edith Wharton and Willa Cather who concentrate on analyzing the social aspects of the American version of “feminization and its discontents” (p. 120).
As the literary battle of the sexes moved into the modernist period, female authors began to imagine successful alternatives to the gender definitions that constrained their desire. Eschewing “the fatality of heterosexuality” (p. 193), the lesbian expatriates in Paris in the early part of the twentieth century devoted themselves to “reinventing gender” (p. 213) in life and in literature. Alienated from both male and female literary traditions, they developed the aesthetic strategy of collaboration, constructing “a literary tradition out of what they had: each other” (p. 222). (This strategy has been recuperated by Gilbert and Gubar through their own collaboration as feminist critics alienated from male critical traditions.) Many female modernists also engaged in cross-dressing, in their lives as well as in their texts, as a means of redressing gender difference and as a metaphor for transcending biological sexuality. Regarding costumes as selves (that is, as psychological identities) and selves as costumes, they changed both with equal ease, thus subverting the idea of categorical gender difference altogether, the source of that antagonism Gilbert and Gubar implicitly identify as the basis for sexual battles.
Undoubtedly chapter 7, “‘Soldier's Heart’: Literary Men, Literary Women, and the Great War” (reprinted here from Signs, 8, No. 3 ) will serve as the “heart” of all three volumes. The Great War provides the title for their work, “no man's land,” the strip of land between opposing trenches that no man could inhabit. The war also seems to be the source of their consistently militaristic rhetoric and serves as a paradigm for their theme, the battle of the sexes. They rewrite the history of the war, representing it not so much as a struggle between the Central and the Allied Powers as a struggle between male and female powers, “as if the Great War itself were primarily a climactic episode in a battle of the sexes that had already been raging for years” (p. 260, emphasis mine). The “unmanning terrors of combat” (p. 260) turned men into “no-men” “not men” (p. 260), while women assumed positions of power on the homefront—taking the jobs the men left behind—or served at the front as nurses and ambulance drivers with passive and dependent male patients, so reversing the normal social order. While men fell, women rose, much (contend Gilbert and Gubar) to women's satisfaction. Understandably women appreciated, even celebrated, the higher wages, the autonomy, the positions of power, the sense of participating in history that the war provided many women for the first time; unfortunately men often perceived women's attitudes toward their new power as ghoulish, depicting their female characters as vampires “who feed on wounds and are fertilized by blood” (p. 262). Gilbert and Gubar seem to concur in this opinion in their analysis of both male and female texts of the period, positing a female “sexual glee” in contrast to a male “sexual gloom” (p. 264). The proposition is a disturbing one. No wonder they ask for mercy in their preface: “Reader, we felt we had to write it, but please don't kill the messenger” (p. xvii).
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SOURCE: “The (En)gendering of Literary History,” in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring 1989, pp. 111–20.
[In the following essay, Caughie contrasts Gubar and Gilbert's The War of Words—which explains modernism as a male reaction against the appearance of women writers—with Michael H. Levinson's A Genealogy of Modernism: A Study of English Literary Doctrine 1908–1922.]
Engender: 1. Of the male parent: To beget; “Thanne sholde he take a yong wyf and a feir / On which he myghte engendre hym an heir” (The Merchant's Tale, 28–29); 2. Of the female parent: To conceive, bear; “O Error, soon conceived, / Thou never coms't unto a happy birth, / But kill'st the mother that engend'red thee!”
(Julius Caesar, V, iii, 70–72)
The making of the modern has become a critical preoccupation in recent works, both as a subject (how modernism was made by its practitioners) and as an ideology (how modernism has been and will be made by literary historians). Various books, such as Robert Kiely's collection, Modernism Reconsidered (Harvard, 1983), Alice Jardine's Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity (Cornell, 1985), Perry Meisel's The Myth of the Modern (Yale, 1987), and Sydney Janet Kaplan's forthcoming Katherine Mansfield and the Origins of Modernist Fiction, focus on different writers, isolate different time periods, read different texts, and as a result, construct divergent explanations for the engendering of literary modernism. If I single out Levenson's Genealogy and Gilbert and Gubar's No Man's Land, it is because their asymmetry clearly sets the stakes in these efforts to make modernism. The former book painstakingly sets forth the conflicting forces that converged to form a particular strain of canonical modernism; the latter book provocatively challenges the very grounds of that argument.
The titles of these two works display their differences: Levenson's approach is temporal, Gilbert and Gubar's, spatial; Levenson covers a mere fourteen years, Gilbert and Gubar well over a century. The title of my review, taken (with parentheses added) from Gilbert and Gubar, and my headnote, adapted from the OED, specify their different emphases. For Levenson, the engendering of literary modernism, or one line of it, takes the form of a “recognizable lineage” among Hulme, Ford, Pound, Lewis, and Eliot. Excluding women from his study and ending with Eliot as the “heir of English modernism” (p. x), his understanding of engender would seem to be “of the male parent.” In contrast, Gilbert and Gubar's understanding of engender stresses not the heir but the error of such accounts as Levenson's that “kill'st the mother,” whether by neglecting a matrilinear development or by idealizing the mother as muse. Their book is a gendering of literary history, which for them means seeing what has long been discussed in terms of a generational conflict as masking “a more profound sexual-literary struggle” (p. 126), the battle of the sexes that is their metaphor throughout. They use engender in the second sense, “of the female parent,” not only in their fourth chapter on “The Female Affiliation Complex,” but also in their argument that women have been the bearers of literary modernism. The difference between these two books, then, could be said to boil down to the difference between the two definitions of engender: fathering and mothering. Levenson analyzes literary history as something made, in this case, by a few key men (p. x); Gilbert and Gubar analyze the history that has made us (p. xiii), the woman's cause and its historical ramifications.
Michael Levenson's book is, in his words, “a study in literary transition” (p. x). Levenson traces in detail the “minute changes” in modernist theory and practice over a short period of time, mainly the years 1908 to 1914, changes in thinking that have been seen as contradictions or confusions in light of the postwar period of “consolidation” from 1915 to 1922. Beginning with a reading of Conrad's The Nigger of the “Narcissus” in the first two chapters, Levenson identifies contradictory tendencies in modernist writing: toward precise physical description (realism) and toward the depths of consciousness (subjectivism). Placed in the context of Arnold, Pater, and Huxley, Conrad's novel reveals the “ideological crisis” of modernism, the conflict between physis and psyche, objectivity and subjectivity, authority and the individual. It is the changing shape of this crisis, and the critical confusion it has led to, that Levenson explores throughout. The next three chapters place Hulme, Ford, and Pound in the context of the subjectivist tradition from Arnold and Pater to Conrad and James in order to show that far from turning away from romanticist individualism, modernist Impressionism, Imagism, and Vorticism were at this time intensely, even aggressively, individualistic, only later to be read by their practitioners as anti-individualist. Levenson's point: “modernism was individualist before it was anti-individualist, anti-traditional before it was traditional, inclined to anarchism before it was inclined to authoritarianism” (p. 79).
The remaining four chapters account for this change, tracing Hulme's movement from romanticism to classicism and then to abstractionism, as well as Pound's movement, through Eliot's influence, from an assertion of the artist's self-sufficiency to an emphasis on control and traditional authority, from imagism and free verse to controlled and complex poetry. It is Eliot, Levenson says, who sought “to revise and reorder the prevailing modernist ideas, to free them of contradiction, to provide for them an adequate theoretical base” (p. 159). In doing so, “Eliot systematically undermined a series of formerly dominant concepts: sincerity, simplicity, freedom, expression, emotion” (p. 159), thereby winning modernism a place in the established literary order it had so long opposed. Thus Eliot's importance for Levenson's study: he revised the early oppositions into a new equilibrium and consolidated opposing tendencies between individualism and tradition (pp. 186, 219). Eliot is the heir to modernism not because he inherited it but because he made it. Without him, this genealogy could not have been written.
“Genealogy,” writes Foucault in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” “requires patience and a knowledge of details, and it depends on a vast accumulation of source material. … It opposes itself to the search for ‘origins.’”1 Genealogy, he continues, focuses on contradictions and on the changes in a word, like modernism, not on its continuity. It is in this sense that Levenson's study is a genealogy, not a search for a father or for origins, Levenson says, but for “relative contributions” (p. 104); an insistence not on the continuity of a movement but on its instability (p. 187). It is his “relentless erudition,” his refusal of “metahistorical” explanation, and his attention to “the myriad events” through which the concept of modernism was formed (Foucault, p. 81) that makes Levenson's book valuable. The lineage Levenson traces “shows the heterogeneity of what was imagined as consistent with itself” (Foucault, p. 82). For these reasons, Levenson's is an excellent study in genealogy, restoring, as he says, the intricacy to a literary period too often treated as a piece.
Yet Levenson's study diverges from Foucault's genealogy in two important ways. The first has to do with the type of history each writes: Foucault's work is social history, Levenson's is intellectual history. The second has to do with the end of historical investigation. “As it is wrong to search for descent in an uninterrupted continuity,” Foucault writes, and Levenson would agree, “we should avoid thinking of emergence as the final term of historical development” (p. 83). Ending with Eliot as the heir and unifier of modernism suggests such a final term, a culmination that, as Foucault reminds us, is merely an episode “in a series of subjugations” (p. 83). Emergence, then, is not the closing off of a struggle but “a place of confrontation” (p. 84), a “non-place” (p. 85), a no man's land. It is at this place that Gilbert and Gubar enter, revealing the kind of thing that can be subjugated in a genealogy such as Levenson's. If, as Levenson shows, the “retreat to a sceptical individualism” in Ford and Hulme was “a retreat from mass culture, widening democracy, and … an encroaching scientific materialism” (p. 61), Gilbert and Gubar argue that such a retreat was also, and primarily, a retreat from woman and the steady encroachment of women on the literary marketplace. And further, the difficult position of the male writers Levenson discusses, who attack the cultural authority on which their literary authority depends, points to the asymmetry of male and female modernists’ responses to such cultural changes.
Because their spatial metaphor takes us into that no-place of literary struggle, Gilbert and Gubar give us less a genealogy (despite their focus on female affiliation and literary foremothers in chapter 4) than a metahistory, “a story of stories about gender strife”: “In our view, the history of the sexual battle that we shall relate here is one of the major tales that begins to emerge from the apparent chaos of history, and it is a tale told differently over time and formulated differently by men and women” (p. xiv). Their story begins with a reading of Tennyson's The Princess published in 1847. Significantly, this is the year before the Seneca Falls Conference, which Karen Offen has recently cited as a commonly accepted beginning of American feminism.2 Gilbert and Gubar's point is that the rise of feminism in the late nineteenth century along with women's increasing influence in the literary market—as writers, editors, publishers, and patrons—brought on the battle of the sexes and prepared for the advent of modernism. Tennyson's poem turns the anxiety of influence or generational conflict so often seen as the source of modernism into a sexual anxiety. In Ida's rebellion, Tennyson brings together aesthetic romanticism (forefathers) and political revolution (feminism) so that the “imaginative autonomy, sexual freedom, and political revolution” (p. 12) associated with romanticism are connoted feminine. Thus, the repudiation of artistic freedom and revolutionary aesthetics that Levenson traces in writers such as Babbitt, Hulme, Pound, and Eliot is for Gilbert and Gubar a reaction against “feminist demands” and “female power” (p. 12).
Their first chapter sets up the line of attack pursued through particular skirmishes waged throughout the book: women and men “engendered words and works” in response to the sexual antagonisms and anxiety brought on by the rise of feminism and the fall of the Victorian “lady,” and thus modernism is “differently inflected” for men and women writers (p. xii). Focusing on the social and personal conflicts of the turn-of-the-century, Gilbert and Gubar present such sexual anxiety as the motivation behind modernism, “fueling the innovations of the avant garde in order to ward off the onslaughts of women” (p. 131). While the first two chapters present men's and women's different responses to the appearance of women on the social and literary scene, the third and fourth chapters present their asymmetrical responses to their female literary precursors of the nineteenth century. Finally, the fifth chapter, “Sexual Linguistics: Women's Sentence, Men's Sentencing” (a version of their 1985 New Literary History article), treats the battle of the sexes as a battle for linguistic primacy (p. 228) and shows how the different responses to literary mothers and the mother tongue inspired different kinds of linguistic fantasies in men's and women's texts.
A paragraph from Gilbert and Gubar's third chapter, “Tradition and the Female Talent: Modernism and Masculinism,” summarizes their argument well:
Thus when we focus not only on women's increasingly successful struggle for autonomy in the years from, say, 1880 to 1920, but also on their increasingly successful production of literary texts throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we find ourselves confronting an entirely different modernism. And it is a modernism constructed not just against the grain of Victorian male precursors, not just in the shadow of a shattered God, but as an integral part of a complex response to female precursors and contemporaries. Indeed, it is possible to hypothesize that a reaction-formation against the rise of literary women became not just a theme in modernist writing but a motive for modernism.
Set alongside a passage from Levenson's text, the differences are telling:
Why egoism at this moment? … it is worth reiterating a suggestion raised in connection with Ford Madox Ford: namely that the coincident pressures of mass culture and technical culture put an unbearable strain on the culture of liberalism. … In the face of working-class militancy, religious and philosophic scepticism, scientific technology and the popular press, there was a tendency—especially among the artists and intellectuals—to withdraw into individual subjectivity as a refuge for threatened values.
A comparison of these passages clearly reveals that what Levenson discusses in terms of a cultural crisis giving rise to modernism (e.g., the loss of faith, the rise of technology, the spread of democracy) Gilbert and Gubar argue must be reexamined in conjunction with the profound change that occurred in the relations between the sexes from the mid-nineteenth century on. Thus, their focus on women is more than an analysis of sexual differences in writing, more than an argument for a counter canon of female modernism: it means no less than a paradigm shift in our thinking about literary history. One need not accept Gilbert and Gubar's basic premise—that the battle of the sexes is the motive force behind modernism—to see how significant their scholarship is for our construction of literary history, canons, and curriculums. Where Levenson seeks to restore modernity to history, Gilbert and Gubar seek to restore women to modernity, and thus to social and literary history. As Susan Friedman puts it, the “man's ‘case’ (history) becomes the ground of the woman's ‘cause.’”3
My emphasis on engendering along male and female lines, then, brings these books into strong relief, but at the risk of a reductive generalization. Seeing these two books only as patrilinear and matrilinear modernisms suggests that they represent two strains of modernism. They do not. And it is this very important point that may well be obscured by both books, in Gilbert and Gubar's insistence on sexual oppositions, as if men and women writers did not share interests and strategies, as well as in Levenson's division of modernism into “lines” of development, as if Woolf (omitted from this particular genealogy) could not be discussed along with Conrad and Eliot. Instead of male and female modernism or different lines of development, their different emphases should show us what's at stake in the making of literary history. As examples of the stakes in these histories, as well as the insights each book has to offer us, I want to focus on their different explanations of the same phenomena: namely, the great figure, Futurism, and T. S. Eliot.
Levenson explains what Ford called “the passing of the great figure” in terms of the modernists’ “hostility toward the established order” (looking to the past, that is) conjoined with a loss of what Woolf called a “common belief”: “[Ford] possesses no comprehensive vision, no moral authority, no proposals for reform. The great Victorian figure implied the possibility of a coherent and encompassing point of view—not the partial glimpse of the specialist, but the wide and comprehensive vision of a moral prophet. In a democratic and technological society, argued Ford, such figures were obsolete and unwanted …” (p. 52). But if, as Wyndham Lewis wrote, there was “no mature authority,” it was due less, Gilbert and Gubar say, to the loss of an ideology than to the influx of women into the literary market, less to hostility toward male predecessors than to hostility toward female contemporaries: “Where the male precursor had had an acquiescent mother-muse, his heir now confronted rebellious ancestresses and ambitious female peers, literary women whose very existence called the concept of the willing muse into question” (p. 130).
Their presentations of the role of Futurism in modernist thought also reveal the different explanations produced by different starting points. Gilbert and Gubar see Marinetti's Futurism as characteristic of male modernists’ hostility and violence. Futurism captured the attention of such modernists as Lewis and Lawrence, they argue, because “it captures the aggressiveness with which many men in England and America responded to feminist incursions” (p. 22). Quoting Marinetti to show the link between “male militarism and misogyny,” they insist: “The militarist impulse that impelled the Futurists’ glorification of war did not just help fuel a war that would occur in the near future; it also indirectly enacted and reflected the war between the sexes that was already being waged” (pp. 22–23).4 According to Levenson, the early modernists, such as Hulme, Lewis, and Pound, rejected Futurism, except as it called for revolution in art and rebellion against the past: “They rejected the cult of technology, speed and machinery, the wilful lawlessness of Futurist pictorial composition and the poetic principle of ‘words at liberty.’ Futurism, as we shall see, became an important polemical adversary, and much of English modernist doctrine was defined in opposition to its principles” (p. 77).
But perhaps the most telling difference between these books lies in their treatment of Eliot. Levenson too has his war, “The War Among the Moderns,” discussed in his penultimate chapter. Here Levenson focuses on the efforts of Pound and Eliot to counter the dissemination of modernist techniques and thereby to consolidate what Perry Meisel calls “the myth of the modern.” One skirmish occurs between Pound and Amy Lowell over the name of Imagism. When Lowell was planning her collection, Some Imagist Poets, Pound feared that Lowell would appropriate the name “Imagism” and thus weaken the movement by undermining its coherent identity (p. 147) and its “elite nature” (p. 148).5 The dispute was mirrored two years later in Eliot's review of The New Poetry: An Anthology edited by Harriet Monroe and Alice Corbin Henderson. In this review, Eliot takes issue with Monroe and Henderson's definition of literary modernism, opposing their “ideal of absolute simplicity and sincerity” with “the exercise … of intelligence” and their promotion of self-expression with an argument for “selection, suppression, control and order” (pp. 158–59). These attacks on Imagism and vers libre, Levenson says, were motivated by the need to distinguish the spurious from the genuine modernism (p. 154), much as early modernists needed to distinguish their innovations from their predecessors’ poetry. Where early modernists proclaimed their freedom from traditional poetic standards, Eliot now proclaimed the need for such standards in order to defend modernism against freedom (and democratization) in art, for with such freedom came a loss of modernism's position as cultural vanguard. That is, a difficult and rigorous poetry was necessary to keep modernism in the hands of an elite, a point Gilbert and Gubar also make (p. 152). Eliot, like Pound, feared “the dissemination of literary method [would] work toward its vulgarization” (Levenson, p. 154). That vulgarization was mockingly termed “Amygism.”
Levenson's war already intimates the lines of Gilbert and Gubar's battle. His examples call attention to the sexual politics bound up with this aesthetic conflict. But as important as the personal conflict between men and women (Pound, Eliot; Lowell, Monroe, Henderson) are the sexual connotations of this war against mass culture. For Gilbert and Gubar, this vulgarization is the vernacular, or the mother tongue feared by men. Women are in league with the materialism, the masses, the mediocrity threatening modernism. That is, such reassertion of control as Eliot and Pound exercise is an attempt to reclaim a patrius sermo and “to regain the mastery lost when male artists were forced by history [with the rise of literacy, the spread of democracy, the entrance of women into the universities] to operate within the degrading confines of the vernacular mother tongue” (p. 259). The dense, hard, classical poetry often associated with modernism is a direct response to the democratization and dissemination of a literary method, but, Gilbert and Gubar argue, this dissemination, as well as the simplicity, sincerity, and freedom promoted by early modernists, is the result of women's role in the literary scene, and thus hard verse is a defensive reaction of men to their loss of literary authority.
Where Levenson focuses on the aesthetic conflict and the cultural politics in the making of modernism, Gilbert and Gubar focus on the personal conflicts and the sexual politics. If Eliot created for modernism a place in the established literary canon, he did so not just by providing it with a “stable literary doctrine,” as Levenson says (p. 219), but by constructing a story of literary history “in which women played no part” (Gilbert and Gubar, p. 154). Eliot's turn to the metaphysical poets, his establishment of an ideal order in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” and his longing for an ideal past before the dissociation of sensibility set in, all work, Gilbert and Gubar note, to erase “the history associated with the entrance of women into the marketplace” (p. 154), a history that Levenson does not treat. The Waste Land, as Joyce quipped, “ends [the] idea of poetry for ladies” (p. 156) not just because it promotes a “masculine aesthetics of hard, abstract, learned verse” (p. 154), as Gilbert and Gubar say, but because the consolidation of modernism it represents effectively excludes women writers.
“How did male reactions [to women's presence in the literary market] inflect the engendering of literary history in the twentieth century?” Gilbert and Gubar ask (p. 129). Levenson's genealogy presents one answer to that question. “Eliot, who has become prominent recently, will continue to be so,” Levenson asserts, “since he came to exemplify English modernism, since he presided over the changes in its definition and presentation, and since he wrote its most celebrated work. In a significant sense, he inherited the mantle of the London avant-garde, and it is our task to see what he made of the legacy” (p. 167, my emphasis). And it is Gilbert and Gubar's task to dismantle that legacy.
The motivation behind and the contribution of Gilbert and Gubar's book become quite apparent when read in the context of Levenson's. Read by itself, however, the book displays many problems: its militaristic rhetoric and its overgeneralizations can be irritating; its readings of selected passages neglect their larger textual contexts; its insistence on sexual oppositions obscures complexities; and its flagrant repetition makes this reader fear two more volumes. Read by itself, Levenson's study is a clear and complex discussion (which also, however, begets a maddening tendency to overexplain each and every digression) of the engendering of modernism. Read along with Gilbert and Gubar, its indebtedness to Eliot's version of literary history makes Levenson's study an act of affiliation, “the act of taking a son” (OED). Indeed, the child (literary historian) is father of the man (modernist doctrinaire). Both works reveal to varying extents a kind of circularity: Levenson's story tracing, not questioning, the literary history established by its own culmination, Eliot; Gilbert and Gubar's story telling a tale of sexual combat that their own rhetoric and examples presuppose.
There is no victor in this battle, unless it is the reader who learns the divergent ways modernism can be made. Where Gilbert and Gubar caution against privileging cultural and intellectual crises at the expense of social and sexual upheavals, Levenson cautions against privileging one metastory at the expense of ideational complexities and individual differences. Levenson subverts the very dualisms that structure Gilbert and Gubar's argument, showing how such oppositions are misplaced contrasts and tracing, in the words of George Eliot, “the suppressed transitions which unite all contrasts” (p. ix). Yet Gilbert and Gubar may well undermine the ground of Levenson's study, showing the extent to which Levenson is the heir of Eliot. As Levenson shows how modernism was made anew by a poet who comes to it late, so Gilbert and Gubar show how literary history will be made anew by feminist critics and historians belatedly entering the field.
Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), p. 76. Subsequent references will appear parenthetically in the text.
Karen Offen, “Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach,” Signs, 14 (Autumn 1988), 123. Dates signify. Gilbert and Gubar's beginning date coincides with the rise of feminism in America; Levenson's, as he points out, with the arrival of Pound in London. Gilbert and Gubar's study has no ending date, for the battle of the sexes is still being waged; Levenson ends in 1922 because in that year The Waste Land, Ulysses, and Yeats's Later Poems were published, marking the highpoint of modernism. Levenson significantly overlooks Woolf's Jacob's Room and Mansfield's In the Garden Party published as well in 1922, just as he overlooks Mansfield's arrival in London in the same year as Pound. But likewise, Gilbert and Gubar overlook important writers publishing, or trying to publish, in the 1840s, such as Feuerbach, Stirner, and Marx and Engels, whom Levenson discusses.
Susan Stanford Friedman, “Texts in the Trenches,” The Women's Review of Books, 5, July 1988, 14.
The gender qualifier in the phrase “male militarism” is important since Gilbert and Gubar champion female militancy and aggression throughout. In chapter 2, “Fighting for Life: The Women's Cause,” they begin by blaming male acts of aggression for inaugurating the battle of the sexes (p. 65) and thereby obliging women to engage in sexual combat (p. 66). Such “asymmetry,” they argue, justifies in women's writing a violence they repudiate in men's.
While Levenson may seem to miss an important sexual difference here—the male (Pound's) insistence on proprietary rights, the female (Lowell's) insistence on wider dissemination—he goes on to point to “a small historical irony” that counters such a simple sexual opposition: “A year later, after the publication of Some Imagist Poets, Imagism became vastly fashionable in the United States, and Lowell was confronted with the circumstance that had tormented Pound, the loss of literary identity in the wash of imitators. Fearing that she might lose control of the movement, she herself considered copyrighting the name ‘Imagist,’” something she had earlier told Pound he couldn't do (p. 148).
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9010
SOURCE: “An Interview with Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar,” in Critical Texts: A Review of Theory and Criticism, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1989, pp. 17–38.
[In the following interview conducted by Rosdeitcher, Gubar and Gilbert discuss a variety of topics such as their work, women writers, feminist criticism, their critics, and their writing partnership.]
[Rosdeitcher:] I'd like to begin with a discussion of The Madwoman in the Attic, which has come to be regarded as one of the founding texts of American feminist criticism. What did you feel were the most pressing issues it raised at the time of its publication?
[Gubar:] Well, Sandra and I began thinking about The Madwoman in 1974, and as we were working on it a generation of feminist literary critics had begun to emerge, working primarily on issues of images of women in male literature and then on the recovery of the neglected or misread female literary tradition. The best example of the first category, images of women in male-authored literature, would be something like Sexual Politics by Kate Millett, which came out quite early.
In the second category, as we were writing, we were reading Ellen Moers's Literary Women, Pat Spacks's Female Imagination, and then Elaine Showalter's book, A Literature of Their Own. Both of those projects, images of women and the recovery of neglected or misread women, were obviously part of the impetus for the writing of The Madwoman in the Attic; that is, we were looking at texts by women from Jane Austen through George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Emily Dickinson in order to understand them as a response to male-authored images of women in Victorian literature.
At the same time, we were also fascinated by theories of literary history which seemed skewed by issues of gender that were not fully articulated, that were hidden inside, let's say, Harold Bloom's idea about the anxiety of influence. So finally we were trying not only to recover a neglected tradition, not only to read books that we thought were fascinating by linking them to each other and to a set of common themes or strategies—say, doubling or schizophrenia, disease, imprisonment—but also to figure out the dynamics of literary influence for women, and that was how we arrived at the concept of the “anxiety of authorship.” We wanted to understand what it meant for the nineteenth-century woman writer to grapple with a predominantly male literary inheritance. How did that effort instill feelings of anxiety that then led her to subvert the conventions of genres she inherited because they were male-defined?
[Gilbert:] While everything that Susan says is absolutely true—especially in what I guess we'd all consider a “professional sense”—I'd like to add something more personal about how I, and I guess both of us, experienced our work on The Madwoman. We had never actually planned to write a book together; in fact, what happened was that we taught a course together in response to a need expressed to us at Indiana University in the fall of 1974. The department thought there should be courses on, of all things, women writers—and Susan and I discovered we were both interested in that subject. We got together and made up a syllabus, rather naively, out of all the books by women writers we felt we wanted to reread (or, indeed, to read, carefully, for the first time). Neither of us was trained in that field (which was in any case not then considered a “field”). I had specialized in modern British literature; Susan in eighteenth-century prose fiction. But I had just been rereading Little Women,Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights with my youngest child, then nine years old (a girl). And I thought I could, suddenly, see all kinds of mysterious and somewhat mystifying connections among these works. Susan, as I recall, was planning to write something about Villette. So we welcomed the chance to teach the course, although both of us, as I also remember, were fairly ignorant about what would now be called feminist theory. We'd read Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, and Kate Millett, but not much else. Most of the other stuff came out after we'd started writing the book.
After some struggle (I wanted at first to call the course “Upstairs/Downstairs,” in honor of the TV program that was then popular), we compromised on a different title: The Madwoman in the Attic. I think that was because, after doing all this reading with my daughter Susanna, I had become fascinated by the figure of Bertha Mason Rochester, the infamous attic-bound first wife in Jane Eyre. I had vague, quite inchoate feelings that she had something to do with, on the one hand, Jo March (in Little Women) and, on the other hand, Heathcliff (in Wuthering Heights). I had odd ideas about doubles, but I couldn't have explained much more than this. I was really a poet and a critic of poetry, just beginning to learn how to read and analyze fiction!
But when Susan and I started to teach the course something magical happened. All the books—novels, poems, short stories, even essays—seemed to have significant relationships to each other. Thematic, stylistic, all kinds of connections. Neither of us, I should say, had ever studied any of these works in such a (female) context. I can say for myself, indeed, that I'd never studied most of them at all. In eight years of college and graduate school, I'd only read a few books by women—for example, Jane Austen's Emma, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, a few Dickinson poems—that was pretty much it! And those works had been defined, conventionally, in terms of the history of the novel, the history of modernism, the Victorian tradition, or the American Renaissance. So, suddenly rereading them, along with other works, in this remarkably new way was utterly transformative. Susan and I used to call each other almost every night, literally screaming with excitement about the connections we saw. There was, we suddenly understood, what is now identified as a “female literary tradition”—a tradition that crosses all the usual geographic, generic, and historical boundaries. It was after that intellectual metamorphosis, as I recall, that we understood we wanted to write a book. More specifically, we were seized by the idea that we had to write a book about this. And it was then, too, that we began to read, with great passion, all the terrific criticism then beginning to appear—that is, works such as the ones Susan has mentioned: Moers’ and Spacks's books, Judy Fetterley's The Resisting Reader, all of Elaine Showalter's work, and so forth.
In what way do you see women transforming male genres?
[Gilbert:] I'm not sure that I understand exactly what you mean by “male genres.” Genres that are inherently or essentially male? Genres for the most part constructed by male writers? On the assumption that you mean the latter (since I don't think there are any such things as inherently masculine genres), I'd say that women sometimes feel alienated from certain literary forms that reflect a particular kind of male psychosexual development, forms that emphasize, for example, a “homosocial bonding” (to use a phrase Eve Sedgwick has popularized) with male-dominated tradition. I'm thinking of the pastoral elegy, the epic, the verse tragedy, all of which, in one way or another, represent the western literary tradition to itself, as it were—justifying God's ways to “man,” offering the poet a consoling way of confronting mortality through visions of aesthetic resurrection, and so forth. These are modes in which, as we found in working on the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, women writers only very infrequently write, either because (and we're not sure of the answer here) they don't need to, or they can't.
Compare Emily Dickinson with Walt Whitman, for instance. This odd couple founded American poetry as we now know it, its mother and father, and they have a lot more in common: they were radical innovators, artistic revolutionaries, brilliant performers of the self in a culture that hardly knew how to respond to what appeared to be their profoundly idiosyncratic texts. Yet while Dickinson seems in many ways linguistically and generically isolated from the art of her precursors (she almost always writes in what John Crowe Ransom called “folk meter”—that is, in the prosodic form of the Protestant hymnal—and never attempts difficult “classical” genres), Whitman alludes (for instance, in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd”) to the pastoral elegy and (in “Out of the Cradle”) to the standard Romantic poem of initiation (e.g., Wordsworth's “Intimations Ode”) as well as, arguably (in “Song of Myself”), to such a quasi-epic as The Prelude. But this isn't to say that Dickinson is inferior to Whitman, or that Whitman is less “original” than Dickinson. Merely to say that they are strikingly different in their relationship to hegemonic (that is, male-created) genres.
[Gubar:] Well, but to a certain extent when you are dealing, let's say, with the history of the novel and you are facing the traditions established by male authors like Smollett, Fielding, Richardson, then the nineteenth-century woman writer might feel that she is confronted by conventions that need to be altered for her to experience her anger at those very scripts, her sense of discomfort. In her juvenilia, for example, Jane Austen parodied the sentimental epistolary novel most famously deployed by Richardson. And we dealt with that revisionary impulse, Sandra did, in her discussion of Frankenstein as a revision and a critique of Milton's Paradise Lost. When you think about Lucy Snowe in Villette, you can see the way in which Brontë is trying to come to terms with literary traditions linked to the Lucy of Wordsworth's famous poems, traditions related to the silencing of the heroine whose death really becomes a kind of impetus for the male poet, almost a source of inspiration. So the question of women resisting or reshaping what is inherited is a very important one.
I wonder if you could discuss the reception of The Madwoman, how you think it has affected later works of criticism?
[Gubar:] Well, The Madwoman was a lucky book because it received a very wonderful review in The New York Times, and it was then the runner up for the Pulitzer Prize and, I think, the National Book Critics Circle Award, so it got a lot of attention, much of it very good.
It received some critical reviews, one by Mary Jacobus in Signs that asked important questions about our conceptualization of historical change and the monolithic figure of the madwoman. So I would say the critical reviews were serious ones and posed important problems that we then went on to grapple with in later works. But for the most part that book has gotten the best reviews of anything we've published.
[Gilbert:] Yes, true. It was a lucky book, and we did learn a lot from skeptical reviews. But to be frank, I'd have to say that such a rapid success was in a way problematic for us. It has certainly meant a lot of anxiety about the “sequel,” which is what our latest work, the three-volume No Man's Land, supposedly is. Can one suffer from an anxiety of (one's own) influencing? I think perhaps we do, and have. I think that precisely because The Madwoman did elaborate a kind of monolithic “plot”—a plot for nineteenth-century (and earlier) women's literature that I believe we both still see in such work—we feared that we might be expected to, perhaps we ought to, come up with a comparable “plot” for feminism-and-modernism. But as you know, if you've been reading the successive volumes of No Man's Land, we feel that the plot becomes far more complicated in a post-suffrage, post-women-in-the-professions era; in fact, the plot has now become plots.
In some ways, your critical strategies seem to differ between Madwoman in the Attic and No Man's Land. In The Madwoman you describe the mapping of a female literary history as not only the project of twentieth-century feminist critics but also of the nineteenth-century women's literature you discuss. You seem to participate in the task their works imply by telling “the story of the woman artist who enters the cavern of her own mind and finds there the scattered leaves not only of her own power but of the tradition which might have generated that power” (98). When in the twentieth century the relationship between women writers and their female precursors becomes more complex, partly because such precursors are known, your own assessment about what constitutes an empowering strategy seems different. In your chapter, “Sexual Linguistics,” for example, you suggest that the revision of theories about women's relation to language is a common strategy of feminist texts including your own. Does this difference reflect a change in your own critical assumptions? Did your reading of twentieth-century writers elicit a change in these assumptions?
[Gilbert:] I don't think our critical assumptions, such as they are—and they're fairly pragmatic—have changed significantly. I think we're still working as literary/cultural historians, albeit fairly newfangled ones. But to the extent that we find the Bloomian/Freudian model of literary psycho-history an appealing one—which needs nevertheless to be radically revised by feminist critics—we've had to factor in a whole set of profoundly new phenomena: the visibility of female precursors for both female and male writers; the entrance of women into the literary marketplace; the asymmetries of male and female history in the last century or so—of, that is, a history in which middle-class white women on, as we like to say, “both sides of the Atlantic,” have increasingly gained public power while their male contemporaries have lost many of their great expectations, etcetera, etcetera. And that's why, as I just remarked, the “plot” of The Madwoman, such as it was, has become a complex of “plots.”
[Gubar:] I'm not sure that our critical assumptions haven't changed. Putting together the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women impressed on both of us, I suspect, the diversity of women's literary accomplishments in the twentieth century. That book intervened between The Madwoman and the first volume of No Man's Land. Also, as Sandra has just suggested, we've begun focusing on the interactions of men and women in an historical age when literary women did have scribbling sibling rivalries with their male contemporaries. So, for example, we study modernism in The War of the Words not only in terms of the anxiety of a rising middle class, the Great War, the dark Satanic mills of industrialization, and the death of God, but also in terms of male anxiety about women's prominence in the literary marketplace. We're not arguing that those other factors aren't important—clearly they are—but that there was yet another anxiety for such writers as Joyce, Eliot, Lawrence, and Hemingway: a sexual anxiety fostered by the powerful female matrilineage established in the nineteenth century.
At the same time, we are now beginning to think that in the twentieth century, the woman writer facing a female literary past, seeing very visible female precursors like Jane Austen, the Brontës, and George Eliot, had to come to terms with her relationship to her female precursors. To what extent does that matrilineage become empowering because it establishes models for female creativity? To what extent does it foster a sense of belatedness, the feeling among twentieth-century literary women that they are no longer in a position of primacy as pioneers? Also is there therefore a sense of a kind of rivalry with the past? If the nature of the past is one of disease, of anger, of isolation, what does it mean to become a woman writer in the twentieth century? These are the ideas with which we grappled when we wrote the chapter in The War of the Words on “The Female Affiliation Complex.”
So you suggest that women writers are in fact ambivalent about this inheritance?
[Gubar:] We had originally thought that it would be very empowering. Our first idea was that in the nineteenth century the woman writer had no female precursors.
[Gilbert:] And so, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning said, “England has had many learned ladies, but where are the poetesses? I look everywhere for grandmothers and find none.” In other words, for nineteenth-century women writers, we felt, the very concept of a literary matrilineage was sort of a turn-on. You can certainly see this in some of Emily Dickinson's writings about Barrett Browning—for instance, in the poem that begins “I think I was enchanted / When first a sombre Girl— / I read that Foreign Lady—.” And you can obviously see it, too, in the Barrett Browning remark I just quoted. And yet, and yet …
[Gubar:] So we assumed that in the twentieth century when literary women looked back and found literary mothers and grandmothers they would be ecstatic. But what we found was something much more complex, something much more problematic.
[Gilbert:] We found, in fact, something that does suggest rivalry as well as reverence. Or anyway something that suggests a kind of nervousness about ancestresses. If Charlotte Brontë was, as Virginia Woolf thinks (and says in A Room of One's Own), a powerfully originatory figure, what does that mean for her granddaughters? Can they share in her imaginative strength, or did she use it all up, use up the genre, the audience, the metaphors, the language? And if they can share her strength, does that mean they must also share her pain?
To what extent do you think all female writers are engaged in coming to terms with a specifically female literary past?
[Gubar:] Oh, I think they are up to the present day. Margaret Drabble asks, how happy was Emma when she married Mr. Knightly? Did she enjoy being in bed with him? Margaret Atwood rewrites Jane Eyre in Lady Oracle, and Erica Jong frequently laments the fact that there is no female Chaucer, that her ancestresses from Emily Dickinson through Virginia Woolf were severe or suicidal. This is an issue that is very perplexing still today. When Adrienne Rich confronts Emily Dickinson, she does write a lyrical essay celebrating “Vesuvius At Home,” but she also composes a poem about Emily Dickinson in which she suggests that Dickinson had it out “on her own premises” in part because she was a “woman, masculine/in single-mindedness,” a woman her mentor considered “half-cracked.”
[Gilbert:] And similarly both Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton worry about “whining and quailing” like Edna St. Vincent Millay or Sara Teasdale. They worry, that is, about seeming to be “lady poets” or “poetesses.” Yet even while they suffer from these anxieties, each in her own way pays homage to female precursors. Plath says of Virginia Woolf that “her books make mine possible” and Anne Sexton writes a beautiful tribute to Plath, after Plath's suicide. In the same mode, Elizabeth Bishop complains in a letter that art is art and gender gender, so never the twain shall (or should) meet, but composes her inspiring and inspired “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore.” All these mixed messages and the ambiguities they represent are brilliantly summarized, by the way, in Caryl Churchill's play Top Girls, where a group of celebrated women from history and literature meet at a dinner party and reveal both the triumphs and the tribulations of the female past.
Are you saying that you no longer focus on the madwoman or on the tradition in English, but on multiple responses to crucial historical events?
[Gilbert:] Yes, I guess that's one thing we're saying. Throughout the twentieth century, as women have increasingly moved into the public sphere, our history has become ever more complicated. The battle of the sexes that we described in volume I of No Man's Land, The War of the Words, necessarily required a whole range of strategies from participants on both sides, male and female, and it also fostered enormous sociocultural changes—which, in volume 2 of this series, we've called “sex changes.” And those changes meant that some of the women we're studying in volume 3, Letters from the Front, are so conscious of the artifice of gender that they become, in effect, what we've called “female female impersonators.” I'm thinking, for example, of Edna Millay, who posed as a kind of weary, witty femme fatale, and of Marianne Moore, who posed as a sardonic, school-marmish “old maid”—and also, ultimately, as a female George Washington Crossing the Delaware. But you could make a comparable argument about H. D. or even more recent writers, like Plath and Jong. And of course at the same time, male writers—a number of them equally conscious of the arbitrariness of sex roles—are resorting to strategies of their own, often strategies involving theories of self and mask, personality and costume.
[Gubar:] Yes, that's why there's a chapter in Sexchanges, on literary responses to the Great War, a chapter on transvestism (in the writings of both male and female modernists), and another on the emergence for the first time of a consciously defined lesbian literary community. Renée Vivien writes quite differently from Amy Lowell or Gertrude Stein, but all three were attempting to establish a new kind of poetry, one that could speak the desires of homosexual women who felt themselves to be alienated both from patriarchal literary conventions and from a female tradition that excluded or marginalized them.
In relation to the battle of the sexes that Sandra just mentioned, by the way, we're not arguing that Zora Neale Hurston solved the problem of literary daughterhood in the same way that Virginia Woolf did. Or the same way that Susan Glaspell did. But twentieth-century literary women often grappled with similar difficulties; for example, Hurston's “Sweat,” Woolf's legend about Professor Von X, and Glaspell's “Trifles” all deal with women's response to an escalation in sex-antagonism.
How do you perceive the relationship between strategies of feminist criticism and those of other oppressed groups such as black or third-world critics?
[Gubar:] Well, whenever I go out on the road to give lectures and I meet people interested in black literary criticism, I'm struck by how similar the endeavors are. But I'm also very aware that the metaphorical identification between white women and blacks has occasioned a number of slippages.
Let me begin with the first point, the commonality of the enterprises. It seems to me that black literary critics, like feminist critics, are concerned with recalcitrant and vexing images in literature—in the black literary tradition, the minstrel, the Uncle Tom, the Jezebel, the Topsy figure. Both feminist critics and black studies scholars seek to excavate lost or neglected traditions by recovering texts frequently out of print, unavailable, or untaught. Methodologically, too, there are similar emphases on personal reactions to texts that are read for their ideological significance. Of course black feminist literary criticism—by people like Mary Helen Washington, Deborah McDowell, and Barbara Christian—seeks to negotiate between both critical enterprises.
On the other hand, anyone who has done any work on suffrage history knows that there is a long tradition of somehow equating white women metaphorically with blacks. It goes way back to Stanton and Anthony if not before, when they talked about the way the woman and the Negro, as they say, have been denied a name, voting privileges, property rights, legal power, and so forth. And you can see in the suffrage movement that this analogy sometimes allowed white women to argue in competition with the claims of abolitionists, or later, civil rights activists, that white women somehow should take precedence over blacks. The result is what one critic has called a debilitating competition of victimization between blacks and women.
[Gilbert:] I would like to interject here that there is an interesting basic problem which supports the notion of “commonality” even while it subverts that concept. I mean the idea of “otherness,” which has been used for centuries in patriarchal western culture (and no doubt in many other societies too) to define both sexual and racial “others” as inferiors, outlanders, barbarians. Certainly throughout the imperialist nineteenth century, in both Britain and the United States, women and the colonized, women and slaves or blacks, were at least in part equated, even while male leaders claimed that women who were “ladies” must be somehow saved or protected from the potential depredations of the colonized (mutinous Indians, for example) or of, say, recently freed slaves. Despite a lot of genteel ideology, in other words, and a lot of heated rhetoric, these groups were analogically linked to each other. Almost through a kind of social homeopathy, I'd say. Sander Gilman has done some very interesting work on this, as has Lewis Wurgaft, but there's much more to be done, focusing on writers from Cooper to Haggard, from Kipling to Twain.
[Gubar:] And I think that when you approach black literary history from a feminist point of view, you arrive at some interesting results too. I recently drafted a chapter for volume three, Letters from the Front, on the Harlem Renaissance and women novelists, specifically Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston, and it seems to me that these women are responding to the issues of feminism, but in a different way from their white contemporaries. It also seems to me that literary history in the black tradition may not be as male-dominated, or not in the same way. From the very inception (as far as we can tell) of black literary history, with Phillis Wheatley all the way through Frances E. W. Harper and Pauline Hopkins to more contemporary times, black literary women were very prominent in the Afro-American tradition. Of course, literacy was frequently denied both male and female slaves in the South. And so the dynamics of literary influence function somewhat differently.
[Gilbert:] In fact, if we look at contemporary writing in the United States, it's clear that many of our most powerful current writers are black women: Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones, Gloria Naylor. And then look at the other marvelous writers who are from ethnic minorities: Louise Erdrich, Maxine Hong Kingston, Linda Hogan, Leslie Marmon Silko, and on and on. Does what we consider “marginality” really foster empowerment? If so, only for women? For both sexes but in different ways? These are issues that obviously need study.
What do you take to be the relationship between sexual and racial identities?
[Gubar:] The female novelist I am working on—Fauset, Larsen, and Hurston—are all concerned with that problem; that is, how do you come to terms with racist and sexist or misogynist images? I think that each one answers this question differently. Fauset has been faulted by contemporary black feminist critics for being a kind of ladylike, decorous anti-feminist, but I suspect that her novels have not yet been fully understood or appreciated. For Fauset, black women have a responsibility to reconstruct black manhood precisely because of the onslaughts of a society dedicated to mythologizing black male sexuality in such a way as to justify lynching.
[Gilbert:] Perhaps we should also add here the obvious point that in a racist society, members of an oppressed racial minority are almost always at an even greater economic and social risk than people of the dominant group—i.e. women—who are subordinated or oppressed because of their gender. Is it necessary to say this? Clearly a white “lady” of a certain class, despite all the constraints of the “pedestal,” has privileges that her working-class black counterpart doesn't have. Alice James had access, after all, to luxuries that certainly weren't available to Harriet E. Adams Wilson, the author of Our Nig!
I'd like to go on to how you use psychoanalysis in your work. One critic of No Man's Land suggests that in your telling of the “one metastory of gender strife,” you foreground the patriarchal structure of the Freudian “family romance.” Although it is clear that you seek to historicize Freud's work by pointing out that he, too, was responding to threats of increasing female power and changing concepts of femininity, how do you negotiate between your critique of Freud and your uses of his theories?
[Gilbert:] I'd begin by saying that we are inclined to use Freud in much the way that such other feminist/psychoanalytic critics as Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose do. Our Freud, in other words, is a Freud mediated through, on the one hand, Lacan (who makes Freud literary/linguistic) and, on the other hand, through, well, let's say, Foucault—that is, through a study of the ideology of institutions that interrogates the assumptions of so-called “theory” as rigorously as it questions any other social or cultural precepts. But since I don't want to seem merely to be repeating the lessons of the masters, let me reiterate how much we've learned from feminists like Mitchell and Rose. What I think they demonstrate to us is both the accuracy of Freud's descriptions and the fallibility of his prescriptions. This is the course I know we tried to follow—negotiating between description and prescription—throughout the most quasi-psychoanalytic of our chapters, which I guess would be chapter two of The Madwoman and chapters three and four of The War of the Words. Freud's genius was that he looked through the flesh of the patriarchal family and saw its bones. But (to pursue the metaphor, in which I'm now entrapped), since he himself lived under the skin of the family romance, or it lived in his blood, he had fundamentally to acquiesce in its imperatives even while, with his characteristic pessimism, he analyzed them.
[Gubar:] Let me just add that we see the affiliation complex for the woman writer in the twentieth century following the stages of evolution that Freud maps out in the growing girl; that is, for Freud, the healthy girl solves the Oedipal dilemma by translating her desire for the mother to her desire for the father. That would be the literary woman, we argue, who turns toward male literary history in her definition of herself as a writer. And then, Freud says, the “immature” woman who renounces the father suffers from frigidity, and we discuss the renunciation of aesthetic desire in the female literary tradition. Finally, we analyze what Freud sees as another immature move, when the girl remains trapped in her relationship with the mother, as an affiliation of the woman writer with her matrilineal past.
One of the things we're doing, then, is revising Freud's valuations. What he sees as a regressive move, that is, the girl's attachment to the mother, we see as a healthy effort on the part of the woman writer to come to terms with her literary grandmothers. At the same time, we question Freud's notion that the growing girl (or by extension the female artist) sticks to one path. A given woman writer can fit into all three categories, can position herself in various works in different stances toward the past. It is surely significant that Freud was writing at the time when the patriarchal family was breaking down, because he was writing about structures that were changing but that were also deeply recalcitrant: the family, the child, the mother, and the father. To the extent that he tried to explain how babies become boys and girls, he provided a vocabulary, if nothing else, for coming to terms with the engendering of identity and creativity.
How do you respond to the problem raised by some critics that this vocabulary itself inscribes and perpetuates patriarchal relations?
[Gilbert:] I don't think it needs to. Description isn't prescription. Analysis is, in fact, the opposite of ideology. It seems to me that we can only escape the dynamics that shape us if we are conscious of them, as in the old statement about those who don't know history being condemned to repeat it. Maybe we could say that those who don't know family history are condemned to repeat it.
[Gubar:] Analysis the antithesis of ideology? We'll get it for that! Well, again I would move towards the women writers themselves and what they say about this. Maybe a useful example here would be someone like H. D. H. D. went through an analysis with Freud after she had been mentored by proponents of what she viewed as a great patrilineage, people like Lawrence, Aldington, and Pound. What H. D. does in the middle of her career is she stops publishing poetry. After writing a number of poems about the hostility and competition of her male contemporaries, she renounces poetic desire. And at that moment, in her fiction and translations, she begins searching for models of female creativity, turns, in what Freud himself told her was a regressive move, to the recovery of the mother, the Minoan-Mycenaean civilization behind patriarchal culture, and she writes Trilogy, a poem about her own aesthetic resurrection and about the recovery of the goddess. It seems that there you see a woman coming to terms with Freud personally and poetically in a way that inspires her to write a book-length poem.
[Gilbert:] Or, from another direction, Virginia Woolf might be said to have come differently to terms with the Freudian family romance in, say, To the Lighthouse (even though she doesn't seem even to have read Freud at the time she wrote that novel). What will happen to the daughters—the blood daughters and the spiritual daughters, Lily Briscoe and, maybe, Minta Doyle—when Mrs. Ramsay, the archetypal mother, dies? Is there life after the family romance has disintegrated, and, if so, what is that life? What is the new? If you remember the last section of To the Lighthouse, you will recall, I imagine, that the shape of the new isn't very clear to the Ramsay daughters, who don't know what to send to the lighthouse keeper, or to Lily, who is only comfortable with Mr. Ramsay after their conversation alights on “the blessed island of good boots.” Yet it seems to me that it is, precisely, the dissolution of a Freudian structure on which Woolf meditates here.
And from another direction still, look at how useful Freudian paradigms are for examining the entrapment of Sylvia Plath (or her fictive speaker) in “Daddy”'s “black shoe,” where she can neither breathe nor “achoo.” What happens when the family romance lingers, and malingers, well into the middle of our own era? If we don't recognize it, don't know how caged we are in those old bones, how can we struggle free of it?
[Gubar:] Yes. By studying the patriarchal family we're not seeking to perpetuate it. Isn't it a kind of fiction in America today anyway? I mean does it exist? I don't know if there are many.
[Gilbert:] I'm afraid that I think there are lots. Lots of patriarchal families. Indeed, even if the patriarchal family is a fiction, it's a real one—and one that women all too often have to struggle to maintain, perhaps precisely because it's fictive. Don't you think that's what we're writing about now?
[Gubar:] The powers of supreme fictions—yes, that's what has always concerned not only us as literary critics but many feminist theorists of psychosexual development. When Adrienne Rich writes “Compulsory Heterosexuality,” she too, oddly enough, is beginning to deal with issues raised not only by Nancy Chodorow, but by Freud. Both Chodorow and Kim Chernin examine women's psychological stages of development by confronting and reshaping Freudian paradigms in general and his idea of the pre-Oedipal in particular.
In your work you make use of Freud's notion of Oedipal and pre-Oedipal phases to explain the social construction of identity in patriarchal culture. You maintain that in the pre-Oedipal stage a subject is as yet unmarked by the social determinants of identity such as race and gender, and you support this idea with readings of female modernists. One example occurs in Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God in which Janie is not conscious of being black until the age of six when she sees a photograph of herself; in Willa Cather's novel The Professor's House you find Cather postulating the existence of a “prepatriarchal self” in the professor. Could you elaborate your conception of this presocial identity and its value to your work?
[Gilbert:] Pre-Oedipal is very trendy right now, isn't it? I can't help remembering a remark Coppelia Kahn—who is a wonderful psychoanalytic critic—made at a conference I once attended: “Sell Oedipal, buy pre-Oedipal!” But seriously folks …
[Gubar:] I think these ideas, promulgated very differently by Hurston and Cather, have to do with fantasies of the presexual self. I would not read them as psychosexual theories exactly. It seems to me that the nausea Cather feels about gender in The Professor's House, about outmoded modes of femininity and about patriarchal roles that are debilitating to men, is countered by the fantasy of a presexual self. You see that fantasy quite frequently in the works of women writers; the notion, for instance in Katherine Mansfield, that the child is in touch—because she has not gone through this terrible fall into gender—with some ontological fullness that's almost gynandrous. Sandra explored this in her chapter on Wuthering Heights. The young Cathy, before she is bitten by the bulldog, before she is put into the crinoline, wounded, and placed in a parlor, this Cathy feels linked to Heathcliff and not split up, not feminized or entrapped in some kind of a role. This utopian yearning in women's literature reflects the longing for the child's self which represents a self before gender, a paradise lost.
I think though, in terms of our own theories, that you are really referring to a notion we propounded in the last chapter of The War of the Words, “Sexual Linguistics.” There what we were trying to counter was the idea that language in itself is necessarily, quintessentially patriarchal. We were discussing some women's sense that the language we have inherited is confining because it is male-dominated. And yet, many literary women feel that they are entitled to a primary relationship to language, that they are not necessarily alienated from language.
[Gilbert:] Basically, in our chapter (and our earlier essay) on “Sexual Linguistics,” we were trying to come to terms with Julia Kristeva's argument that the “social contract” is inextricably entangled with the “symbolic contract.” Working out of Lacanian assumptions, Kristeva has claimed that the child is inducted into society, through the Oedipus complex, at the same moment when she or he is initiated into language; hence, girl children, “always already” (as the saying goes) marginalized in patriarchal culture/society, are always already excluded from some sort of primary access to language, whose syntax is a sort of “guarantee” of sociocultural hierarchies. We tried to demonstrate in our chapter that this isn't necessarily so. First, we tried to do this by situating current feminist concepts of a “woman's language” in a history of female and male linguistic fantasies—a kind of utopian linguistics or a series of linguistic utopias that go back pretty far and that certainly characterize literary modernism in England, the United States, and France.
Then, we questioned the idea that the child's linguistic socialization has to occur at the same moment as her/his basic acculturation. Babies start learning language very early—as we know because we're both mothers. In Freudian or Lacanian terms, they start talking even before they enter the so-called “Oedipus.” And in most societies and families they learn language from their mothers (or from a female care-giver), not from—or not directly from—“patriarchs,” even when their moms are ostensibly functioning as “agents of patriarchy.” The mother, as we should all remember, has enormous verbal power. So speaking pragmatically, empirically, it seems really possible to question the conflation of the “social contract” (which does tell the child who and what he or she is, structurally, in a culture that subordinates women and girls) with the “symbolic contract” (which tells the child that she or he has to speak in order to be).
You have been criticized by such critics as Mary Jacobus and Toril Moi as maintaining an essentialist theory of gender. Since you explicitly state throughout your work that gender is a social construct, this criticism perhaps reflects a difference in the way you conceptualize gender. How would you describe that difference between your own concept of gender and that of your critics?
[Gubar:] Well, I would begin by thinking about both the political and historical implications of what I take to be Mary Jacobus's and Toril Moi's point. They seem to be working on the assumptions established by such people as Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes that there is no subject, that we can all enjoy ourselves on the free-play ground of the signifier, that the author is dead, that there is a kind of interplay between signs that means that meaning is indecipherable. And it seems to me that one needs to think about the political ramifications of such assumptions. The best response I have heard was by Henry Louis Gates, who said, “Isn't it interesting that there is no subject just at that moment when blacks and women are entering the academy.” What does that do for us? What does that do to us?
[Gilbert:] The “feminine,” according to some of these theorists—and I'm approximately quoting one of that group—is not what some critics “quite banally understand” as any work signed by a woman. In other words (and we find this in the writings of Cixous and Kristeva as well), in the view of such thinkers lots of male writers are better at “inscribing” what's called “the feminine” than many women are. But what does this notion mean about “the feminine”? What, then, is “the feminine”? Alas, “the feminine” here seems not to have anything to do with any sort of experiential reality (and I understand that the word “reality” is a problematic signifier pointing to a tenuous concept), but rather with a whole set of stereotypes: the unconscious, darkness, rebelliousness, fluidity, etc. etc. Ah, the wonderful, watery “feminine”! It seems to leak and gush through the writings of Joyce, Artaud, Bataille. Whereas George Eliot and Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë—and probably Margaret Drabble and Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison—are a bunch of linear, binary-haunted men.
I think I'm saying that in this particular definition—the one that dissolves authors into linguistic fields and assumes that any notion of history is identical with “essentialism”—“the feminine” is anything that you want it to be. Anything that you desire. The wildness, the disruption, the fantastic language about which you've been dreaming. (I guess you can see how this fits in with the fantasy of a utopian language that we were discussing earlier!) Never mind what Adrienne Rich talks about as the “absorbed drudging” author (forgive me for using such a word as author) crouched at her desk. If the little marks made by her pen as it traces free-playing signifiers don't come out just the way you, the feminist critic, want them to, well then they're not “feminine.”
[Gubar:] Of course, the older I get the more convinced I am that gender constructs are transformed over time, that they are radically different in different societal and cultural contexts, but that they are extraordinarily resilient. And they resurface over and over again. I would say this about racial constructs as well. Ideas about gender, about the nature of masculinity, the nature of femininity, do transform themselves in different periods but they are extremely powerful. By talking about the free-play of the signifier, one is defusing that power as it is experienced in women's lives. Elaine Showalter speaks about women critics feeling on their pulses what they are writing about when she talks about an experiential base to feminist criticism, and I think there's some truth to that.
So gender constructs are less fluid than some critics suggest?
[Gilbert:] It seems to me that they are differently fluid, and I think that's what Susan was just saying. They're historically fluid: obviously Victoria Woodhull, the nineteenth-century free love advocate, was responding to a very different social context from the one in which Gloria Steinem, or Helen Gurley Brown, finds herself. Sexual liberation, as we understand the concept, meant in nineteenth-century America something very different from what it means today. As did “the feminine.” And “the feminine” meant something rather different for James Joyce than what it probably means for Hélène Cixous or Mary Jacobus or Toril Moi. I think history, insofar as we can understand it, or can understand parts of it, aspects of it, is so subtly nuanced that we have to be awfully careful not to see in it merely the shapes of our desire. Although, of course, we'll always see those too!
[Gubar:] We spoke about the desire for gender fluidity as it appears in images of the child, and we also trace it in the icon of the cross-dresser, the androgyne. I think the desire for sexual fluidity in a book like Orlando is absolutely clear. But even that novel was written out of Woolf's consciousness that women have found it difficult to achieve rooms of their own, or 500 pounds a year. I think the desire for gender fluidity is an important utopian yearning and is reflected in the work of Moi and Jacobus and Nelly Furman and many other people. But I'm not convinced that gender fluidity is an everyday reality.
Given your sense that the author's signature is, as you say, inflected in her or his work, how do you perceive the role of men in feminism?
[Gubar:] Well, I think that the difference between The Madwoman—to get back to your earlier question—and No Man's Land, in part, is a move away from isolating the female literary tradition and a move toward understanding the interactions in the twentieth century between male and female literary traditions and figures. What does modernism have to do with a crisis in masculinity and anxiety about the “no man”? Our interest in that question means that we focus now not only on definitions of femininity, but on evolving definitions of masculinity. Clearly this is an important subject for male critics too. I think many male critics today—one thinks of Terry Eagleton, and, alas, one also thinks of Frank Lentricchia—are using ideas about the engendering of literary history that were developed by feminist critics. And for the most part I think that's a healthy and important development in feminist thinking. I get worried when it's combative or appropriative.
[Gilbert:] Or, worse still, when it's patronizing. As in a certain kind of “more feminist than thou” stance, in which the male critic assumes that now he has entered the field he can instruct these poor benighted women in how they ought to go about their work. Not that we don't think that we feminist critics can sometimes be, in our own embattled way, matronizing. But at the very least, conflicts among feminist critics (and I think of the issues you just raised about Moi and Jacobus) are, like disputes among Afro-American critics, in some sense family quarrels, and family quarrels among people who understand themselves to have been marginalized for all too long. It is crucial to us that we can now take our work seriously enough to fight about it. But there's something odd, something distasteful, something suspect, about the position of a critic who claims to dispute our conclusions because he understands all our assumptions without having, as it were, inhabited our premises!
Could you elaborate some of the problems? In what way do you find Lentricchia's use of feminism, for instance, particularly suspect?
[Gubar:]. Well, in an interview published in this very journal, Professor Lentricchia does something which he also did in an earlier attack on The Madwoman. It seems to me that he wages the kind of rhetorical war of words that I think we've been tracing in the pages of No Man's Land. He says in the interview that feminists come to him and say, “We don't like Gilbert and Gubar either, but we don't piss on our generals in public.” Now, I wouldn't expect anyone to say that to me, but actually I wouldn't expect them to say it to anybody. Now, maybe that's naive of me.
[Gilbert:] No, no, certainly not. Think about it, after all. There's a certain implicit, or maybe explicit, sexism here. I mean, can you really imagine a woman saying that? Wouldn't it be pretty hard, and fairly embarrassing, for a woman to “piss on her general” in public? Anatomically, that is? So maybe, for all his ostensible “feminism,” Lentricchia is revealing his hidden assumptions: about hierarchy (generals), and pissing (in public, standing up?). Susan, we've been saying that anatomy isn't destiny; but what if it is? What if we feminists can't piss on our generals in public? What if our genitals determine the way we deal with our generals?
[Gubar:] Still, I don't think Lentricchia represents the vast majority of male critics in this country. I think that a number of men are producing important books, including the one that Alice Jardine did with Paul Smith, Men in Feminism, which includes fascinating essays by people like Robert Scholes and Stephen Heath. So I wouldn't see Lentricchia's positioning of himself as paradigmatic, and furthermore, he takes that combative role with men, too. So it might just be his problem.
[Gilbert:] Oh, I agree. Jonathan Culler, Larry Lipking, Uli Knoepflmacher—we can all name a number of men who are doing interesting work in gender studies. But I find it significant that I want to call it “gender studies.” In some part of myself, I'm really political enough to want to continue seeing feminism as a women's movement. We must all understand the inflections, imperatives, dynamics, of gender—in our culture, our society, our literature. But feminism is originally, and specifically, about addressing and redressing what Mary Wollstonecraft once called “the wrongs of women.” Let's not forget that. I'm agreeing, in other words, with a fundamental point that my colleague Elaine Showalter made in her essay on “Critical Cross-Dressing.”
As a final question, I'd like to ask you about your collaboration. It is tempting to see this as another facet of a specifically feminist strategy. How do you regard your collaboration?
[Gilbert:] I think that what I tried to say earlier about the personal origins of The Madwoman has a lot to do with the origins of our collaboration, too. Just as The Madwoman didn't come out of a willed, intentional, intellectual experience but rather out of an idea that really seized us, so our collaboration wasn't the result of a conscious political decision. It was something exciting and fascinating that happened to us, the way the book did. We taught a class together, we got a set of ideas together. Quite without forethought, we had what I've sometimes called a “conversion experience.” One autumn the scales fell from our eyes in Bloomington, Indiana, just as the leaves were falling from the trees. We understood that there was what we had never been taught there was: a female literary tradition! And since we had figured it out together, we had to write about it together. And the fact that the collaboration worked, is still working, had and does continue to have something to do with what is now called “feminist process.” But not with intentional political process. Rather, with the notion that the political (or the poetical) is the personal. I'd say we felt our ideas, at that point, with a passion that could only lead to friendship.
[Gubar:] I know that people do speak to us after lectures or write to us about the collaboration because they view it as an ideological decision, a commitment that decenters authority, decentralizes the author, and represents a kind of communality or partnership which they see as feminist. But I have to say for us, as Sandra just did, that it was not embarked upon for any political or ideological reason, and I think it would be pretty dangerous for someone to collaborate with someone else for those purposes because I think collaboration involves a kind of interchange that has to be based upon personal affection and camaraderie. For me, it's different and luckier than writing alone, and it's a great pleasure.
The one way it does conform, for me, to those political ideas has to do with some of the critiques you've mentioned from Jacobus through Moi to Lentricchia. It's very daunting to get the kind of criticism that we get. All of those people you've mentioned feel that they are more radical than we are. But we get it from the other side, too. We just encountered an article written by Jeffrey Hart, who claims that the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women “enshrines works whose inclusion is not literary quality but resentment.” And who argues that Sandra and I are radical militants who are destroying the excellence of the humanistic inheritance that should be represented through, basically, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth. To the extent that we are attacked by ultra-conservatives as well as radicals who don't think we're “feminist enough,” collaboration really is a solace because it's easier to laugh with someone else. And you can reassure each other that at least you think what you're doing is important and what you believe in.
[Gilbert:] True. Sometimes I feel that—given the Scylla and Charybdis out there, from a Lentricchia who feels that our feminist colleagues should “piss on their generals” to a Jeffrey Hart who sees us as destroying Western Civilization—collaboration is a very special solace. I mean, collaboration is an existential pleasure. It's like having someone else around to hold your hand while you leap into the abyss. How often does that happen, after all?
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2636
SOURCE: A review of No Man's Land, Volume 1: The War of the Words, in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 104–07.
[In the following review, Fishburn praises Gubar and Gilbert for their explication of modernism in The War of the Words, the first volume in their No Man's Land series.]
What was modernism anyway? What were its origins? What distinguishes the work of the female modernists from that of the male modernists? These are the basic questions underlying volume one of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's projected three-volume series No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth-Century. In this volume, The War of the Words, they “offer an overview of social, literary, and linguistic interactions between men and women from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present” (p. xii). In the second and third volumes, Sexchanges and Letters from the Front, they plan to examine the literature of the period in more detail, including the feminist modernism of Virginia Woolf and the postmodern feminism of Sylvia Plath.
Ten years ago Gilbert and Gubar burst into critical prominence with the publication of The Madwoman in the Attic (Yale, 1979), their highly acclaimed study of nineteenth-century women's fiction and poetry. Not only did The Madwoman in the Attic provide feminist scholars with a convenient catch-phrase, more seriously it helped to lay the foundations of American feminist critical theory and forced critics to rethink the literature of an entire century. What Madwoman did for criticism of the nineteenth century, No Man's Land promises to do for that of the twentieth. As their title suggests, the metaphor Gilbert and Gubar have chosen is that of war—the war between the sexes that seared the modern period, making monsters of women and martyrs of men, the same war that is being bitterly fought today in the pages of critical theory. For the battle they wage in this war of the words, Gilbert and Gubar have come fully armed with passionate conviction, mother wit, and multitudinous examples. In short, No Man's Land is a delightfully worthy entrant on the critical field of battle, certain to inspire vigorous debate wherever it is read.
In tracing the origins of modernism, Gilbert and Gubar do not entirely dismiss the traditional explanations for its rise (Darwin, Freud, World War One), but they do insist on the importance of the profound social changes “brought about by the ‘new women’ and, in particular, by their struggle for the vote” (p. 21). For the men, it was a time of almost debilitating anxiety, occasioned not just by the uncertainties of war but also the stunning entry of women as serious competitors into the economic and literary marketplaces. This anxiety found expression in the abundance of “maimed, unmanned, victimized characters,” which according to Gilbert and Gubar, were “obsessively created by early twentieth-century literary men” (p. 36). And because “modernist texts describe explicitly sexual duels between characters who tend to incarnate female voracity and male impotence” (p. 35), Gilbert and Gubar argue that these victimized men function as more than traditional “metaphors of metaphysical angst” (p. 36). These victimized men, in fact, represent a widespread and quite specific fear of women. Even where the texts “do not explicitly deal with sexual battles,” it is nonetheless clear that “men feared they were losing such contests” since “[i]mages of impotence recur with unnerving frequency in the most canonical male modernist novels and poems” (p. 35). A representative example of this tendency, of course, is T. S. Eliot's “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which was originally titled “Prufrock Among the Women” and which in its final form “emphasizes the ways in which the absurdly self-conscious modern male intellectual is rendered impotent by, and in, the company of women” (pp. 31–32). That the male modernists felt particularly threatened by literary women is also clear from James Joyce's confident prediction that The Waste Land would end the “idea of poetry for ladies” (p. 156).
As the century progressed, literary men found various ways to defend themselves against women. One strategy was to weaken women by feminizing them; ironically enough, “just as more and more women were getting paid for using their brains, more and more men represented them in novels, plays, and poems as nothing but bodies”—bodies subdued and regulated by men (p. 47). In short, the penis became “a therapeutic instrument in the domestication of desire,” which “was always on the verge of turning into a penis as pistol, an instrument of rape and revenge” (p. 48). Other strategies Gilbert and Gubar identify involved “mythologizing women to align them with dread prototypes; fictionalizing them to dramatize their destructive influence; slandering them in essays, memoirs, and poems; prescribing alternative ambitions for them; appropriating their words in order to usurp or trivialize their language; and ignoring or evading their achievements in critical texts” (p. 149). Of all these, the most significant seems to have been the attempt the avant grade male writers made to “define their artistic integrity in opposition to either the literary incompetence or the aesthetic hysteria they associated with women” (p. 157). Was male modernism, in other words, an inspired phobic response to the growing power of women? Was it a brilliant offensive campaign to transform “the materna lingua into a powerful new kind of patrius sermo” (p. 253), a language women could not speak? Gilbert and Gubar seem to think so. Indeed, they work from the controversial hypothesis that “a reaction-formation against the rise of literary women became not just a theme in modernist writing but a motive for modernism” (p. 156; emphasis added).
But what of the women themselves? What were they up to? Noting that the period “is differently inflected for male and female writers” (p. xii), Gilbert and Gubar found that women “often felt even more imperiled than men did by the sexual combat in which they were obliged to engage” (p. 66). Though it is true that many women suffered from feelings of “guilt” and “vulnerability,” still others “felt empowered” by their sex's advancement; as a result, “the female half of the dialogue is considerably more complicated than the male” (p. 66). But as powerful as they might have felt themselves, many women writers could only “imagine female victory” through such indirect means as “duplicity and subterfuge or through providential circumstance” (p. 66). Or they simply emasculated the male characters, a solution that brought victory but very little satisfaction, since “[t]riumph over an unworthy, diminished, or disabled opponent may feel like exploitation of his misfortune” (p. 90). Although some women managed to fight the trend and create truly powerful female protagonists, it was a limited insurrection soon contained by other women's terrible need to punish their own heroines. What we would regard today as “a healthy impulse to depict women actively fighting their male opponents” (p. 100), turn-of-the-century writers saw as a “horrifying necessity, born of escalating male bellicosity and inexorably leading to female defeat” (p. 101). These earlier texts are so “punitive” toward strong women, Gilbert and Gubar reason that their authors had “internalized just the horror at independent womanhood which marks the writings of literary men from Faulkner to Wylie” (p. 101).
Not only did women writers feel ambivalent toward their own heroines, they felt ambivalent toward their female ancestors, vacillating between feelings of prideful joy and fearful anxiety. Unlike women of the nineteenth century, twentieth-century women have been faced with choosing between “their matrilineage and their patrilineage in an arduous process of self-definition” (p. 169). Because women are faced with “a bewildering multiplicity of stances toward the past,” Gilbert and Gubar suggest that women have had “to struggle with … a complicated female affiliation complex” (p. 168). This “paradigm of ambivalent affiliation [is] a construct which dramatizes women's intertwined attitudes of anxiety and exuberance about creativity” (p. 170). In other words, though women writers revere their female precursors, they are “also haunted and daunted by the autonomy of these figures” (p. 195). The ambivalence arises, Gilbert and Gubar suspect, because “the love women writers send forward into the past is, in patriarchal culture, inexorably contaminated by mingled feelings of rivalry and anxiety” (p. 195).
While I find their model (based on Freud's model of the family) theoretically persuasive, I am not sure I can agree with their conclusion that having a female history “may not be quite so advantageous as some feminists have traditionally supposed” (p. 196). I cannot help but think, for example, that Alice Walker speaks for most twentieth-century women writers when she describes the joy and self-affirmation she felt upon discovering the work of Zora Neale Hurston (“Saving the Life that is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist's Life,” In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose [New York: Harvest, 1984]). Is Gilbert and Gubar's theory of a female affiliation complex, therefore, a projection of what they themselves have experienced in reverse? In other words, could it be, as a colleague of mine from VPI has suggested, that Gilbert and Gubar themselves have been caught up as critics in the receiving end of this ambivalence? Are the newest feminist critics “haunted and daunted” by these two (too) powerful foremothers?
Whatever the answer to these speculations might be, I find in Gilbert and Gubar's own work evidence of some ambivalence regarding the theories they propose. Most of this ambivalence occurs in the book's final chapter, “Sexual Linguistics: Women's Sentence, Men's Sentencing.” Although I found here some of the most exciting and appealing ideas in the entire book, Gilbert and Gubar, strangely enough, seem almost reluctant to claim them as their own. Arguing that James Joyce's puns represent “not a linguistic jouissance rebelliously disrupting the decorum of the text, but a linguistic puissance fortifying the writer's sentences,” for example, they then apply their thesis to Jacques Derrida but do so almost unwillingly: “Provisionally, tentatively,” they write, “we would suggest that a similar maneuver may be at the heart of what Geoffrey Hartman calls Derridadaism, in particular at the heart of an otherwise opaque exercise like Derrida's Glas” (pp. 260–61; emphasis added). In a related passage, they introduce yet another challenge to male thinking through the odd device of calling their own ideas into question: “if any of our speculations have any validity,” they write, “we must also ask whether the whole structure of ‘hierarchized’ oppositions that some of us have thought essentially patriarchal has been historically erected as a massive defense against the deep throat of the mother and the astonishing priority of that mother tongue which is common to both men and women” (p. 266; emphasis added). No fan myself of Jacques Lacan, I find Gilbert and Gubar's insistence on the priority of the mother tongue a compelling alternative to his Law of the Father. For this reason, I am puzzled by the rhetorical hesitancy in these passages. I realize the theories they challenge are both popular and powerful—but that is all the more reason for Gilbert and Gubar to be as intrepid here as they are elsewhere in the book.
In fact, for me, much of the pleasure of No Man's Land comes from the authors’ profanation of the sacred ground of twentieth-century literature. Clearly, they too take pleasure in desecrating the father's gods, graves, and scholars as in their contention that Hemingway and Fitzgerald regarded the Louvre as a “penile colony” (p. 36); their description of Norman Mailer's Stanley Rojack as a “Ruta-rooter” (p. 53); and their transformation of Derrida's Grammatology into a “grandmatology” (p. 239); and so on. Though their outrageous punning will surely offend many (as in their tasteless reference to Gertrude Stein as a “fat-her” [p. 188]), this humor is not without purpose. Mikhail Bakhtin reminds us in The Dialogic Imagination, for example, that laughter “demolishes fear and piety before an object … thus clearing the ground for an absolutely free investigation of it” (Austin: U. of Texas Press, 1981; p. 23). And so it is here: Gilbert and Gubar's feminist humor is both liberating and empowering, permitting us, in Bakhtin's words, to “finger” modernism “on all sides … dismember it, lay it bare and expose it” (Bakhtin, p. 23). Nor is humor their only weapon. For, as their attacks on Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Lawrence, Graves, etc., suggest, these postmodern women warriors certainly have, in Mary Daly's words, the “courage to blaspheme” (Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism [Boston: Beacon Press, 1978] p. 264). Why, then, do they fight so cautiously to have their own ideas accepted?
Whatever the reason, they show a similar caution when they respond to the theories of the French feminists. In the following example, they are speculating about what Virginia Woolf meant by the phrase a “woman's sentence”: “Provisionally, we want to suggest that Woolf used what was essentially a fantasy about a utopian linguistic structure … to define (and perhaps disguise) her desire to revise not woman's language but woman's relation to language” (p. 230). This strikes me, as does much of the above, as an eminently reasonable interpretation and a practical way out of what often become the labyrinths of linguistic theory. It is not the last word on a female language, but it gives us a great deal to think about.
Though the book's impact is somewhat lessened by the hesitancy evident in the final chapter, overall it remains a powerful vehicle for interrogating our most deeply held convictions about modernism. For this reason alone, it would be worth reading. the woman's need of man” (p. 41) and of Austen she writes “a subtler reading of Jane's fiction shows how consistently she queries and even reverses the agreed social assumptions” (p. 44). I cannot help but think that when Miles refers to Brontë and Austen in this way she undermines the stature of two of our greatest (women) writers. She also seems to contradict herself in her final chapter. On page 204 she criticizes the “sheer parochialism of much women's writing” because of its “narrow concentration upon the minutiae of women's lives, the emphasis on domestic difficulties and sexual sorrows”; then on page 206 she claims that “any denial of the validity of women's lives and experience—any denial—is inescapably the same old misogyny rising up from the primeval swamp, whether expressed by a man, or as frequently happens, a woman.”
In conclusion I feel impelled to comment on certain errors and omissions in both The Female Form and No Man's Land. Although they are not major problems, they seem to suggest a pattern. For some reason, Miles is under the impression that Rita Mae Brown is a black woman (p. 110) and that Maya Angelou's autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a novel (p. 104). For their part, Gilbert and Gubar think Richard Wright's book is called A Native Son and Zora Neale Hurston's heroine is named Janie Crawford Killocks Starks Woods (p. 238). Though these are admittedly minor mistakes, I cannot help but be troubled by the fact that in one way or another they all involve blacks. I am also troubled by Gilbert and Gubar's subtitle, The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth-Century, when what they mean is the place of the Anglo-American woman writer. Miles, in referring to Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, observes that: “Female Angst and alienation from the all-pervading structures of male domination are expressed with no less anguish in the ‘advanced’ world” (p. 126). As far as I am concerned, when Miles puts the word advanced in inverted commas here, she does nothing to correct or eliminate the cultural slam implied in her comparison.
These mistakes and oversights ruin neither book for me (though for other reasons I find them much more problematical in Miles’ book than in Gilbert and Gubar's), but I interpret them as a disturbing indication of the continuing ethnocentricity of white western feminists. It is perhaps no wonder that Alice Walker prefers the concept of “Womanist,” when three such notable feminist scholars inadvertently duplicate the same kind of critical narrowness they have set out to correct.
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SOURCE: A review of No Man's Land, Volume 2: Sexchanges, in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 22, No. 4, Winter 1990, pp. 472–76.
[In the following review, Fishburn praises Sexchanges for the vastness of the authors' scholarship, and the depth and originality of their insights. Fishburn argues, however, that the book is intellectually flat.]
In this, [Sexchanges] the second volume of their projected three-volume series No Man's Land, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar resume their ambitiously comprehensive re-visioning of modernism. As they did in the previous volume, The War of the Words (1988), Gilbert and Gubar work here from the premise that the originating motives that lay behind the rise of literary modernism can be best explained by the sweeping changes in the status of women that occurred at the end of the nineteenth century. The importance of Gilbert and Gubar's attempt to redefine the material causes of Anglo-American modernism as an issue of gender cannot be overstated as the authors seek to “locate the text in its sociocultural context,” believing as they do that “the concepts ‘female’ and ‘male’ are inextricably enmeshed in the materiality and mythology of history, which has also … almost always been experienced as gendered” (p. xvi). They focus, therefore, on the “changing definitions of sex and sex roles as they evolve through three phases: the repudiation or revision of the Victorian ideology of femininity that marked both feminism and fantasy during what we might call the overturning of the century; the antiutopian skepticism that characterized the thought of such writers as Edith Wharton and Willa Cather, who dramatized their discontent with what they saw as a crippling but inexorable feminization of women; the virtually apocalyptic engendering of the new for both literary men and literary women that was, at least in part, fostered by the fin de siècle formation of a visible lesbian community, even more shockingly triggered by the traumas of World War I, and perhaps most radically shaped by an unprecedented confrontation (by both sexes) with the artifice of gender and its consequent discontents” (p. xii).
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar open Sexchanges with an irreverent and audaciously overdetermined reading of Rider Haggard's She as a paradigmatic example of “the century's bestselling, masculinist mythology” (p. 5), in which they argue that the novel's enormous popularity was a result of the era's sexchanges, “the feared ‘recessional’ of the British empire, the intensified development of such fields as anthropology and embryology, and the rise of a host of alternative theologies” (p. 7). The novel's “rolling pillar of Life” they read not only as a Freudian penis but also as “a Lacanian phallus, a fiery signifier whose eternal thundering return speaks the inexorability of the patriarchal law She has violated in Her Satanically overreaching ambition” (p. 20). That is, “it becomes, in a sense, the pillar of society, an incarnate sign of the covenant among men (and between men and a symbolic Father) that is the founding gesture of patriarchal culture” (p. 20). “Finally, therefore, naked and ecstatic, in all the pride of Her femaleness, She must be fucked to death by the ‘unalterable law’ of the Father” (p. 21). This Gallopean (Galloping?) verbal performance represents Gilbert and Gubar at their most outrageous—and, I would argue, their most effective, for who, after encountering this Lacanian phallus in the pages of Sexchanges, will ever be able to read She again without thinking of It?
Earlier versions of this chapter, like many others in Sexchanges, have previously appeared in print as individual essays. I myself was originally moved to read Haggard's novel, as a matter of fact, after reading Sandra Gilbert's “Rider Haggard's Heart of Darkness” which appeared in Coordinates: Placing Science Fiction and Fantasy alongside Susan Gubar's “She in Herland: Feminism as Fantasy” (edited by George Slusser et al. [Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983], pp. 124–49). Whether my response is one Gilbert herself would have wanted is, of course, an altogether different matter!
As successful as Gilbert (and Gubar)'s overdetermined reading of Rider Haggard is, however, most of Sexchanges is actually devoted to what Nancy K. Miller would call “overreadings” of several well-known women's texts (“Arachnologies: The Woman, The Text, and the Critic,” The Poetics of Gender, ed. Nancy K. Miller [New York: Columbia University Press, 1986], pp. 270–95). In response to the ideas of Roland Barthes in S/Z, Miller defines overreading as a practice that “involves reading women's writing not ‘as if it had already been read,’ but as if it had never been read, as if for the first time. Overreading also involves a focus on the moments in the narrative which by their representation of writing itself might be said to figure the production of the female artist” (p. 274). “Only the subject who is both self-possessed and possesses access to the library of the already read,” Miller argues, “has the luxury of flirting with the escape from identity” (p. 274)—a critique of postmodernism that Gilbert and Gubar make themselves when they acknowledge in the preface to Sexchanges that “although poststructuralist feminists rightly view ‘female’ and ‘male’ as arbitrary constructs, some refuse to acknowledge the possibility that these powerful constructs inexorably make and mark the products of the imagination” (p. xv). “When we ourselves use the words ‘woman’ and ‘man,’ ‘female’ and ‘male,’ ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine,’ therefore, we are always deploying what we, too, understand as artificial, socially determined signifiers. But we are also always using these terms both to explore their changing resonances and to examine the ways in which such changes in meaning affected the lives and art of the writers we have chosen to study” (p. xvi).
In any event, putting the questions of postmodernism aside for a moment, the overreadings of women's texts that Gilbert and Gubar perform in Sexchanges constitute the most valuable aspects of their own text.
I was delighted, for example, by their overreading of Kate Chopin's The Awakening, which they treat as the “liberation and celebration of female desire” (p. 94), “a female fiction which both draws upon and revises fin-de-siècle hedonism to propose a feminist myth of Aphrodite/Venus as an alternative to the patriarchal western myth of Jesus” (p. 96). “Edna's last swim,” they read not as symbolic of her impending suicide and death but as a metaphor of “resurrection, a sort of pagan female Good Friday that promises an Aphroditean Easter. In fact, because of the way it is presented, Edna's supposed suicide enacts not a refusal to accept the limitations of reality but a subversive questioning of the limitations of both reality and ‘realism’” (p. 109).
Though Gilbert and Gubar's discussion of Willa Cather is (quite openly) indebted to Sharon O'Brien's work, I also found it useful in understanding what they call Cather's “critique of erotic desire” (p. 170).
And I was particularly interested in their handling of Gertrude Stein whom they credit with “obliterating literary history altogether” (p. 223). For Gilbert and Gubar, Stein was a “man of genius” (p. 223) who brazenly “refused all predecessors” (p. 238). Respectful of Stein's intellect and her influence on modernism, Gilbert and Gubar nonetheless frankly admit they find most of her work “boringly incomprehensible and self-serving” (p. 245) and accuse her of promoting a “self-authorizing aesthetics of solipsism” (p. 248). “Stein presented herself as a demonic anti-God,” they argue, “who unmakes significance in her non-literature and thereby reduces all of literary history to a history of naive signification. In fact, the very autonomy Stein achieved in her marriage with Alice helped her turn her words into weapons which rob her readers of their ability to comprehend” (p. 249). Though Gilbert and Gubar are in little danger of losing professional credibility by making these kinds of deconstructive claims, it is refreshing to encounter an example of such critical candor.
In a book that is full of provocative readings, Gilbert and Gubar save their most provocative reading for their interpretation of the lesbian relationship between Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein. “Usurping Alice's persona, appropriating Alice's voice,” they argue, “Stein presents herself as an unappreciated, isolated pioneer, and she thereby turns collaboration into collusion: living, listening, and telling do transform one into the other, but the result is a kind of cannibalism, as Stein makes Alice into a character of her own devising who, in turn, certifies Stein as the genius who will usher in the twentieth century” (p. 251; emphases added). Is Gilbert and Gubar's use of “Alice” and “Stein” intentional in this passage? That is, are they calling attention to Alice's subordinate status by using her first name and Stein's last name? Or are they perpetuating the unequal division of power they deplore? In any event, they end with a zinger of a question themselves, a question that haunts me: “Is it possible that Alice B. Toklas actually wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas?” (p. 252).
I would add but one more question. Why in a discussion of collaboration between women, do Gilbert and Gubar, themselves the late twentieth-century's most famous and successful feminist collaborators, not mention their own working relationship at this point in the book? Surely their own more equitable intellectual arrangement must have had some bearing on their ability to decode the auto(bio)graphy of Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein.
Though clearly there is much to learn from and admire in Sexchanges, I must admit that I find myself wishing for more attention to the work of other recent theorists. It is true that Gilbert and Gubar do occasionally mention DuPlessis, Kristeva, Lacan, and Cixous, but I still think their work could be further enriched by the ideas of Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Alison M. Jaggar, Mary Jacobus, Monique Wittig, Rita Felski, Susan Bordo, and Nancy Fraser, to mention just a few. While I appreciate the vast amount of time that must be spent in reading the primary sources for a project of this magnitude, I do find the absence of these other theorists deeply disappointing and somewhat puzzling.
Even more puzzling is Gilbert and Gubar's oversight when it comes to naming Rachel Blau DuPlessis's seminal work on feminist narrative. In their discussion of Kate Chopin, Gilbert and Gubar suggest that Edna's final journey is “toward a genre that intends to propose new realities for women by providing new mythic paradigms through which women's lives can be understood” (p. 110). As I read this, I could not help but think of DuPlessis's description of prototypes in Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers and wondering why Gilbert and Gubar haven't placed their ideas into her well-known framework. Women's new myths, DuPlessis suggests, “replace archetypes with prototypes. They do not investigate moments of eternal recurrence, but rather break with the idea of an essentially unchanging reality” (p. 133). “A prototype is not a binding, timeless pattern,” DuPlessis continues, “but one critically open to the possibility, even the necessity, of its transformation. Thinking in terms of prototypes historicizes myth” (p. 134).
DuPlessis, influenced herself by Louis Althusser, also argues that “narrative structures and subjects are like working apparatuses of ideology, factories for the ‘natural’ and ‘fantastic’ meanings by which we live” (p. 3). Conversely, “[a]ny social convention is like a ‘script,’ which suggests sequences of action and response, the meaning we give these, and ways of organizing experience by choices, emphases, priorities” (p. 2). In their reading of The Awakening, Gilbert and Gubar claim that Edna Pontellier “finds herself incapable of proposing any serious plot alternatives” (p. 107). “As Edna eventually realizes, even such a fiction betrays desire into the banalities of conventional romance, so that ultimately her dinner party in chapter thirty is the best, the most authentically self-defining, ‘story’ she can tell” (p. 108). Are these readings, in their emphasis on plots and stories, similar to what DuPlessis argues (and what Foucault might argue) or are they to be understood only as metaphoric word play? What relationship between language (discourse/scripts/narrative) and subjectivity are Gilbert and Gubar proposing here?
I have the same questions about their discussion of Wharton who, they argue, is capable of imagining only minimal societal change; Wharton's “imaginings of change or at least of (momentary) freedom from institutions that may be changeless, are almost always mediated through allusions to what is literally or figuratively unsayable: through evocations of what is illicit, what is secret, what is silent; through representations of what does not ‘fit’ into ordinary language or conventional systems of signification” (p. 157; emphasis in original). Gilbert and Gubar hypothesize that Wharton was only able to solve the problem of trying to name the unnameable by writing in a minor genre. For them, “the paradox of saying the unsayable, of speaking the unspeakable, infuses and energizes the very genre of the ghost story” (p. 159). But, again I ask, what is the view of subjectivity and textuality that they are working from in this discussion?
Ironically throughout a book they have self-consciously called Sexchanges rather than addressing the material origins of the gendered differences they insist on, Gilbert and Gubar seem content to discuss their consequences and transmutations. In chapter eight, for example, they discuss “Cross-Dressing and Re-Dressing: Transvestism as Metaphor.” Instead of taking this opportunity to investigate the dialectical relationship between gendered subjectivity and society or that between biological sexuality and society (as Alison Jaggar does in Feminist Politics and Human Nature [1983, rpt. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1988]), Gilbert and Gubar focus on the metaphoric issue of transvestism. What they argue has its merits and certainly its fascinations (prurient and otherwise), but they never really grapple with the fundamental issues the way Jaggar does. When women cross-dressed, according to Gilbert and Gubar, they were “defying the conflation of sex roles and sex organs that many of their male contemporaries sought to reinforce” (p. 327). But where do our co-authors stand on this issue? Do they agree with Jaggar that “nothing is natural in human social life” (p. 112) or do they accept some kind of sexual essentialism or biological determination? What is their politics? Are they, in Jaggar's terms, liberal feminists, radical feminists, socialist feminists, or none of the above? They so insist on gender differences in this series that I begin to wonder if they are not (unwittingly perhaps) reinforcing Cixous's dualistic phallologocentric metaphor: man/woman. Some linguistic dualism is certainly reinforced by their unexplained use of such outmoded terms as “prophetess” (p. 63), “victress” (p. 147), “ancestresses” (p. 178), and “creatrix” (p. 204). If this is a joke, I don't get it. And if it's not, I don't understand it any better. Are the authoresses of Sexchanges to be similarly identified?
In short, what Gilbert and Gubar seem to be presenting as self-evident truths, such as the notion of gendered subjectivity and the relationship between texts and their sociocultural contexts, the theorists that I cited above have more successfully problematized. Because Gilbert and Gubar have not undertaken to problematize these issues nor the relationship between texts and subjectivity, their own work—as witty and challenging as it can be—maintains a kind of intellectual flatness. But in their defence, let me repeat what I said in my review of No Man's Land: after Gilbert and Gubar, our understanding of Anglo-American literary modernism will certainly never again be the same. Let me also acknowledge the vast amount of material that has gone into this series. As always, their knowledge of literary texts is nothing short of amazing, and so is the scope of their historical scholarship (though they do get one detail wrong: Amelia Bloomer did not invent bloomers, as they claim—she only wore them and thus quite inadvertently gave them her name; bloomers were invented by Elizabeth Smith Miller). The absence of other theoretical perspectives is by no means a fatal flaw, but it does weaken an otherwise impressive achievement.
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SOURCE: “The Fate of Women Writers,” in Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 19, No. 4, July, 1990, pp. 511–13.
[In the following review, Mukerji discusses the theoretical propositions of volumes one and two of No Man's Land by discussing the two works in relation to Gaye Tuchman's book Edging Women Out.]
There are two quite distinct traditions of feminist studies, one in the social sciences and the other in the humanities. The former looks at women in the world, acting, thinking, and responding to a social and natural environment dominated by males. The latter looks at human cultural forms, from literature and film to scientific epistemology, to consider gender and consciousness—the ways in which women are conceptualized, dreamed of, hoped for, and compared to men (by both women and men, albeit in different ways).
The books under review here, Gaye Tuchman's Edging Women Out and Gilbert and Gubar's No Man's Land, Volumes 1 and 2 represent the best of the work from both traditions. Together they highlight the virtues (even the necessity) of each type of analysis for understanding the lives of women and womanhood (as a cultural category). Ironically, they also indicate the partial and perhaps even misleading understandings of women we develop by focusing exclusively on either one of these types of analysis. But they also make clear how large and complex a problem understanding gender and culture must necessarily be. Thus they make sense of the partialing out of this analysis to diverse groups of researchers with their own specialties.
Making a comparison between the books is a little tricky. Each looks at women and English-language literature, but Tuchman focuses on the last half of the nineteenth century, while Gilbert and Gubar focus on the early part of the twentieth century. Still, the processes that they document are linked: they show a strong response to (mainly a rejection of) female power in the world of literature, one in institutional terms, and the other in the imagery and language of the writers who established literary modernism.
Tuchman centers her analysis around materials from the archives of the Macmillan publishing firm in London. She uses primarily aggregate data from the archives (publication lists, readers’ reports, and lists of readers assigned to manuscripts, among other things) to ground her contention that women novelists, who had dominated English-language novels in the early nineteenth century, were being displaced by men by the end of that century. From 1840 until World War I, women authors were regularly submitting about twice as many manuscripts for publication as their male counterparts, and from the 1840s through the 1890s their books were more likely to be accepted for publication than books by male authors. But by the turn of the century more men were submitting books, and books by male authors had a greater chance of publication.
Tuchman explains this phenomenon in terms derived from the sociology of occupations. She notes that it is not at all unusual for occupations dominated by women to be “invaded” by men when they become lucrative or powerful enough to attract men. This pattern is an example of what she calls the “empty field phenomenon.” The group occupying the field is socially so insignificant that the field seems (to powerful groups) empty, and available for colonization. This, according to Tuchman, is what happened with novel writing. She contends that men were generally not interested in writing novels before 1840 because novelists made little money and received minimal prestige for their efforts. But the market for novels increased dramatically, and respected literary men began to write novels, so male authors began to see cultural and economic possibilities in the form. As they entered into novel writing they changed the novel's form and redefined the novelist as a new kind of artist-writer. In so doing, they assured a rupture with the women novelists who had dominated the field earlier in the century. Their work became the “other” against which the new art was defined.
Tuchman argues that this takeover of the novel was not the result of men's coming along and more or less by accident writing more and better novels. Men could make these occupational inroads in part because male writers dominated poetry and the other prestigious forms of literature (both fiction and nonfiction) and hence could bring reputations from their other work. More importantly, the primary decision makers in publishing houses (publishers and publishers’ readers) were men who shared a distaste for “feminine” writing and contempt for the intellectual capabilities and aesthetic standards of female readers.
In making this argument, Tuchman stays close to her data (in the tradition of occupational research). She quotes the snide comments made about women writers and readers by the men who judged the manuscripts. She is very careful to protect herself from charges of exaggerating gender bias in the analysis. But she pays a price for this. Tuchman provides no data on the historical context in which this reorganization of novel writing took place, so she does not look at broader changes in gender relations in the period that might have affected the opinions of publishers about gender and writing. The limited ambitions for the analysis help to keep it a solidly empirical study, but leave it with only a partial explanation of the shift that Tuchman wants to explain.
Gilbert and Gubar provide us with much of the rest of the story. They try to understand how gender relations were being reorganized around the turn of the century by the struggle for women's suffrage and its institutional concomitants (such as new educational opportunities for women). They argue that these changes put strains on gender identities and led to an escalation of “the battle of the sexes.” Gender worries became central to literary struggles in the period, affecting the shift toward modernism (which Gilbert and Gubar associate with a male obsession with conflictual gender relations and uneasy, ambiguous gender identities). The literature by men in this period was filled with hostilities toward “women scribblers” on the one hand, and toward powerful women figures or female institutions on the other. Male writers were anything but uniform in their ideas about the consequences of greater emancipation of women; some supported greater autonomy for women, but many more associated female power with destruction of the male. These men drew women as both victims and victimizers, sources of corruption and of mindless lust; they also treated women as the source of cultural banality and the degradation of literature. In spite of their differences, almost all men imagined the power of women to be both formidable and worrying.
Twentieth-century women writers also addressed gender conflicts and identity in their writings. While their male colleagues exaggerated female power and its consequences, they were more sober. Some shared with men many of the tenets of modernism—particularly a distaste for female “scribblers who degraded the novel. But while they may have felt contempt for some women, they were less sanguine about the virtues of male authority. In addition, a substantial number of women used their writing to project feminist fantasies of female autonomy, power, and sexuality.
Gender not only entered into the themes and imagery in the writing by both women and men in the period, it also shaped language. As Gilbert and Gubar note, such usages as “mother tongues” and “muscular language” were made problematic by gender warfare. Some women started searching for ways to position and use language outside patriarchy, while some men, such as Joyce, looked to esoteric language use as the source for gender-based authority in language.
Gilbert and Gubar present and discuss these differences in male and female consciousness among writers in quite sociological terms, considering aggregate qualities of gender groups. But the analysis addresses only minimally the questions of class that complicated gender relationships (the lesbian/feminist voices were often from upper-class women and threatened most intensively the identities of new writers of lower-class origins). The authors also ignore the institutional arrangements in book publishing that affected the relative power of male and female writers—the sort of thing that Tuchman makes so clear. But Gilbert and Gubar's books together with Tuchman's provide a marvelous view of the complexities of gender relations and literature around the turn of the century.
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SOURCE: A review of No Man's Land, Volume 1: The War of Words, in English Language Notes, Vol. 28, No. 1, September, 1990, pp. 73–7.
[In the following review of The War of Words, Sedgwick praises Gubar and Gilbert's discussion of conflicts between women, but faults the writers for apparent homophobic slips regarding men.]
In his nightclub act, Michael Feinstein has a rather strange song about what happens when women stick together:
Shall we join the ladies? I mean really join the ladies And make one great big lady? Whaddaya say—Queen Kong!(1)
Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (who, whatever the pleasures of their durable, celebrated collaboration, must get tired of being conflated into one great big lady) have written in The War of the Words an exploration of the relations between and among women, even more than of the relations between women and men. The most interesting section of the book reflects on “the multiple binds in which the twentieth-century woman writer feels herself to be caught when she confronts the new reality of her female literary inheritance.” First, the authors explain,
she sees the pain her precursors experienced and wishes to renounce it. … In addition, though, she acknowledges the power her precursors achieved and worries that she may not be able to equal it. … Finally, however, she fears the consequences of both renunciation and rivalry: to renounce her precursors’ pain or to refuse to try to rival them may be to relinquish the originatory authority their achievements represent. …
In addition to helping us ask more acutely about the particular novelty of the twentieth-century woman writer's situation, this angle of inquiry makes it possible and necessary to ask about the relation that The War of the Words itself establishes between, on the one hand, the two twentieth-century women who have authored it and, on the other, the women precursors to whose work it attends. Gilbert and Gubar argue persuasively that what they call the female “affiliation complex” is better suited to the trope of the adoptive than of the biological family; and it is easy to see the imperatives of the “affiliation complex” behind their own project:
By looking at the precursor, the female inheritor distances herself from her foremother's struggle while at the same time participating vicariously in the primal moment of composition. … By looking for—seeking out, choosing, and thus achieving a kind of power over—precursors, the twentieth-century woman writer eases the burden of what Harold Bloom has called the “anxiety of influence.” …
Each of the many strategies by which women writers approach the “affiliation complex” has strengths and liabilities. The authors show, for instance, that the “passionate dialogue” by which Virginia Woolf individualized and dramatized her female precursors also, in some ways, risked trivializing them: “As she transforms these precursors into characters in search of an author named Virginia Woolf, the author of A Room of One's Own often verges upon caricature. Moreover, concentrating on their bodies rather than upon their books, she frequently seems to be evading a serious consideration of texts whose power might make her tremble” (204).
The relational strategy adopted in this book is different from Woolf's: its highly synthetic form, as much as its feminist intent, involves it in a project, not of individuating, but of joining the ladies. Feinstein's airily hallucinatory song suggests the reconstitutive violence the authors perform here on their precursors: “I move we join those darling daughters / I mean join them to each other / and make one great huge mother.” Focusing on texts and de-emphasizing particular authorial bodies (with a few exceptions, including quite an ugly discussion of Gertrude Stein's size), the book also, far more than The Madwoman in the Attic, de-emphasizes the particularity of individual authors, in favor of a focus on experiences, strategies, thematics that many are seen to have shared. Individual texts are subject to the same treatment: it is the rare reading, here, that is sustained for more than a paragraph or two, and the reader balances the loss in sharpness against a gain in breadth when brief readings of multiple texts are joined into argument through a kind of molecular aggregation.
As we have seen, from Charlotte Brontë's Bertha Mason Rochester and Mary Wilkins Freeman's Old Woman Magoun to Rebecca West's Evadne Silverton, Carson McCullers's Miss Amelia Evans, and Joanna Russ's Jael, women characters created by women writers have repeatedly drafted themselves into what Sylvia Townsend Warner called ‘the great civil war’ between men and women. … Some years after such thinkers as Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, and Kate Millett had begun to reinvent the women's movement, James Tiptree, Jr.—elsewhere the author of fantasies about female autonomy—recorded in “The Screwfly Solution” (1977) a terrifying vision of a femicidal Holocaust. And to return to Sylvia Plath. …
This technique seems to combine authorial diffidence (the idea that a mosaic of allusion to and quotation from precursor-women makes an argument stronger than could the authorial voice itself) with what one might also perceive as a certain aggression of accretion. The creation for, and at the same time out of, women writers of a relatively undifferentiated, somewhat utopian mass of female commonality, may evoke in the woman writer who reads such passages anxiety at the same time as solidarity.
One of the casualties of this approach is the analysis—at best, fragile and hard-won in contemporary feminism—of the ways in which women may differ from and indeed oppress one another along dimensions that are not reducible to the sameness of their gender. In one particularly striking example, the authors of this book quote a passage from Ann Petry about her black heroine's murderous rage against
“Jim [her husband] and the slender girl she'd found him with; … the insult in the moist-eyed glances of white men on the subway; … the unconcealed hostility in the eyes of white women. … [and] the white world which thrust black people into a walled enclosure.”2
When Gilbert and Gubar paraphrase Petry's passage, however, the explicit involvement of women black and white in the oppressions described in it simply disappears. “What emerges from this passage is an explanation of the black woman's position at the bottom of the social ladder”: she is “oppressed by both white and black men” “because the black man is unmanned by the white man [and] needs to exert special mastery over ‘his’ woman” (103–4, emphasis added). Predictably, then, although the disadvantaged racial and economic status of black or poor women writers is treated throughout this book as a relevant factor in their gender construction, the privileged or exploitive status of white or economically comfortable women is not. And the U.S. history that the authors treat as relevant to their gender argument does not include the history of domestic race or class relations.
Across the differentials between women—basically generational ones—that it is interested in, however, the book makes it newly possible to construct some fine and useful maps. Joining the gentlemen, on the other hand, in the substantial sections of this book dealing with male writers, seems a far less discriminant undertaking. The fact that some form of misogyny is detectable in many or most male writers seems to mean that there are no differences between men worthy of feminist analytical attention. One might have thought, for instance, given that “compulsory heterosexuality” is one of the forces described here as shaping women's positions and identities, that it could make some difference that the period under discussion was marked by sudden, radical rupture in the history of male homo/heterosexual definition, including the formation of (men's as well as women's) homosexual and gay identities, and the foundation of the first (male-centered) movements for homosexual rights. But these developments are not so much as mentioned. Oscar Wilde, to name one signal figure of this history, appears only as “the son of a woman poet, the editor of Women's World and the author of an … essay on ‘English Poetesses’” (144)—just one more man with a negative opinion of some women writers. (At that, he fares better than William Burroughs; neither Burroughs’ sexuality nor his writing is mentioned, only—did you guess?—the fact that, “as if literalizing” a quoted poem by someone else, but also as if literalizing everything else about men in the book, he accidentally killed his wife .) There is a brief discussion of Tennessee Williams and Allen Ginsberg as figures with a consciously oblique relation to compulsory heterosexuality (50–52). Aside from them, however, a man in this book can only be either a he-man or what the authors call, in the joke of their title and in frequent, often apparently homophobic usages thereafter, a “no-man”—a would-be he-man who, for a variety of reasons (effeminancy, cuckoldry, lack of heterosexual desire, all treated as involuntary and demeaning), isn't up to his job of dominating women and therefore feels “threatened” by them.
I don't after all, however, get the feeling that this book is very interested in men writers. The undifferentiating sections on men seem (as the authors might put it) “belated” in relation to germinal feminist works like Kate Millett's Sexual Politics. This book's central, more enlivening project and contribution is to show that joining the ladies need not require the fiction that our feelings about each other can be simple or uniform. As is likely to happen when women stick together, the result, if glutinous, is also often jolly.
From “Shall We Join the Ladies,” written by Marshall Barer and David Ross (Williamson Music, ASCAP); recorded on “Michael Feinstein Live at the Algonquin.”
P. 103; from Ann Petry, The Street (New York: Pyramid, 1961), pp. 266–67.
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SOURCE: “Battle Stations,” in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 7, No. 323, October 7, 1994, pp. 45–6.
[In the following review of the three volumes of No Man's Land, Carr faults Gilbert and Gubar for reductionist and strained readings of the texts they present.]
The phrase “No Man's Land” is a curiously negative and undecided image for women's writing. For the most striking characteristic of a No Man's Land is surely emptiness. Yet if the 1,200 odd pages in the three volumes of this account were to prove nothing else, they make clear that the 20th century is full of women writers.
Gibert and Gubar, both senior US academics, themselves seem to be hunkering down in the trenches. No Man's Land is conscientious but confused, painstaking but perplexed. It has nothing like the panache and drive of their landmark account of 19th-century women's writing, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), published in the heady early days of feminist literary criticism, when women were women and a man's place was in the wrong. Now that it is necessary to talk about the mutability and fictiveness of gender roles, and men come not only as patriarchs but as homosexuals, Jews and blacks, everything is less easily resolved.
In that earlier book, Gilbert and Gubar argued that the central metaphors by which to understand the 19th-century woman writer—and by which the writers understood themselves—were those of entrapment and escape. That meant entrapment in the patriarchal home, in the patriarchal House of Fiction, in patriarchal womanhood, and escape into self-definition and the discovery of an alternative identity through the act of writing.
Perhaps because it was not simply a work of criticism but an existential Bildungsroman in its own right, the book proved immensely liberating for a whole generation of women students. But it has been much criticised: for its neglect of all forms of oppression other than gender, for its theoretical thinness, for the sheer excess in its depiction of the “anxiety of authorship” these women suffered. After all, by the 19th century, writing was established as one of the few ways a middle-class woman could earn money, and very good money some of them earned.
These critiques have clearly fuelled a degree of “anxiety of authorship” in No Man's Land itself, though the concessions are fairly limited. The three volumes have again been organised around a central metaphor, this time that of the sexwar. The Madwoman in the Attic, they say, recorded the period of female resistence; No Man's Land that of female rebelliousness. The rise of the New Woman and the erosion of Victorian definitions of femininity produced a misogynistic backlash, a battle to keep women off male territory, and caused the modernist movement itself. The first volume, The War of Words, was an overview from Tennyson to the present and the second, Sexchanges, went as far as the interwar years. Letters from the Front, the final volume, takes up the story there.
It discusses, among others, Virginia Woolf. Marianne Moore, Edna St Vincent Millay, Zora Neale Hurston, Jesse Faucet, H D and Sylvia Plath. One virtue of this long battle-song is that it brings into view lesser-known writers as well as more established names. But much of the critical account is a relentlessly reductive or strained reading of texts to wrench out images of violence and prove their point.
Nor is it easy to be convinced that Marianne Moore (who after all worked with Native Americans) objected to colonialism only because it was patriarchal, or that it was solely because fascism was “a form of masculinism” that literary women opposed it. Misogyny and masculinism in male modernist writing does need further analysis, and the New Woman did provoke a backlash, but to describe our war-torn century simply as a war between the sexes raises more problems than it solves.
Gilbert and Gubar can make their metaphor work only when they fiercely prioritise gender difference. When they move into discussions of homosexuality or race, as they now feel impelled to do, it is clear that the troops refuse to divide neatly into two sides. They resolutely set their faces against any kind of “so-called post-structuralist” theory that might give them a subtler way of examining the violence and instability of power. Their argument that modernism is differently inflected for male and female writers must be right, but those texts will also be inflected by a range of other differences—not least money and class, factors quite ignored here. All the same, this packed history helps to make clear the rich and varied contribution made by women writers to the modernist movement, something hardly acknowledged when the first volume appeared seven years ago.
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SOURCE: A review of No Man's Land, Volume 3: Letters from the Front, in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 14, No. 2, Fall, 1995, pp. 366–69.
[In the following excerpt, Ardis praises Letters from the Front, but objects to its scanty coverage of the Harlem Renaissance and of black writers in general.]
. … As Gillian Beer has noted, the third and final volume of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth-Century is disappointingly anglocentric.1 Because both [Michael A.] North and [Laura] Doyle argue so convincingly for the historical inseparability of white modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, reading Letters from the Front in tandem with [North's] The Dialect of Modernism and [Doyle's] Bordering on the Body makes Gilbert and Gubar's treatment of the latter seem thin. Unlike North's and Doyle's pairing of black and white texts, the chapter on feminism and the Harlem Renaissance and the briefer discussions of black writers in chapters seven and eight do not adequately counterbalance the remaining chapters’ focus on either one or a pair of white writers (Woolf, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Marianne Moore, H. D., Sylvia Plath). Nonetheless, there is much of value in this enormous study. In and of itself, the vastness of this project is exhilarating, a testimony both to what two scholars and a bevy of research assistants can achieve through collaboration, and a bracing alternative to the claustrophobia induced by close reading after close reading of either canonical or noncanonical texts.2 Gilbert and Gubar's broad-brushed thematic approach has its drawbacks, of course. For careful historical contextualization, one must perforce look elsewhere—to The Dialect of Modernism, to Sydney Janet Kaplan's Katherine Mansfield and the Origins of Modernist Fiction (1991), or to Carolyn Steedman's Childhood, Class, and Culture in Britain: Margaret McMillan, 1860–1931 (1990), for example. But, as in the first two volumes of No Man's Land, Gilbert and Gubar's work here continues quite usefully to point up the “act[s] of affiliation” by means of which other scholars have told stories about the making of modernism without acknowledging the gendering of that history.3
My one criticism of Letters from the Front is different from though tangentially related to Beer's. Early on in this study, Gilbert and Gubar's invocation of Joan de la Riviere's psychoanalytic work on masquerades of femininity suggests their rejection of—or at least a serious rethinking of—the feminist essentialism and the monolithic plotting of “woman's life” for which their earlier work has been criticized. Indeed, their final chapter begins with an explicit reference to the ways in which Letters from the Front differs in its feminist methodology from their earliest collaborative project, Madwoman in the Attic. Noting how they “dramatized the dilemma” (p. 305) of nineteenth-century women writers through the story of Snow White in that study, they chart a different course for themselves as well as for twentieth-century writers in “The Further Adventures of Snow White: Feminism, Modernism, and the Family Plot”:
[A]s we now conclude No Man's Land, we feel we have been reviewing so many new and different plots—all of them explored in various ways by twentieth-century women writers—that it is no longer possible to propose a monolithic “tale” about the female imagination. What had been a single tradition has become many traditions, as women's spheres have widened and the certainties of men's worlds have crumbled.
Notwithstanding this opening gambit, however, this final chapter's witty, Scherezhade-like retellings of Snow White climax on a discordantly monologic note of praise for the “emergence of the child-poem in the female literary tradition” as a “major transformation” in the situation of twentieth-century women writers (p. 402). The final retelling of Snow White's story centers on biological maternity and gives biological mothers and daughters exclusive rights to the “forest” of new stories that Gilbert and Gubar imagine as the future of women's writing:
There was a good Queen who pricked her finger with a needle, watched blood fall on the snow, gave birth to a girl-child named Snow White, and lived to raise her. And sometimes when this Queen looked into the mirror of her mind, she passed in her thoughts through the looking glass into the forest of stories so new that only she and her daughter could tell them.
(p. 403, italics in original)
Why retell Snow White as a story about a biological mother's relationship with her daughter? Why describe the future of women's writing as the exclusive property of women and their biological daughters? In light of the many and varied masquerades of femininity and masculinity surveyed in Letters from the Front, this final, and supposedly utopian, version of Snow White seems both retrograde and exclusionary—a throwback to the biological (and hence racial) paradigm of motherhood that Laura Doyle would like to believe we have already jettisoned.
But perhaps I am overreacting to the conclusion of Letters from the Front. It is entirely possible that “Further Adventures of Snow White” should not be read as the conclusion of a book-length argument—and as such, should not be criticized for falling short of the project marked out elsewhere in this study. Instead, perhaps it should be treated as a performance piece, as an occasional essay whose inconsistency with other materials in this volume is a consequence of this being a collection of collaborative writings produced and gathered together over a period of time. The latter approach would certainly produce a more generous reading of this chapter. It would respect the dialogism of collaborative feminist scholarship explored in recent issues of Tulsa Studies. And it would also honor both the vampiness of these “mirror” critics4 and the sense of No Man's Land being an exercise in feminist literary history that, as William Cain suggested recently, “cannot really be brought to a close” in spite of its ostensible completion with Letters from the Front. “In their future work, Gilbert and Gubar themselves will no doubt add to, qualify, and complicate the story that this three-volume history recounts,” Cain suggests in his introduction to Making Feminist Literary History: The Literary Scholarship of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (1994).5 A comment Nina Auerbach made in 1980 about Madwoman in the Attic supports Cain's point in its relevance, fifteen years later, to Letters from the Front: “one of the strengths of this strong and massive book is its intensification of the reader's urgency to break free and tell her own story.” A “book of this length and density” can quite happily be read “piecemeal at need.”6
Gillian Beer, “Dispersed as We Are,” Times Literary Supplement, 30 June 1995, p. 7. She means this in two respects: their discussion of women writers is not as global as their title might suggest; and they neglect British writers such as Sylvia Townsend Warner, Angela Carter, and Jeannette Winterson who are more familiar to British readers than to Americans.
For an important reminder of the blindness that accompanies the insights of close reading as an interpretive strategy, see Peter Rabinowitz's “Canons and Close Reading,” in Falling into Theory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature, ed. David Richter (Boston: St. Martin's, 1994), pp. 218–22. Doyle's study is the one that feels claustrophobically focused on six texts by contrast with North's as well as Gilbert and Gubar's.
This is Pamela Caughie's point in “The (En)gendering of Literary History,” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, 8, No. 1 (1989), 119. William Cain concurs in his introduction to Making Literary History: The Literary Scholarship of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1994): “Perhaps the major achievement of feminist theory and criticism—to which Gilbert and Gubar have made a major contribution—has been the deconstruction of modernism. This involves not only the critique and revision of the history of literary modernism, but also the dismantling of the history of all literary periods that the modernist generation of critics, scholars, and men-of-letters enshrined in books and embedded in classrooms in colleges and universities” (p. xliv).
I am borrowing, and collapsing, Gilbert and Gubar's own distinction between French poststructuralist feminist criticism and Anglo-American work, as used in “The Mirror and the Vamp: Reflections on Feminist Criticism.” Originally published in The Future of Literary Theory, ed. Ralph Cohen (New York: Routledge, 1988), this essay is reprinted in Cain, Making Feminist History, pp. 3–36.
Cain, p. xxxviii.
Nina Auerbach, Review of Madwoman in the Attic, Victorian Studies, 23, No. 4 (1980), 506.
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SOURCE: “Altering the Critical Landscape,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 10, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 30–31.
[In the following essay surveying Gubar and Gilbert's work in The Madwoman in the Attic and the three volumes of No Man's Land, Rubenstein lauds the studies, calling them a “landmark of feminist literary criticism.”]
Sometimes it seems as if Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have read every significant text of fiction, poetry, and drama (as well as a few less significant ones) authored by a woman. In their ambitious and influential project of reconsidering the literary writing of women over two centuries, Gilbert and Gubar have fundamentally altered the critical landscape and assumptions about women's writing. The four-volume work that has resulted from their remarkable collaboration over nearly two decades has earned its place as a landmark of feminist literary criticism—indeed, of literary scholarship—produced during our era.
In the first volume, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979), Gilbert and Gubar began with the provocative question, “Is a pen a metaphorical penis?” and proceeded to expose the hidden stories beneath the “cover stories” in 19th-century texts by women; the madwoman of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre was transported from her marginal location in Mr. Rochester's attic into the central chamber of female consciousness. The succeeding three-volume study, No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth-Century (which culminates with this final segment), delivers with equal brilliance a series of readings that demonstrates the interpenetrating influences of war, gender redefinitions, and the literary imagination. Dauntlessly addressing major critical questions ranging from the shape of the literary canon to the significance of particular literary texts and historical events, the authors have forged new interpretive links between social and literary history and literary analysis.
In The War of the Words (1988), Gilbert and Gubar theorize that modernism, the significant literary movement of the early 20th-century, “is differently inflected for male and female writers” because of the “distinctive social and cultural changes to which it responds.” The rise of feminism in the late 19th century produced a “sexual antagonism” that in turn fueled a battle of the sexes, expressed both socially and literarily for several decades thereafter. Sexchanges (1989) focuses specifically on the sexual experimentations and altered definitions of the erotic that such antagonisms generated. As the authors so felicitously phrase it (in one of many lively wordplays), “the sexes battle because sex roles change, but, when the sexes battle, sex itself (that it, eroticism) changes.”
The concluding volume, Letters from the Front (1994), extends the encompassing metaphor of battle and war as the defining terms for understanding women's “letters” or literary expressions, from the cultural “front” in this century. The authors emphasize works primarily by “representative women writers who … seem to have … access to the repository of myths and images, injunctions and contradictions, which registers the psychological effects of social change.” The authors’ central premises are the overarching influence of war(s), the ubiquity of impersonation, and the artifice of gender itself as a social construct.
Two corollary preoccupations weave together Gilbert and Gubar's masterful critical syntheses and interpretations of Virginia Woolf, Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), Sylvia Plath, and others. The first is that history becomes “gendered” through women writers’ dramatizations of the difference public (male) and private (female) events. The second is that these writers express, within their frequently experimental texts, their struggles not only to articulate but also to survive the difficult transition from the “old” to the “new,” whether conceptualized as history, gender roles, literary text, or self.
In the opening chapter, the authors highlight the ongoing dialectic in Virginia Woolf's works between “official” and “unofficial” history, as well as that between “the demise of the old and the birth of the new.” Elaborating on a theme sounded in Sexchanges (in which such preoccupations as masquerade and transvestism operate as central visual expressions of destabilized gender roles), the authors consider the disjunctions between self and self-presentation in writers who feel compelled to become, in the interests of their art, what Gilbert and Gubar term “female female impersonators.” Thus, the body of the work is linked to the body of the poet herself: Edna St. Vincent Millay and Marianne Moore emerge from these pages less as dilettante poets than as writers who created masks for themselves to establish “spaces from which they could question many of the conventions of their culture.” They influenced a later generation of poets—Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Anne Sexton—to regard the poetic persona as a self-conscious mask that could be intentionally manipulated. However, Moore and Millay themselves became trapped in the very disguises they constructed. Mimicry served an even more essential purpose for African-American women writers of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as for their inwardly divided characters. Struggling against the double oppressions of gender and race, female characters created by Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen retreat into impersonation and “passing” as the only ways to “shuttle between yes and no, to play at being the New Woman a racist culture never [let] them be.”
Although literature produced during the “Great War” expressed a profound inquiry, registered through the texts of both female and male writers, into gender definitions and assumptions, World War II brought renewed sexual polarization on both cultural and literary fronts. Additionally, the links between sex, the weaponry of war, and death are encapsulated in a variety of cultural artifacts and terms: women enshrined in soldiers’ “pin-up girl” posters or labeled sexual “bombshells,” “male bonding” (except for homosexuality, which was vilified), and the emergence of the “he-man.” Thus, mid-century female poets faced a much sharper set of cultural and social restrictions concerning writing and being. Sylvia Plath is a pivotal figure in the project of re-establishing “the new” once again; Gilbert and Gubar locate Plath centrally in mid-century by tracing her literary lineage backward to the modernists (Lawrence, Woolf, Yeats) and forward to the generation of poets whom she directly influenced (Rich, Sexton, Levertov).
A dark counterpoint in the gender wars emerges in the mid-century narratives of threatened virility by such male writers as Joseph Heller, John Barth, Kurt Vonnegut, and Norman Mailer. Wittily revising Simone de Beauvoir's crucial observation about the social sources of female identity, Gilbert and Gubar observe that, for a number of male writers in mid-century, “one is not born a man; one does not become a man; one pretends to be a man.” The authors also discuss narratives by contemporary female writers from Doris Lessing to Margaret Atwood and others who have added to the literature of gender and cultural critique.
There are many more splendid insights than cannot be suggested in a review of this length. But I cannot close without mentioning the brilliant concluding chapter of this study. In The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar revise the fairy tale of “Snow White” to expose the hidden gender messages they discerned in the queen's looking glass. Now, 15 years later, they explode the story to illustrate the multiple ways in which not simply gender but also narrative, feminist (and other) literary criticism and cultural pluralism have evolved during this century—and even during the years encompassed by their critical enterprise. In “The Further Adventures of Snow White: Feminism, Modernism, and the Family Plot,” the authors reprise the major cultural and literary metamorphoses that they have so illuminatingly traced throughout the several volumes. If the 19th century permitted a paradigmatic “real story”—a “family romance” that fixed the parameters of female experience—the 20th century, the authors suggest, is too complex and fluid to yield a single paradigm. Rather, the plot has dissolved into multiple, contradictory scenarios. The “Ur-story” of Snow White unfolds to provide a witty smorgasbord of narrative variations and options, a series of “choose your own adventure” scripts ranging from nontraditional gender possibilities to “alternate modes of eroticism,” from parodies of Woolf and other canonical writers to denouements that imitate Lacanian analyses or conveniently deconstruct themselves.
Moreover, since the once-inexorable opposition between writing and motherhood has also been dissolved, the competition between Snow White and her stepmother has lost much of its explanatory power. “How, then, would this newly born mother-writer tell the old story of ‘Snow White’?” Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar ask. I won't spoil their masterstroke by revealing here how they answer the question with their own new and affirmative ending—both to Snow White's story and to their engaging revision of our evolving collective narrative.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2813
SOURCE: A review of Sexchanges, in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 94, No. 4, October, 1995, pp. 591–96.
[In the following review, Blake examines the role of the femme fatale in Sexchanges.]
The second volume of this three-volume project confirms the distinction, authority, and style of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar as commentators on British and American literature of the twentieth century, and the role of women in shaping it. This major study of modernism worthily follows Gilbert and Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic and The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, which have made so large a difference in our understanding of nineteenth-century literature by women, and so extended our range of exposure to writings by women from previous centuries to the present.
Sexchanges carries forward the ideas of Volume 1 of No Man's Land, giving more time to close readings of texts, and somewhat more to those of women than men, such as Olive Schreiner, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and Virginia Woolf. But there is still a strong contextualization of the meanings of the works of both sexes for each other. This is because, contrary to an idea of modernism as masculine—committed to originality, hence phallic (Pound), the grand thesis here is the formation of modernism in the dawning of feminism that opened awareness of female powers of origination and cast much male originality into competition or reaction. Thus the relation of male and female is central to modernism, and it is to be understood as an intensified battle of the sexes producing an accelerated pace of sexchanges.
New Womanhood, dreaming of Herland, raised the specter of No Man's Land for men, often driving them to retrenchment. But on the woman's side Gilbert and Gubar call our attention not to a triumphant Amazon but to an equivocal femme fatale. No Man's Land is land lost but not clearly gained, and it makes an apt setting for Gilbert's and Gubar's conception of modernism. It is true that on this military scene the femme fatale may not quite seem to fit; yet it is with this figure that the book begins. Chapter by chapter she is less or more in view but continues to be important, for she illustrates an idea of what is “damaged or damaging” (p. 148) in women's role. She is no idealized adversary to man, not unscathed by her long history of subordination nor purely and righteously scathing as she rises up against it. Her experience has been fatal enough to make her fatal to men and to herself in certain ways. Certainly, in their preface Gilbert and Gubar note the optimism and hopes for a new relation of the sexes expressed by a number of writers of the turn of the century. And through the book, change for the good is glimpsed, more often by women than men. But meeting such visions are male fears and hostilities and female anxieties, involving weaknesses and culpabilities. The material is “disturbing.” Gilbert and Gubar hint that they bring bad news: “All we can finally say is, Reader, we felt we had to write it, but please don't kill the messenger” (p. xvii).
The femme fatale of Chapter 1 is Rider Haggard's She. She is other (Egyptian), primal, ancient, powerful, learned in old wisdom and close to metaphysical secrets, sexual and deadly, also burdened and tormented. She is She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed and threatens to take over the earth; to men and Britons She is She-Who-Must-Be-Destroyed. This is done in a phallic manner involving a “pillar of Life” not to be missed by Gilbert and Gubar, with their keen eye for sexual imagery, and counterpointed to the grotesquely feminine-domestic method of “hotpotting” used by Her subjects to decapitate/castrate intruding men (by putting red hot earthen pots over their heads). For a frame of reference for Haggard's femme fatale Gilbert and Gubar give us La Gioconda, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Lamia, Moneta, Geraldine, Venus, Astarte, Helen, Cleopatra, Faustine, Dolores, Sappho, Lucy Westenra, the White Worm, Lilith, and Salome, amongst other female figures positioned at the heart of darkness. Ease with a huge scope of literary reference lends interest and authority to the book. And with this goes powerful historical framing, often reinforced through details from the author's personal experience. Thus She is placed amidst a matrix of late nineteenth-century associations: with the new powers and claims of women; new research into the biology of ovulation and the anthropology of matriarchy; imperial dominions threatening to escape and even reverse the direction of domination; and recovered exotic and esoteric religious lore—foreign in source and the domain of female spiritualists at home—all of which might challenge male-imperial-Christian confidence.
One might suppose the femme fatale to be the special conjuration of anxious men, a figure to be overcome as in Haggard's yarn. But Gilbert and Gubar present her as an important figure for women as well. In Chapter 2, Lyndall of Schreiner's Story of An African Farm is a variant, “for while men like Haggard viewed the New Woman as femme fatal to men, Schreiner presents the New Woman's feminism as a fatality that will eventually kill her” (p. 53). They make use of Schreiner's feminist critique of women's training to the role of “sex parasite” in Women and Labour. In their reading of The Story of An African Farm there is damage all around: “The parasite drains life from the independent organisms on which she feeds and thereby reduces men to instrumentality while simultaneously diminishing her own chance of autonomous survival” (p. 60). Indeed, the feminist protagonist who condemns a parasitical way of life only does the worse job of it after finding that she doesn't manage to live by her own resources very well either.
The tormented self-destructiveness of the femme fatale also comes to the fore in Chapter 4, where we see through Wharton's Lily Bart of The House of Mirth that “it is fatal to be a femme fatale” (p. 140). Wharton seems to ask what will happen to a sex parasite with nothing to feed on. Gilbert and Gubar show that Lily, though not really a feminist, lacks conviction in carrying out the parasitical female role and lets slip chances on the marriage market. Further, men in this and others of Wharton's novels are curiously lacking as hosts for the parasite. It is not only that they do not propose, but that the best of them seem to have little to offer, already to be weak, drained. As No Men they are unsustaining hosts before the parasite has found a means of support in herself. This is a fatale situation, especially for the femme, and Lily, like Lyndall, dies.
It is May Welland of The Age of Innocence whom Gilbert and Gubar call “damaged or damaging.” She is not the expected image of the femme fatale. In her case purity and innocence are her means for ruthlessly hanging on to her husband, despite his love for another woman. But purity and innocence are elements of blankness trained into her as a woman (a lady), so that it is by the damage she has suffered that she does damage. Gilbert and Gubar characterize Wharton herself in terms that evoke the femme fatale, disdainful of the feminine arts she also practices, fashionably “dressed to kill” (p. 136), implacable in her books and out of them against ladies and feminists, men and No Men, an all around “Angel of Devastation” in James's phrase that gives the chapter its title.
For Gilbert and Gubar other women writers are less focused on fatality. The most clearly utopian work they discuss is Gilman's Herland, where all is well for women without men. They recognize how much Cather sees in girlhood, reclaiming the stories of frontier girls from oblivion in the saga of the West, and embodying in girls a “mythic America” (p. 184). They read Chopin's The Awakening in a strikingly positive manner. Rather than interpreting the novel's end in suicidal terms, they understand it to affirm some second coming of Aphrodite, as an alternative to a patriarchal Jesus. Edna Pontellier swims out to sea as a celebrant of some erotic faith.
Gilbert and Gubar are true to broadly Freudian premises recognizable in their work since The Madwoman in the Attic in weighing eros and anger heavily on the plus side for women and women's literature, and they are on the lookout for the return of the repressed as “erotic defiance” (p. 165). So it comes as no surprise that they are unenthusiastic about the small role of sexuality or rebellion in Herland, enthusiastic about Aphrodite in The Awakening, eager to give credit to Wharton, despite the negativism in her novels, for getting some unsayable good things said (subtextually) in her ghost stories about jouissance and defiance, and sorry that Cather stops short with glorifying girlhood before the emergence of eroticism. In fact, the word “fatal” reenters with regard to Cather. Her “fatal attraction to a renunciation of passion” is said to have posed “her greatest literary problem” (p. 205). That renunciation of desire must mean renunciation of aesthetic desire is—rather thinly—argued with reference to Cather's story “Before Breakfast.”
A kind of desire that Gilbert and Gubar pay less attention to is material appetite, that is, for things rather than sex. Literary criticism seldom does acknowledge this, other than as lamentable greed. Actually feminists may be just the ones to open up to a less dismissive attitude, for material inequality has been a very important part of the subjection of women over the centuries, and material progress seems very much to the point. In fact, Chapter 7 on the literature of the Great War makes a great deal of women's satisfaction in the jobs and money they gained when men left for the front. It notes that there could even be a profit motive for marriage in light of the chance for war-widows’ compensation. One reason “We Enjoyed the War” (in the memoir by this name by Iris Barry) was that “we were all getting rich, or richer” (p. 273). This wide-ranging and eye-opening chapter covers the benefits accruing to women in economic terms, as well as in opportunities for new kinds of work, experience, and adventure, in sexual liberation, and eventually in the vote, while men suffered death, dismemberment, demoralization, depersonalization, displacement, disillusionment, psychic disinheritance, and unmanning in the No Man's Land of the trenches. With awareness of how much material good may mean to women, Gilbert and Gubar might have shown more understanding of Lily Bart's hunger for the jewels, clothes, rooms, furniture, houses. Perhaps Wharton herself found release or gratification of desire, not only through covert expressions of erotic defiance, but through overt enjoyment of affluence, in her deluxe travels, her clothes, her houses. Her first full-length work, The Decoration of Houses, sounds interesting in this respect, and might have been more than mentioned. In a similar manner Gilbert and Gubar might have attended to Cather's portrayals of girls who manage to grow up not so badly as economic successes. The immigrant girls who go from farmwork to town domestic service so as to help pay off their families’ land debt and to fund new investments in farm equipment, and then marry the sons of family operations similarly well capitalized “are today managing big farms and fine families of their own; their children are better off than the children of the town women they used to serve” (My Antonia, Bk. II, sect. ix). Also worth greater consideration would be the rise of Antonia's friends the hired girls Tiny Soderball and Lena Lingard through successes at business and investment on their own. They end up well-to-do in San Francisco. Fatality does not hang so heavily on them.
Not that Gilbert and Gubar always force the point about fatality. Some chapters—as on Chopin—radiate a positive viewpoint, while others—as on the Great War—are exuberant on women's gains, though very sensitive to men's account of the toll taken on them. A fine example is the comparison of “The Waste Land” and Mrs. Dalloway, according to which both take inspiration from the figure of a dead good soldier—Eliot's fallen friend Jean Verdenal to whom the Prufrock volume was dedicated and Woolf's character of the shellshocked veteran and suicide Septimus Smith. But each work makes the figure function differently, in one as muse of a male wasteland, in the other as muse of reaffirmation and a woman's party.
With the chapters on lesbian writers and on cross-dressing the image of the femme fatale comes back into view. Certainly gay gaiety is acknowledged in Barnes's Ladies’ Almanack, and festivity in Woolf's account of Orlando's many sex-changes. Independence from men that does not mean renunciation of passion—this carries credit for critics who hold Aphrodite in high regard; after all, Sappho has Aphrodite for her patron goddess (p. 113). Also salutary is the co-identifying and collaborative mode of the lesbian, both as lover and as writer. Gilbert and Gubar give sustained analysis to the sharing, boundary-blurring, and “double-talking” of identity represented by Barnes and Stein in lesbian love. They also point to the sense of collaboration with the literary past made possible by the lesbian writer's relation to Sappho. Renée Vivien and H. D. find advantage in the very fragmentariness of Sappho's legacy: “The modern woman could write ‘for’ and ‘as’ Sappho and thereby invent a classical inheritance of her own” (p. 225).
At the same time all is not so well. The lesbian carried some fatality in the popular mind of the period, and Gilbert and Gubar cite historians of lesbianism to show a “morbidification” of perceived “inversion” and perversity” fostered even by studies aiming to be purely scientific, or sympathetic (p. 216). Radclyffe Hall makes the lesbian a figure of tragic loneliness. Vivien features a tormented and tormenting Sappho, with an air of voluptuous evil familiar from Baudelaire and Swinburne, Satanic, a “lesbian femme fatale” (p. 227). Not too far from this is the woman in men's clothes as painted by Romaine Brooks: marked, outcast, joyless, the femme fatale crossdressed as Byronic hero with seductive glamour. Amy Lowell and Marguerite Yourcenar associate Sappho with “the anguish of a fated, if not fatal, eroticism’ (p. 235). And while Gilbert and Gubar indicate what is of value in lesbian co-identification and collaboration, much of the chapter exposes the dangers involved.
Thus Nightwood probes identity problems when the same-sex lover seems so much oneself that to lose her is to lose oneself. Dependency and selfishness can be part of this love. In the long section on Stein and Toklas, Stein's role as “Alice's Phallus”—husband-baby-genius-special person served by wife-mother—appears egotistical and sexist enough. Gilbert and Gubar see Stein's hard-to-read writing as aggressively asserting independence from any literary tradition or bounds of language, and in a way that is masculine—if we agree that unmaking is an even more masculine gesture than making. And they present it as self-serving writing that means more to the writer than the reader. However, for them, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas makes a break. It explores the interdynamics between masculine and feminine roles and in a manner of presentation that not only cultivates more relationship with the reader but is collaborative in authorship, so that it is hard to know where Stein leaves off and Toklas begins. Still, for Gilbert and Gubar, co-identification and collaboration like this prompt thoughts of usurpation, appropriation, even some sort of cannibalism, “as Stein makes Alice into a character of her own devising, who, in turn, certifies Stein as the genius” (p. 251).
In its title, “Cross-Dressing and Re-Dressing,” the last chapter raises the issue of “redress,” some compensation to emerge from modernist sexchanges in No Man's Land. Surely there are gains seen, here as in the rest of the book. For instance, if Barnes's cross-dressing, transsexual Robin Vote seems to reach so far beyond male-female norms as to appear subhuman, she also appears mythic and sanctifying. But Sexchanges does not end so positively. We are told that recent deconstructions of gender identity as propounded by men like Derrida may not serve women. Gilbert and Gubar briefly consider the tricky question of whether feminism might require some conception of a gender “essence” if it is to have any constituency or cause. If modernism presents an escalated battle of the sexes, how are we to measure the outcome if there are no men or women left? For a postmodern conclusion Gilbert and Gubar instance Caryl Churchill's play Cloud Nine. “When the old roles dissolve the new ones are just as absurd and pathetic” in this sexchanging romp through a “wasted London,” an “unreal city” (pp. 375–76). A study that begins with the femme fatale ends invoking “The Waste Land.” We see no win and no redress. We do see power, fascination, risk, transfiguration, beauty, and terror as women—damaged and damaging—have entered modernism and helped make it.
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SOURCE: “Miss Marple at the MLA,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4,863, June 14, 1996, p. 9.
[In the following review, Showalter praises the satire of Masterpiece Theatre, but finds much of it already dated.]
I was in the audience in 1989 when Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar gave a dramatic reading of Act One of their literary satire, Masterpiece Theatre, at the Modern Language Association's annual conference. Their spirited performance was rapturously received by a ball-room full of professors and graduate students, battered by attacks from the Right and grateful for a few minutes of laughter in the gruelling four-day professional marathon. The rumour in the corridors was that Gilbert and Gubar were getting phone calls from literary theorists insulted because they had not been parodied. That frail commodity, academic reputation, depends on publicity, on being what literary critics as well as Hollywood moguls call “a player.”
But ah, the vanity of human wishes, and the fleetingness of fame! Nothing dates like satire, and perhaps academic satire most of all. It's not that the culture wars of the 1980s are over today, but that they are being fought on different terrain. William Bennett, then the scourge of the humanities, has moved on to edit bestselling anthologies on virtue, and to decry gangsta rap, talk shows and film violence. Lynne Cheney, then the conservative Director of the National Endowment of the Humanities, is now out of office and out of the headlines, while a terminal NEH is being phased out. Like many of the entertainers and celebrities Gilbert and Gubar mention—Madonna, Imelda Marcos, Michael Jackson—many of the academic superstars of Masterpiece Theatre are no longer chart-toppers, or have reinvented themselves in new guises. Thus this contribution to the culture wars already seems dated, and readers will need to consult the annotated cast of characters at the end to figure out some of the jokes.
Masterpiece Theatre is a three-part melodrama about the abduction and attempted murder of a nameless Text, and the subsequent efforts of an international cast of villainous neo-conservatives, hypocritical Marxists and poststructuralists, greedy capitalists, academic traditionalists, computer hackers and pop-culture barbarians, to wipe it out, while the idealistic young assistant professor, Jane Marple, and her cohort of Third World women novelists, eager undergraduates and feminist sages (Carolyn Heilbrun, Ursula LeGuin and Toni Morrison) unsuccessfully try to save it. The plot begins in the United States, where professors from Harvard and Duke, and cynical Republican politicos are squabbling about the literary canon and political correctness, while industrial powers like Exxon are polluting the environment. It moves on to London and Paris, where various Oxford dons, post-colonial jet-setters and Parisian theorists mingle and chatter in the British Museum pub or in three-star Left Bank restaurants, while Rupert Murdoch's tabloids scream “THATCHER CLOSES POLYS. TELLS PROFS TO SCRAM!” It ends at an international writers’ conference in New York, where egomaniacs such as Norman Mailer, Camille Paglia and Kathy Acker mug for the cameras, while Literature is blasted out of existence by Hypertext.
In their introduction, Gilbert and Gubar describe themselves as part of academia's “excluded middle”, annoyed by the paradoxes and blind spots of both Right and Left in the culture wars. As Jane Marple proclaims at the end, “You were all to blame. Some of you wanted money, some political power, some professional advancement, some philosophical hegemony, some language games, some just general destruction.”
This is a heavy didactic agenda for satire, and Gilbert and Gubar are further weighed down by their decision to weave lengthy quotations from their large cast of real protagonists into the script. While some of these do bear parody (like George Bush's musings on gun control—“when you see somebody go berserk, and get a weapon and go in and murder people, of course, it troubles me”), many are cold as yesterday's mashed potatoes. There is not much amusement to be garnered from Julia Kristeva's disquisitions on the way the semiotic chora behaves, or Fredric Jameson's views on the late capitalist social order. These scenes, with their emphasis on the contradiction between the Marxist rhetoric and the champagne tastes of some critical celebrities, also risk endorsing the anti-intellectual clichés of the envious and lazy.
Gilbert and Gubar are funniest and most effective, however, when they unleash their own considerable wit, as in recalling their “salad-bar days” as SG1 and SG2 on the lecture circuit, or describing a red-faced Jesse Helms, crying to the Lord to “find that text and strike it down. … It's better dead than read.” At its best, Masterpiece Theatre conveys the Alice-in-Wonderland absurdity of fin-de-siècle academic life, as well as its disagreements and deep fears. “Will the humanities, and in particular, the profession of English, endure as a recognizable discipline, transform itself, or slide toward extinction in the future world of letters? Will the future even include a world of letters?” Masterpiece Theatre suggests that whatever the academic future holds, it will always be fertile ground for satire.
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SOURCE: A review of No Man's Land, Volume 3: Letters from the Front, in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 95, No. 2, April, 1996, pp. 269–71.
[In the following review of Letters from the Front, the third volume of No Man's Land, Blake commends the monumental scope of the collection.]
After reviewing the prior two volumes of No Man's Land the reviewer reaches number three, impressed but tired after close to 1,200 pages of Gilbert and Gubar's critical coverage. Volume 3 is not only monumentally piled on top of Volumes 1 and 2 but on top of the earlier big book The Madwoman in the Attic on nineteenth-century women's writing and The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, surveying centuries. A huge history and inventory of texts and a huge contribution to feminist literary criticism culminate here with Gilbert and Gubar unfazed and unflagging. The reviewer recovers her wind in a short review. The object is to end, and at the end is appreciation.
Letters from the Front redeploys the tropes of the prior books. We have the nineteenth-century madwoman's anger let loose in the battle of the sexes that shapes modernism and postmodernism. An instance is the chapter on H. D.'s struggle to define herself and her artistry against the influence of Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence, and Sigmund Freud. World War II gives rise to a chapter on a literature of war. Gilbert and Gubar describe a lower-morale World War II than we might expect when it comes to the war between men and women. Instead of freeing women into new roles as the authors claim (in Volume 2) was the case in World War I, this war is a Blitz on Women. Sources of demoralization are the resurgence of male dominance in fascism, male bonding among soldiers, and the fusing of imagery of sex and death in popular culture, with women cast as threatening whores or betraying girls he left behind him. Among these hostilities Muriel Rukeyser, Katherine Anne Porter, and Sylvia Plath identify women with Jews as victims, while others from Marianne Moore to Stevie Smith cannot enjoy good faith in doing so, feeling not free from being “smug goys” themselves.
Part of the military trope is that of the no man's land—which gives the trilogy its title. No man's land is the contested space between the sexes not yet definitively claimed on either side. Chapters on Female Female Impersonators and Male Male Impersonators explore such an unstable minefield of provisional and projected sex roles. The no man was never exemplified so thoroughly before as in the antiheroes of Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Roald Dahl, Stanley Elkin, Vladimir Nabokov, and others. These figures make identities and careers of their masculine insecurities. The no woman or female female impersonator is explored via Edna St. Vincent Millay and Marianne Moore, who don self-consciously artificial images of womanliness as the “It-girl of the hour” or the spinster schoolteacher and then critically examine what it is to wear “this garment that I may not doff.”
A doubled self-impersonation is seen in the chapter on Feminism and the Harlem Renaissance, where black women writers such as Jessie Redmon Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston depict the problems of female female impersonate and, in Marjorie Garber's phrase, the “black face in blackface,” or New Woman and New Negro roles in conflict. The black woman may be drawn to impersonate womanliness to strengthen the culturally emasculated black no man in his male role.
Through these struggles in no man's land, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's utopian Herland of Volume 2 has not yet been attained. Familiar from Volume 2 are female threats to men in the figure of the femme fatale. The femme fatale vividly reappears in the chapter on Plath where in “Herr God, Herr Lucifer” a “flaming red-haired revenant threatens a resurrection of the feminine that will explode the old order by destroying the powers of the patriarchal enemies” (p. 300). But on balance women remain the ones at greater risk. Ann Jellicoe, Mary McCarthy, and Muriel Spark suggest that women are hardly made more secure by male insecurities. Their “heroines protect themselves against men whose entrapment in the masculinity complex poses as grave a threat to women as did traditional patriarchal forms of domination” (p. 345–46).
There are some ways out of the war that Gilbert and Gubar have noted before: opting out of heterosexuality by frigidity (H. D.) or homosexuality (Adrienne Rich); devolution from human to animal identity (Moore); spiritual transcendence or sanctification (H. D., Hurston). Of course, many would say the ultimate way out is suicide (Plath). Shakespeare's sister has been writing a lot throughout the twentieth century (and she put pen to plenty of paper in the nineteenth), but after all of No Man's Land (and Madwoman) Gilbert and Gubar seem to share Virginia Woolf's sense of difficulty in writing a “Chapter on the Future” (for Orlando), and it is especially hard to project a happy ending.
They try though. It has got to be better than that the literary battle between men and women brings us to the battle between women and women in warring feminist literary-critical camps (p. 375). For all their tropes of battle—and they lack great interest in non-hostilities—they are blithe writers, pouring forth so much with energy and style, troping and also punning playfully to the end of their magnum opus. The story of Snow White makes a comeback from Madwoman in a funny series of retellings. The story can end with the triumph of Snow White and the Queen over the Prince or vice versa; it can end with a free-love laying down of arms between the sexes; it can end with sex role transformations and Snow White and Queen in each other's arms; or with identity-free impersonations all around: “Forget your transcendental signifiers! … ‘I'm nobody, who are you? Are you nobody too?’” (p. 367).
But Gilbert and Gubar have a favorite ending. For it they hark back to their view of Plath as having found something better than suicide, having found herself as a creator of poetry and life, a mother poet. They refuse to see Plath in grim terms and insist on her profound affirmation in Ariel. They love it when the girl's premonition that “I am a genius of a writer” is realized as she became a mother. This suits their faith from Volume 1 in language as not necessarily phallogocentric but a “mother tongue.” They applaud Plath's initiation of a tradition of “mother poets,” Rich, Anne Sexton, Denise Levertov, Diane Wakoski, an instance of female literary affiliation in contrast to the embattlement of literary relations between the sexes traced since Madwoman. So the book ends happily (and punningly) with the “mater-iality” of fine works mothered by procreative creativity. Snow White's mother doesn't have to die, to give up doing other things to bear a child. She and her child live and tell stories.
This is an ending in narrative terms like the rhetorical questions in argument that we have seen before, say in a passage on Woolf: “The battle of the sexes is not over … Yet that battle might bear fruit in what new life, what new creature? An ambivalent women artist like Lily Briscoe? A wild child like Mrs. Manresa? A new Woman who is, in conventional terms, no woman, like Miss La Trobe … ? Or a new being of all sexes and none, like Orlando?” (p. 55). It is an ending by shift of tropes from war to birth. But Gilbert and Gubar's long account of the war makes it hard to imagine new births that are not into it.
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SOURCE: “Minstrels and their Masks,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 27, No. 28, July 13, 1997, p. 4.
[In the following review, Pemberton praises Gubar's Racechanges as a work which contributes to the ability to “envision a post-racist society.”]
Anyone looking for an easy application of Susan Gubar's findings in Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture can travel to a white high school. Look at the dress, hairstyles, hear the music and a considerable amount of slang, watch the high-fives and other gestures of the students to discover racechanges, or whites passing as blacks. Racechanging is “meant to suggest the traversing of racial boundaries, racial imitation or impersonation, cross-racial mimicry or mutability, white posing as black or black passing as white, pan-racial mutuality.” Such a broad spectrum of racial theorizing, performance and attitude provides the framework for Gubar's exploration of literature, art, photography, psychology and a host of other topics: The task is an enormous one, in which Gubar effectively demonstrates, on the one hand, just how obdurate and tenacious are categories of race in the United States and Europe and, on the other, how these categories are porous, inconsistent and capricious. Youth culture is always an easy mark; understanding the dynamics of racechange in its more persistent and pervasive adult forms is something else. Gubar amasses a formidable amount of scholarship to do just that.
We are all victims of a dualism that divides the world into various pairs like good and evil, black and white. Gubar uses blackface as a metaphor for defining the ways in which blackness and whiteness have been socially constructed. The grotesque makeup and speech, the gestures and gyrations of minstrels in the 19th century are examples of whites animating vicious and highly concocted stereotypes of black people. Drawing upon this heritage, early American movies went further in establishing a litany of images of black inferiority that are alive and well today. What Racechanges does best is to illuminate the complexities of blackface for blacks and for whites. According to Gubar, “many racechange performances teach a cruel lesson to black audiences: When you repeatedly see yourself falsely depicted, you have no sense of your right to be in the world, or, indeed, you gain a conviction that you cannot, do not, should not exist.” The white in blackface dramatizes the notion that whiteness is fundamentally colorless, its existence predicated upon the necessity of “the subordinated black body.”
Racechanges examines the usual suspects in discussions of whites in blackface—from movies like “The Birth of a Nation,” “The Jazz Singer” and “Imitation of Life”; to the literary inventions of Kate Chopin, William Faulkner, John Berryman and Norman Mailer; to white patrons of the Harlem Renaissance like Nancy Cunard and Carl Van Vechten. Gubar invigorates this list with arresting visual images and commentary on artists like Picasso and Robert Colescott; Robert Mapplethorpe's photography; black artists in black-face, real and figurative, like the legendary Bert Williams or “Bojangles” Robinson. “To adopt minstrelsy is to collude in one's own fetishization; but to relinquish efforts to adapt it is to lose completely a cultural past appropriated by whites,” is one conundrum. Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of this is a sequence of three photographs of Paul Robeson: as Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Rutgers, to harlequin-clothed character in the play “Voodoo,” to angry savage of the same play, looking more like a child in the middle of a tantrum than a menacing adversary.
Susan Gubar, Distinguished Professor of English at Indiana University, has been for many years identified with feminist literary scholarship, most notably in her coauthorship, with Sandra Gilbert, of The Madwoman in the Attic and No Man's Land, studies of women writers. That Gubar would next enter into a scholarly inquiry on race and gender is logical. Racechanges benefits from its recognition that race is a highly gendered topic and that much white thinking about race “fetishizes black men even as it effectively obliterates the existence of black women.” Nonetheless, she admits to having been “blind” to the racial implications of some of her previous work. This is an important admission, particularly at a time when many white scholars have discovered race for the very first time.
Gubar succeeds in avoiding “the aridity of academic jargon,” but Racechanges still requires a sophistication not regularly associated with Virginia Woolfs “common reader,” the author's targeted audience. It should be read as a companion piece to the works of those scholars whose insights buttress this work, among them Patricia J. Williams, bell hooks, Frantz Fanon, Ronald Takaki, Michael Rogin, Eric Lott, Rey Chow, Leslie Fiedler, Ann Douglas and Toni Morrison.
“The liberating potential of racechanging iconography is only now being tapped in various performances, mediations, films, and art works that use cross-racial imagery to enact or envision post-racist ways of being and perceiving,” Gubar writes. To even envision a post-racist society is contingent upon understanding the offensive, dense and wildly contradictory nature of our racist past and present. Racechanges should be encouragement enough for readers to begin that task.
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SOURCE: A review of No Man's Land, Volume 3: Letters from the Front, in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 22, No. 2, Winter, 1997, p. 458.
[In the following review, Juhasz discusses Letters from the Front, volume three of No Man's Land, and comments on the “constructed” nature of gender in the study of literature.]
Letters from the Front is the conclusion to Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's ambitious and wide-ranging three-volume study of the place of the woman writer in the twentieth century, itself a sequel to their landmark work on the woman writer in the nineteenth century, The Madwoman in the Attic. (1) As they have moved through the centuries, with gender as the lens for observing literature in its relation to culture (and vice versa), they have read, and written about, just about everything. Their ability to elucidate such diverse material with wisdom and wit is by now legendary. Along the way, “everything” has of necessity involved them in the major changes in conceptual and philosophical approaches to their topic that have taken place over the past fifteen years. Reading No Man's Land, one moves from modernism to postmodernism. The final volume, especially, even as it includes theory as a significant site of women's writing, employs the insights of social constructionism to twentieth-century writing and shows how the writers of fiction and poetry produce that ideology.
The work as a whole looks at what happens to gender arrangements when, under historical and cultural pressures, their assumed God-given stability is questioned. The late nineteenth-century rise of feminism and the subsequent fall of Victorian concepts of “femininity” set in motion, Gilbert and Gubar contend, a war of the sexes (a battle about sex, sexuality, and gender) that played out across the century and resulted in, among other things, the literary modernisms that women and men have variously produced. They show how male hostility toward a perceived threatening female autonomy moves ultimately into angry confusions about the nature of masculinity as well as femininity. For women, anxiety about the fragility of even such fictional autonomy, along with hope for the destruction of old sexual rules and the redemptive construction of new social roles—that is, the idea of women's community, literary tradition, and psychic space, “the dream of Herland”—becomes an awareness of the artifice of gender itself. The concept of “female-female impersonation” shows women as writers both playing with and interrogating “femininity”—using it as a masquerade, as performance, defensively and with a recognition of the power inherent in the ability to construct an identity rather than inherit one.
Letters from the Front moves from the end of World War I to the present, focusing particularly on World War II and the manner in which the battle of the sexes is at once intensified and dispersed, so that there is no longer division between a war ground and a “home front.” It includes characteristically astute studies of Virginia Woolf; poets from Edna St. Vincent Millay, Marianne Moore, and H. D. through Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Adrienne Rich to contemporary poets; Harlem Renaissance writers like Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston; literary reactions to World War II; comic fictions by both men and women of the 1960s and 1970s; and feminist critics from Simone de Beauvoir to Mary Daly. The ability to cast their vision so widely is a strength that Gilbert and Gubar, above all contemporary literary critics, possess—but it also creates a problem. In order to cover so much, in order to maintain coherent reasoning, they do not (perhaps they do not want to?) reveal the intricacies and contradictions of the texts they study. Their look at particular works often charts a single-minded course that serves primarily to advance the more general argument.
In this final volume, the authors are particularly concerned with the future. When gender is not a given but a construct, what new world might be possible? For “despite the fictive nature of femininity and masculinity, men and women continue to recycle farcical but intransigent gender assignments” (354). By and large, the authors show the struggle to imagine a future that continues to elude embodiment. They show as well the confusion and bemusion evoked by a “cultural pluralism that makes definitive denouements virtually inconceivable” (361).
The volume does not, however, end with hands raised in dismay over the artifice of identity and the multiple and increasingly fictive plots thus engendered. Rather, it focuses on the one remaining “fact” of (female) maternity, and on a new literary genre, mother writing, to show how procreativity combines with creativity to produce a narrative of which the woman can see herself as independent author. The writer speaking to her child addresses “a future she can now imagine shaping, as she herself has been shaped by a past she reimagines as empowering rather than debilitating” (402). This insight, shared by other recent theorists of “maternal subjectivity,” is deeply important; to the extent that all women are not mothers, however, this particular power is necessarily limited.
I would suggest an additional approach to the future, one that concerns ways in which No Man's Land addresses demographic variables of sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity. For example, rather than understanding lesbianism as either a separate and peculiar experience (with its own chapter in Sexchanges), or as one in a list of fictive roles that can be played by a woman—“femme fatale, New Woman, mother-woman, warrior woman, feminized woman, no-woman, female female impersonator, goddess, lesbian, sextoid” (368), one might see how recent reconstructions of homosexuality inform and transform constructions of heterosexuality as well. In No Man's Land heterosexuality is the unquestioned normative gender arrangement at the center of the prevailing sex wars. The discourse centers on “men” versus “women,” whether fictive or non, thereby reiterating the hegemony of traditional categories. But if gender and sexuality can be defined by all their forms, including homosexuality and heterosexuality, and by a multitude of ethnic expressions, their pluralism may well facilitate a paradigm shift that moves beyond patriarchal dualism.
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SOURCE: A review of Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture, in Modern Fiction Studies, No. 4, Winter, 1998, pp. 1073–75.
[In the following review, Bergner appreciates the broad scope and ethical concern of Racechanges.]
Comprehensive in scope, Susan Gubar's Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture explores the psychological and ideological implications of cross-racial mimicry in twentieth-century culture. This wide-ranging study of film, literature, and visual arts examines an impressively large number of artifacts that are by now standard objects of cultural studies of race in America, including films such as The Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer, and Blonde Venus; literary works by Carl Van Vechten, Nancy Cunard, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ernest Hemingway; and photographs and paintings by Man Ray, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Pablo Picasso—to name a few. Racechanges also discusses in fruitful ways some lesser-studied works such as the paintings of Robert Colescott, the drawings of Richard Bruce Nugent, the fiction of Saul Bellow, the poetry of Anne Spencer, and the conceptual art of Adrian Piper. Gubar collects these varied and numerous cultural texts under the rubric “racechanges,” a term which is “meant to suggest the traversing of race boundaries, racial imitation or impersonation, cross-racial mimicry or mutability, white posing as black or black passing as white, pan-racial mutuality.” Gubar explains that such racial impersonations permeate not only our popular culture—from nineteenth-century minstrelsy to Vanilla Ice—but also our intimate daily lives; she cites a man who speaks “‘black talk’” to his dog and her own daughter who used to address Gubar by mimicking the words of her mother's African-American childhood friend, Theresa: “‘I loves ye, honey. But you're de WRONG color.’” Although these idiosyncratic “racechanges” are usually hidden by whites—who consider them degrading to black people—they are integral to daily life and indicative of the ways in which white identity is “predicated on black Others.” In a formulation that recalls Eric Lott's groundbreaking study of minstrelsy, Gubar sets out to investigate the fear and loathing, desire and envy of such impersonations.
Ambitious in scope and broad in methodology, Racechanges will be most useful for the general audience to which it is addressed: “To some scholarly readers, […] my speculations may seem grounded in subjects too diverse, while to others they will seem undertheorized. I took both these risks quite consciously in an effort to enliven my topic for […] ‘the common reader.’” Those specializing in African American and race studies will be familiar with many of the book's findings from the work of such scholars as Michael Rogin, Eric Lott, Eric Sundquist, and Toni Morrison. However, specialists and nonspecialists alike will be drawn to the numerous illustrations—reproductions of film stills, paintings, and photographs. Especially compelling are the color plates of Robert Colescott's ironic and parodic paintings such as George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware and his revision of Van Gogh's The Potato Eaters titled Eat Dem Taters. Gubar's reading of Colescott's Shirley Temple Black and Bill Robinson White (in which a black Shirley Temple and white Bill Robinson traipse down a garden path) is especially astute: “Shirley Temple does not appear simply darkened, Bojangles simply lightened in skin tone. Instead, racial transformation eroticizes the couple, draining away their innocence and infusing them with a vaguely perverse ribaldry. Why does the prancing Robinson White seem to be leering at the equally coquettish and rather hefty Temple Black? Does their berry picking hint at the saying ‘the darker the berry the sweeter the juice’?” Gubar goes on to elaborate the painting's implications for the sexualizing of black girl children and the simultaneous emasculating and making-virile of black men.
Gubar's attentiveness to the representation of men, women, whites, and blacks in the visual art of Colescott and others signals her intent to theorize the intersections of race and gender as a corrective to her earlier work on gender which, as she acknowledges, had ignored issues of race. The chapter titled “Psychopathologies of Black Envy” is unusually even handed in its analysis of the dynamics of inter-racial desire—masculine and feminine, heterosexual and homoerotic. Returning to the subject of women, Gubar breaks new critical ground with “What Will the Mixed Child Deliver,” a chapter on the significance of mothers giving birth to children of a different race or color than themselves.
Gubar is not embarrassed to admit that she is concerned, at base, with an ethical question: “How can white people understand or sympathize with African Americans without distorting or usurping their perspective?” Resisting a simplistic answer, Racechanges nonetheless demonstrates the question's relevance and urgency.
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SOURCE: A review of Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture, in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1999, pp. 124–25.
[In the following review, Stavney lauds Racechanges as a useful study examining the ideas of “whiteness” and “blackness” in American culture.]
In Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture, Susan Gubar examines instances of cross-racial mimicry and mutability in twentieth-century film, literature, journalism, painting, photography, and plastic art. Asserting the centrality of what she terms “racechange” to modern and postmodern American culture, Gubar maintains that performances of racial imitation or impersonation provide a means of measuring “altering societal attitudes of race and representation” (p. 10). Such impersonation can be a strategy of the disempowered—as demonstrated by narratives of white-to-black racechange that educate a “white” character and by extension a white audience about American racism. Racial imitation can also function as a method to disempower the other by usurping the other's place, wresting authority and symbolic power, and thereby devaluing blackness and establishing whiteness as the norm. Gubar emphasizes in her introduction and in subsequent chapters that no single effect can be said to emanate from racechange. It is a “trope that embodies the slipperiness of metamorphosis in its adoptions or adaptations as well as in its historical evolution” (p. 41). The project sets out to delineate the multiple dimensions—psychological, aesthetical, and ethical—of cross-racial mimicry and imagery in twentieth-century American culture.
Because the nineteenth-century minstrel stage functioned as a precursor to Hollywood screen images of blackface, the study contends in its early chapters that the birth of the American film industry was predicated “upon the death of [the] African American” (p. 65). Films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and The Jazz Singer (1927) allowed a white audience to assure themselves of black inferiority. In the context of this recurring “spirit-murder at the movies” and in other popular culture, African American artists of the early twentieth century found it especially difficult to locate effective strategies for countering the destructive effects of white supremacist logic. Should one vilify whiteness or glorify blackness in order to subvert racist stereotypes? Some literary and graphic texts of the Harlem Renaissance associate whiteness with nothingness; some associate blackness with fullness of being; still others neither delegitimize whites nor legitimize blacks but seek to challenge hegemonic stories of black racial origins that functioned to subordinate Africans in America. Racechanges also studies proponents of modernism who attempted a racial ventriloquism they associated with linguistic experimentation (chapter 4); portraits of black male genitalia created by white male and female artists (chapter 5); and the figure of the unexpectedly colored infant or mixed-race child that resurfaces in twentieth-century fiction (chapter 6). The closing chapter shifts from analyzing the motives of racechange to its effects. Though it has historically served racist ends, Gubar contends that cross-racial performance has a liberating potential that is only now being realized. Performance artist Sandra Bernhard, playwright George C. Wolfe, and portraitist Iké Udé are examples of racial impersonators who “neither abandon [their] origins nor pass into the other group's world” and in so doing create “a new (volatile and not necessarily unified) racial category” (p. 249). These “trans-racial transgressions” put the lie to racial classification and assumptions of a coherent racial self that undergird denials of black subjectivity and humanity.
Gubar's best work is in demonstrating the multiple and intricate ways in which notions of racial superiority and inferiority are reinscribed, interrogated, and challenged by cultural production. The study joins others by Robert Toll, Eric Lott, Michael Rogin, and Toni Morrison in analyzing white impersonations of blackness that until recently have been merely dismissed as unacceptable, indefensible, and “racist.” Yet such a label should not obligate the end of critical conversation. For as Gubar convincingly explains, it is in understanding the means and methods by which white supremacist ideology circulates in American culture that we may envision and enact “postracist ways of being and perceiving” (p. 241). The strength of Gubar's study is, however, an index to its chief weakness. Its interpretative frame—to elucidate the “traversing of racial boundaries, racial imitation or impersonation, cross-racial mimicry or mutability, white posing as black or black posing as white, pan-racial mutuality” (p. 5)—makes her extremely sensitive not only to racial but also to gender and sexual references, as well as to the dynamics of cultural production and consumption. The trope of racechange, however, proves too elastic and all-inclusive to convince; it tends to lose explanatory power because it encompasses too much. Overwhelmed by examples of racial impersonation, Racechanges remains undertheorized, and most specialist readers will be left wanting a more cogent model of what racechange includes and excludes. Gubar acknowledges this possible outcome in the preface, contending that she purposely avoids “the aridity of academic jargon” because she intends her study for “the common reader” (p. xviii). It is unlikely, however, that discussion of “mimetic mimicry,” “the gothic effects of scapegoating inflicted on the Other,” or the “misogyny enacted through the figure of the black penis-not-a-phallus” will prove easily accessible or compelling to the nonspecialist (pp. 79, 105). Nevertheless, Racechanges continues and usefully complicates the study of “whiteness” and “blackness” in American culture, and future scholarship can develop and deepen the analysis of racial impersonation that Gubar and others have begun.
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SOURCE: “The Book That Created a Canon: Madwoman in the Attic Turns 20,” in Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. 46, December 17, 1999, p. A20.
[In the following essay marking the twentieth anniversary of the publication of The Madwoman in the Attic, Heller reviews the history of the book's influence on students, teachers, and scholarship.]
The story of feminist literary criticism can be told through the fortunes of The Madwoman in the Attic, the classic argument for a women's literary tradition by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar.
Upon its publication in 1979, the big, ambitious volume, subtitled The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, vaulted its authors into the front ranks of their field. They went on to write a three-book sequel on the 20th century, and to edit a sweeping anthology that fashioned a canon of women's writing throughout the ages. Gilbert-and-Gubar, pronounced as if one word, became shorthand for one kind of feminist scholarship. And ever so rapidly, that shorthand went from compliment to complaint, as critics on both the right and the left accused them of reducing complicated issues to a battle between women and men.
Madwoman, still the two scholars’ most famous book, has sold more than 70,000 copies, remaining in print since Yale University Press first published it. The 20th anniversary is prompting the press to release a special edition, with a new introduction by the authors. In a session at the Modern Language Association conference this month, colleagues and disciples will sum up the book's impact, especially in the classroom. “Students at various levels can work with it,” explains William B. Thesing, a professor of English at the University of South Carolina, who organized the session. “Feminist criticism after Gilbert and Gubar is really much more difficult for students—it's jargon-ridden and sometimes antagonistic,” he adds.
“It's been so powerful that it doesn't have to be explicitly cited—it's simply in the air,” says Susan Fraiman, an associate professor of English at the University of Virginia. At the M.L.A., she plans to summon back the moment of the book's release, to remind younger scholars “how audacious, original, and even profane” the book was for its time.
Jennifer DeVere Brody was a high-school senior when she read a glowing review in The New York Times Book Review. She asked for Madwoman as a Christmas present, devoured it, and decided to enroll in Vassar College, the rare campus where a student could major in Victorian studies. She's now an associate professor of English at George Washington University.
Paging through her well-worn 1983 copy, she calls Madwoman “very much a book of its time.”
“It's a monumental book, not only in size but in scope,” says Ms. Brody, who now teaches it to another generation of undergraduates.
Scholars were not the only ones to notice. Widely reviewed in newspapers and magazines, Madwoman was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Today, it's unusual for a feminist book to make such a splash. “Feminist criticism now doesn't feel as vital,” says Ms. Gubar, a professor of English and women's studies at Indiana University. “That saddens me.”
In 1973, Ms. Gubar was a young assistant professor new to the Midwest when she discovered a kindred spirit in Ms. Gilbert, a new associate professor at Indiana. Neither was trained as a Victorianist, but they shared a passion for the works of the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, and Jane Austen, among others.
Women were badly outnumbered in a department that the professors recall as stuffy and uncongenial. “When I arrived, an older professor handed me his syllabus and asked me to type it, assuming I was a secretary,” says Ms. Gubar.
Yet feminism was in the air, if not in the classroom.
“There was a strong urgency to live feminist lives,” Ms. Gubar recalls. “But there certainly was nothing called feminist criticism at the time.”
In 1974, the professors team-taught a course, an accelerated seminar that allowed Ms. Gilbert more time to commute to her family in California, where her husband taught at the University of California at Davis. Instead of situating a woman writer in her period, they argued for a distinct women's literary tradition, and therefore included Jane Austen and Sylvia Plath on the same syllabus.
The various books were connected, the scholars argued, by the ways their authors struggled to express women's experiences in a patriarchal society. The prototypical figure was Bertha Mason, a spectral presence in Jane Eyre. Bertha turns out to be the imprisoned wife of the hero, Rochester, and late in the novel burns down his mansion. To the scholars, Bertha was a kind of double for Jane herself, able to express the passions that the well-mannered governess could not. She was one of many such female figures literally or metaphorically imprisoned, and aching to break free, in books by women writers.
Five years later, the syllabus for that course became the 700-page Madwoman. “It's incredible to me now that we wrote that big a book so fast,” adds Ms. Gilbert. “We were ourselves on fire.”
They were no longer in the same department, however. After only a year at Indiana, Ms. Gilbert returned West, where she got her own professorial appointment at Davis. Despite being separated by miles, teaching duties, and their responsibilities as mothers, the scholars continued to write together for the next two decades.
Indeed, only in 1997 did Ms. Gubar publish her first book as a lone author, Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture. Ms. Gilbert, a poet as well as a critic, was the president of the M.L.A. in 1996. Most recently, she published Wrongful Death: A Medical Tragedy, an account of how her 61-year-old husband inexplicably died during routine surgery.
That tragedy has taken the scholars in different professional directions. Ms. Gilbert is working on a study of elegies. Ms. Gubar remains an active voice in the debates within feminism. Critical Condition: Feminism at the Turn of the Century, a collection of her recent essays, is due out by the end of the year. It includes “What Ails Feminist Criticism?,” a 1998 article that caused a stir when first published in the journal Critical Inquiry.
Because Ms. Gilbert is on leave in Paris, she won't be at this month's M.L.A. conference, and Ms. Gubar decided not to appear at the Madwoman panel without her. After a decade of lecturing in tandem around the world, they find themselves together less often. But last August, they did share the stage at a conference of Victorian-studies scholars at the University of California at Santa Cruz. They delivered their remarks as a dialogue, which is how they frame the introduction to the anniversary edition of Madwoman. As an authorial pair, Gilbert and Gubar have not published together for most of this decade, save for Masterpiece Theatre: An Academic Melodrama, a comic jibe at their critics.
And critics they have. “Gilbert and Gubar have paid a price for their accomplishments, and have been roughly indicted in tones of voice that are seldom employed for male scholars of comparable importance,” notes William E. Cain, a professor of English at Wellesley College, in his introduction to Making Feminist History: The Literary Scholarship of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar.
Many scholars willing to open the canon to women authors still resist the feminist insistence that a writer's gender is crucial to her work, Mr. Cain points out. “The notion of women who write, read, or teach as women strikes antifeminists as special-interest criticism, as cheerleading and propaganda,” he writes.
Yet for Gilbert and Gubar, later generations of feminists have been among their steadiest critics. They accuse the professors of speaking too broadly, and ignoring distinctions among women of different races, classes, and nationalities.
From the first sentence on, however, Madwoman wasn't going to be a measured literary study. “Is the pen a metaphorical penis?” the authors asked. The first hundred pages establish their argument for a distinctly “feminist poetics,” challenging Harold Bloom's famous postulation that all writers toil under the “anxiety of influence.” Women writers don't have forebears to write against; rather, Madwoman argued, they suffer from the “anxiety of authorship” in a culture that doesn't deem them worthy of taking up the pen at all.
The authors advanced their claim in chapters on Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, George Eliot, and Emily Dickinson, as well as in close readings of several books by Charlotte Bronte. Despite its fame, the analysis of Jane Eyre is actually comparatively brief.
While the book divided reviewers, it quickly became the kind of opus that demanded a reaction. Some who didn't buy the thesis praised the close readings. And some who admired the ambition didn't like the way every novel was shoehorned into an overarching feminist argument.
Over time, the climate changed. “We were being accused of sins that in those early days we knew not of,” writes Ms. Gilbert in the new edition.
Poststructuralism challenged the notion that there was anything “essential” at all about women or women's writing. And attention to race complicated matters further. “We were cast as establishment puppets just too dumb to notice that we wrote from a position of middle-class, white, heterosexual privilege,” Ms. Gilbert notes.
Madwoman “had this incredibly synthetic view,” explains Beth Newman, an associate professor of English at Southern Methodist University. “It didn't take long before other people started pointing out just how partial their view was.”
Among the most famous retorts came from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, the postcolonial theorist at Columbia University. In a widely circulated 1985 essay, she pointed out a crucial blind spot in the critics’ depiction of Bertha Mason in Madwoman: Ignoring that Bertha was a Creole Jamaican, the authors leave out of their account the ways that British imperialism and racism afforded privileges to white women. In Ms. Spivak's rendering, Bertha's attic stands in for the marginalized third world.
“That turned their approach upside down,” recalls Ms. Newman, who has edited a critical companion to Jane Eyre for Bedford Books. “It pointed out the whole book was really about 19th-century middle-class white women.” Other aspects of their argument began to seem quaint as well. “For feminist critics, circa 1979, it made women's anger seem invigorating,” says Ms. Newman. “Yet that did have a tendency to end in the romanticization of madness.”
In the new edition, Ms. Gilbert agrees that the press for more exact analysis is a sign of strength within feminist criticism. “But such nuance may be precisely what we couldn't afford at a time when it was enough suddenly to see that there could be a new way of seeing,” she notes.
Today's feminist literary critics, raised on Gilbert and Gubar, have very different aims and methods.
Ms. Brody of George Washington, who read Madwoman in high school, did her graduate training in the era of cultural studies. As a result, she doesn't want to give novels—let alone novels by women—a special place in her analysis of the Victorian era. In Impossible Purities: Blackness, Femininity, and Victorian Culture Ms. Brody discusses plays, paintings, and minstrel songs, as well as novels, to explore how depictions of black femininity shore up the superiority of white Englishness.
None of the novels in Madwoman figures in her work. “What keeps Victorian studies white,” says Ms. Brody, “is the focus on the novel.”
While her book has been well-received (and gets a plug in the new edition of Madwoman), a study like Ms. Brody's can never hope to gain the kind of audience that Gilbert and Gubar enjoyed during the best moments of the last 20 years. Their ambition, their passion, and their timing are hard to replicate in today's hyper-professional academic culture. Feminist literary critics are fighting smaller, more localized battles, using specialized language, and are less connected to struggles beyond the ivory tower.
Ms. Gubar continues to issue reminders of what once was and what still could be. Over the last few years, she has given a paper at various meetings called “Who Killed Feminist Criticism?” When she published the paper in Critical Inquiry in 1998, she softened the title to “What Ails Feminist Criticism?” But her tone remains angry and wounded, as she struggles to get beyond generational disputes and to imagine “some hope for recovery,” a feminism that addresses “the here and now.”
Robyn Wiegman, an associate professor of women's studies and English at the University of California at Irvine, answered back in the journal this year, labeling Ms. Gubar's article “a lament for the lost status of the literary.” She contends that literary and cultural theory have made feminism more sophisticated, and healthier, than Ms. Gubar believes.
Ms. Wiegman still teaches the introduction to Madwoman in the rare classes she teaches on criticism. “You could teach the history of feminist literary criticism by teaching that book and the conversations that came out of it,” she says.
Among those lessons: Critical fashions move more quickly than ever. “There's so little in literary criticism that doesn't feel like a period piece 10 years later,” adds Ms. Newman. “That's more a statement about the profession than anything.”
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SOURCE: A review of Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 33, No. 2, August 1999, pp. 368–69.
[In the following review, Rogers lauds the seriousness of Gubar's approach to her subject in Racechanges.]
From Fred Astaire and Virginia Woolf in black face to Josephine Baker in black face and Dick Gregory in white face; from Whoopi Goldberg in a milk bath to a Pears soap advert depicting a black child's skin washed milk-white; and from Man Ray's photograph Noire et Blanche (1926) to Jean-Paul Darriau's sculpture Red, Blond, Black and Olive (1980) the pictorial images in Susan Gubar's Racechanges engage the reader in a series of inquiries before a word of text has been read. The critical analysis which accompanies the book's numerous and astounding illustrations does not disappoint. Gubar presents an intensely thought provoking investigation of the cultural space inhabited by artists, writers and entertainers whose work, intentionally or not, challenges the notion of a fixed opposition between black and white. Her writing refuses to shy away from the complex perspectives that such a project demands, but, rather, attests to the ambiguity and shifting nature of representations of blackness and whiteness, to what she early on outlines as the suggestive meanings embraced by the term racechange: “the traversing of race boundaries, racial imitation or impersonation, cross racial mimicry or mutability … pan racial mutuality.”
Each of the five main chapters addresses a specific, but not necessarily isolated, manifestation of racechange. The second and third chapters work well in conjunction, the former exploring white to black racechange in films and television, while the latter goes on to examine black artists’ reclamations of such impersonations as well as their narratives about the origins of white justifications of black inferiority. Gubar is commendably attentive to both the liberating and reductive potential of such processes. Chapter four explores linguistic ventriloquism, in writings of the modernist era onwards, and the desire it reveals for white writers to at once adulate and erase blackness. This awareness of white cross-racial longing, of white artists’ simultaneous “figuring and disfiguring” of blackness, as well as the dilemmas this creates for blacks trying to reclaim white masquerades, is one of the study's strengths. The final two chapters highlight perhaps the most disconcerting aspects of racechange, firstly with an exploration of the connections between perceived sexual deviance and racechange and then with an examination of cultural depictions of mixed-race children.
Despite the potential Gubar's discussion offers to focus on the playfully subversive aspects of racechange, her concern is with the serious and deep-rooted anxieties that it reveals. Throughout a text characterised by sensitivity to paradox, Gubar remains keenly attuned both to the recalcitrant racist assumptions that so often permeate acts of racechange and to the subversive possibilities that exist on the boundaries of racial impersonation. Ultimately and provocatively she holds out for the radical potential of transracial personas to “enact or envision postracist ways of being and perceiving.”
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SOURCE: “A Critic's Work Is Never Done,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 9, June, 2000, p. 17.
[In the following review of Critical Conditions, Reddy pays tribute to Gubar's pioneering feminist criticism.]
Retrospectively, we can all trace epochs in our lives, moments when everything changed. It is more difficult to recognize those moments in the present tense; but I remember knowing I was living through such an epoch-change in my own life in 1979 as I read Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's co-authored The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. I was a beginning graduate student in English, planning to focus on Victorian fiction; I had read most of the feminist literary criticism then in print (amazing now that it once was possible to do such a thing!) and knew that I wanted to contribute to that field, but was uncertain about what exactly I might do.
Slogging through the scads of non-feminist criticism assigned in my classes, I was increasingly disheartened by its prevailing tone of superiority, its competitive mode, its lack of relation to the world outside itself. Reading Gilbert and Gubar was exhilarating: there was real passion in their work, a clear sense of more at stake than their own academic careers, a collaborative sensibility totally at odds with the usual solitariness evident in literary criticism. Even when I strongly disagreed with particular insights, scribbling objections in the margins of the book, I felt a powerful sense of connection with the co-authors. Madwoman was, in short, an amazing inspiration.
I begin with this bit of personal history in order, first, to pay tribute to Susan Gubar and also to try to give some sense of how important her work (both alone and with Sandra Gilbert) has been. But lest this opening give the impression that Susan Gubar is some sort of icon of the past glory of feminist criticism, I want to make clear that her reputation does not rest on Madwoman alone, but has been built and sustained on numerous works published since then, including the co-edited Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. This new book, Critical Condition, extends her already considerable reach and is another kind of inspiration, as in it she engages with new feminist critical methods and problems.
But Critical Condition is also sometimes disheartening, for, despite her critical acuity, Gubar occasionally missteps rather seriously. For example, the book's subtitle—Feminism at the Turn of the Century—misleads: Gubar's seven essays are not about feminism per se but about one branch of feminism, the academic variety. This qualification strikes me as a significant one, but one not sufficiently acknowledged in the book. Gubar's essays analyze particular women artists, poets, novelists, dramatists and writers of non-fiction; the underlying subject is academic feminism, particularly feminist literary criticism from the 1970s to the present—a topic related to but not the same as “feminism,” as any feminist outside of academia would immediately note, perhaps with some asperity. Although the introduction to the book relates the world outside the academy to the narrower concerns of the essays, both the subtitle and the essays themselves elide the distinction. A reader approaching the book expecting a survey of feminism at the present moment will be disappointed.
That said, I think the essays have considerable appeal outside the academy, and most definitely beyond the boundaries of literature departments. Gubar's diagnosis of feminism's “critical condition” stresses her ambivalence: her “sense of being poised between causes for regret and for celebration.” Feminist studies’ condition, she argues, “has itself become critical because of a number of heated disputes that have put its proponents at odds.”
We could, of course, extend that claim to feminism in general. Gubar sees current feminist theory as largely irrelevant to life. Too often, she notes, we in specialized fields of study find ourselves speaking only to ourselves, and none too clearly at that. There is a “societal importance” to feminists making their writing lucid, accessible to and usable by women outside disciplinary or even interdisciplinary networks. Gubar evidently sees literature as a possible meeting ground for academic and non-academic feminists. In an essay called “Lesbian Studies 101 (As Taught by Creative Writers),” she argues that “poems and stories can bridge the gap between women outside the academy and theorists inside universities seeking to illuminate lesbian lives and loves,” a claim that could easily be extended to other areas of illumination.
Gubar's own readings—of Jeannette Winterson's “The Poetics of Sex,” Faith Ringgold's story quilts, Anna Deavere Smith's Fires in the Mirror, Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Marilyn Hacker's “Ballad of Ladies Lost and Found,” Adrian Piper's My Calling (Card) among others—are luminous, perceptive and accessible. They show Gubar at her absolute best while also demonstrating why feminist criticism matters.
The first essay in the book, “Women Artists and Contemporary Racechanges,” analyzes some complicated, difficult works by several Black women artists whose subject is the endless complexity of race and gender, their intertwining and their resistance to easy (or even hard) formulaic conclusions. This essay, among the strongest in the book, includes the most convincing reading I have seen of Faith Ringgold's disturbing “We Came to America” quilt. This quilt shows a Black Statue of Liberty in the foreground, holding a naked Black child; in the background a ship—a slave ship?—burns, while in the center Black figures struggle in a roiling, seemingly bloody sea. Gubar links this to Ringgold's larger body of work, pointing out that the quilt works as a “sort of shorthand on the detriments of twentieth-century racial paradigms” and going on to address what she calls Ringgold's characteristic “emphasis on cultural-miscegenation.” Illustrations in beautiful, vibrant color of four of Ringgold's quilts accompany the essay.
Gubar explores the ways in which Ringgold, Anna Deavere Smith and Adrian Piper challenge common constructions of race and gender in their art, using “the commonplace gap between phenotype (a type distinguished by visual characteristics) and genotype (a type distinguished by hereditary traits) to frustrate conventional racial lexicons.” At the end, she turns her analysis back on itself, acknowledging the self-contradictory nature of her enterprise: trying to examine works that undermine racial binaries yet focusing only on works by self-identified women of color seems to reinforce precisely those binaries. Gubar rightly admits that her quandary “reflects a current impasse in feminist thinking, namely, the need to employ identity categories for the purposes of political agency versus the fictiveness of those categories as displayed by poststructuralist and and postcolonial theorists.”
Unfortunately, not all of the essays are as successful or as productively thought-provoking as ““Women Artists and Contemporary Racechanges.” The essay I find weakest is “What Ails Feminist Criticism?” which some readers may know already from its first appearance in Critical Inquiry in 1998. Here Gubar traces a brief history of three decades of feminist criticism, identifying four different phases, then focuses on what she sees as the “maladies” of the current phase. In sum, she concludes that feminist literary criticism and theory suffer from “a bad case of critical anorexia” brought on by the twin forces of “racialized identity politics” that make “women” mean “only a very particularized kind of woman” and of poststructuralist insistence that “women” is a fiction.
Gubar is not as generous nor as insightful a reader of certain theorists as she is of creative artists, and the entire essay seems one long, excessively one-sided complaint against bell hooks, Chandra Mohanty, Hazel Carby, Gayatri Spivak and Judith Butler. Although she begins this complaint by describing her targets as “brilliant scholars,” their brilliance gets lost in the assault on their ideas and writing styles. The tone often seems aggrieved, as Gubar bewails a “barrage of diatribes directed at white feminists” and claims that in the 1980s “white feminists began to feel beleaguered by blatantly imperative efforts to right the wrong of black female instrumentality.”
As Gubar sees it, critiques of white feminist work essentialized white women, ignored exceptions and fundamentally, were simply too censorious. I disagree, and am troubled by this hurt and angry response to what strikes me as the necessary and righteous anger of feminists of color. While I have no prima facie objection to complaints—in fact, I often quite enjoy complaining myself—this essay and its thematic twin, “The Graying of Professor Erma Bombeck,” both subvert their own arguments by what I see as insufficient nuance, and seem curiously at odds with both the tone and the substance of other essays.
One recurring theme in this collection is Gubar's concern about the reproduction of feminism. Quoting Sylvia Plath, she asks, “Will the hive survive?”—will feminist scholarship continue or will a new generation have to start all over again? As Gubar points out, successors mean a future, and she most certainly wants a future for feminist criticism. Critical Condition concludes with “A Chapter on the Future,” in which Gubar draws on the responses of a diverse group of feminist critics and theorists to a questionnaire she sent them. She asked forty feminist critics—what she calls “an unscientifically selected cohort group”—ten questions about their hopes for the future of feminist criticism and their views of its major accomplishments. The words Gubar herself wants to speak to the next generation of feminist critics are hopeful and cautionary at once, reminding them of how much has already been accomplished but also of how much still needs to be done.
I don't think that Gubar needs worry much about successors: she already has them, and they know there is a lot still to be done. The combination of hope and caution in Critical Condition, the excitement about new critical approaches (such as critical race theory) and the sadness and anger about the overthrow of other methods (such as those that assume “woman” is an unproblematic and useful category) suggest that she herself is one of her own successors. That is, she has done a great deal, and it is clear that she plans to do still more.
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SOURCE: “Learning New Titles,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 5,059, March 17, 2000, p. 26.
[In the following essay, Sage praises Critical Conditions and Gubar's ability to remain committed to explicating the varieties of feminist criticism which have developed since the publication of The Madwoman in the Attic.]
Recent statistics in the United States have apparently revealed that fewer women are being murdered by their husbands, not because there's less misogyny abroad but because there's less marriage. This is a good example of the way in which there have been enormous changes in the patterns of people's lives, which seem only loosely or mockingly related to what we projected. No wonder the postmodern picture of the individual as a passive construction of occult power at large seems plausible. Susan Gubar, looking at the relation between what 1970s feminist teachers and scholars wanted, and what has actually happened, is caught in a similar paradox; there are more women students, teachers, women's-studies programmes in universities, particularly in the Humanities, than anyone would have dreamed, but there is less and less common ground on what women mean.
Some of the reasons for this are obvious. Feminist academics first got jobs, and tenure, in significant numbers “at exactly the moment when the profession itself came under intense pressure to downsize.” The result was that competition, the pressure to publish, and the need to distance yourself from your predecessors in the name of originality, were all savagely increased. Susan Gubar describes the situation—“fissures … between women of different ranks, between older and younger women, between women within traditional departments and those in multidisciplinary programmes …”, and so on—with exemplary restraint and even humour. She deliberately doesn't extend the grim picture, as she might well have, to point out that the very consciousness-raising that brought so many more women and previously excluded minorities into higher education itself led to the rationing. Women in women's-studies programmes came up against the limits of official inclusiveness with particular force. It is no accident that the kind of post-structuralist theory that Gubar feels most ill at ease with is very well equipped to explain how exclusion works and how divisions proliferate. Though a lot of it is notoriously obscurely expressed, its accounts of endlessly deferred meaning and compromised agency uncannily resemble the real world, or at least the real academic world, that oxymoron. Theory promises to give you symbolic capital, in other words, the only kind most of us are going to accumulate much of. Privilege your powerlessness is one of its messages.
If Gubar avoids this kind of careless fighting talk, it is because she is intellectually and temperamentally disposed, despite all, to read the situation constructively. The form of Critical Condition—a collection of essays—means she doesn't have to produce an authoritative overview of the whole story. You can piece it together, though: first, the phase (Kate Millett's Sexual Politics, 1969) of showing how women were characterized in male-dominated histories and stories; second, the building of female traditions (as in her own The Madwoman in the Attic, in 1979, written with Sandra M. Gilbert); third, African-American and lesbian identity politics (speaking “as a …”); then with queer theory and postcolonial theory in the 1990s “those very terms … themselves underwent a sort of spectacular unravelling.” And here we are, back to square one, with the best work in the field addressing itself to “the perplexity of women's fractured, divided, multiplied and contradictory modes of identification.”
So where next? Some have given up on the whole game of identifying. Elaine Showalter is quoted as saying “I don't care what the latest development is in feminist theory or gender theory. It's completely irrelevant to me.” Gubar, though, reads this as an understandable reaction to the kind of raw hostility that has become a feature of relations among feminist critics. She herself has, as she tells us, fought to resist cynicism, and the pieces that manage to digress from the question of “What Ails Feminist Criticism” show that she has struggled to good effect. The essay on the reflections on race and colour in the work of visual artists like Faith Ringgold is subtle, funny and heartfelt; and the analysis of the work of Marilyn Hacker, Jeannette Winterson and Rebecca Brown, in which Gubar finds a “metalesbian” message is very smart. Though there is something a bit odd about the implication that you need visionary sapphic abilities “to leap over historical facticity.” Can't heterosexual writers do the daring illusions any longer? Perhaps Gubar is just being a good reader, showing she can learn new tricks herself. That is what she does in the book's potentially most interesting piece, “Eating the Bread of Affliction”, about teasing out the relations between her Jewishness and her feminism, when she reflects on the impact of African-American Studies:
After black scholars convinced feminist thinkers about the importance of race, identity politics provided a vocabulary for Jewish women to take seriously their own hyphenated identities.
True to form, however, she wants to point to the Jew as one of modernism's most representative outsiders, whose fortunes she and Sandra Gilbert partly traced in their mammoth No Man's Land. There is some fascinating work to be done on American feminism's links with Jewish immigrant and diaspora culture, and un-American Activities, only hinted at here.
But at the same time, this gently personal piece marks a retreat. “Has ‘What is to be done?’ been replaced by ‘Who am I?’” she asks, and the answer must be partly yes. Not entirely, though, for the paradoxical reason that—judging from her tone—she is indeed a kind of Jewish Mom in the quarrelsome household of academe. She can't retire into herself, can't bring herself not to interfere. Her determination is her most powerful argument for continuing to search for common ground, or at least new ways of disagreeing, since fractures and fault-lines are not going to go away. Any overview is a grand-scale act of will and ingenuity, but it is an act, something you do, not something you are.
Academic women edit texts, do archival research, write literary biographies, teach writing and review books, as well as engage in the “mind-numbing battles” that Susan Gubar deplores. There is room to live intellectually, in other words, without having to compete over who's more marginal than whom. And there is even a book to be written on the perverse pleasures of claustrophobia for academic anchoresses that she is altogether too caring to contemplate.
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SOURCE: A review of Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture, in Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 25, No. 3, Spring, 2000, p. 912.
[In the following review, Nelson suggests that Racechanges is weakened because its conceptualization of race is “ahistorical and transcultural.”]
Susan Gubar prefaces her book Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture with an unsettling catalog of examples drawn from middle-class, mostly academic whites’ “confessions” to habitual modes of blackface minstrelsy. They range from secret imitations of Stepin Fetchit to jive-talking by dog-owners, practices that whites save for moments of domestic intimacy. This is the Africanism of the white bourgeoisie, the (beloved) heart of (imagined) darkness that Toni Morrison defined in Playing in the Dark.1 Gubar asserts that such moments, as well as the more public ones she also analyzes in the book, while having “little to do with actual changes in melanin and sometimes even less to do with real African Americans,” serve usefully to “illuminate the psychology of whites who have evolved through a series of oppositional identities predicated on black Others” (xv). But Gubar soon specifies her focus somewhat more generally than her preliminary examples and her title signal: her book is less interested in white appropriations of “blackness” for the psychological maintenance of white supremacy than it is in “transracial performances” (xviii)—which trouble race as cross-dressing troubles gender—and in the “importance of cross-racial patterns of imagery” (xvi).
Racechanges is typical of Gubar's energetic and wide-ranging academic style. Beginning with a quick analysis of an ancient Janiform vessel, one side featuring what U.S. viewers today would think of as a “white” woman's face and the other that of a “black” woman, Gubar admits that “conceptualizations of race have not remained static” since the vase was made in 510 B.C., yet she insists on the paradigmatic value of the vase for understanding race in contemporary U.S. culture. “Reading the vase now,” she argues, “demonstrates how configurations of corporeal traits contributed to a black/white divide that paradoxically provoked in people on each side of it various transgressive maneuvers, much as has the arranging of the world into male and female” (5). Anticipating scholars who will find her subjects “too diverse” Gubar provides examples of the transgressive maneuvers she calls “racechanges” with wide appeal to a “common reader” (xviii). Instances include Ellen Craft in her gender-and race-changed escape from slavery; Edouard Manet's 1863 painting Olympia; Virginia Woolf's Dreadnought caper; the performances of Josephine Baker; Bing Crosby's 1942 movie Holiday Inn; Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in Silver Streak; Michael Jackson's much-discussed “whiten[ing] and westerniz[ing of] all his features” (20); and Robert Mapplethorpe's “Man in a Polyester Suit” (1980) and Ike Ude's signifiying response to it (1995).
The book is best in its chapter on “Psychopathologies of Black Envy” (5). There, Gubar argues that white men's blackface performances register not just homoerotic love and cultural/political/economic theft but also “an uncanny, different kind of masculinism, an excessively physical masculinity stripped of traditional patriarchal privilege” (174–75). The book's weakest aspects are Gubar's inability to decide whether “race” is biological or cultural (oddly, given her reliance on poststructuralism to conceptualize “racechange” she suggests the answer is both ); her frequent assumption of a white readership as well as a unified white social consciousness (e.g., “Yet because we have become a society more aware of how insulting such impersonations can be, the time for studying racial imitations has now begun,” ); and her attempt to explain “racechange” in U.S. culture through an apparatus that is ahistorical (510 B.C. to 1998), transcultural (British, French, and U.S. cultures), and broadly bilateral. The study's breadth actually despecifies “race” within U.S. culture, offering the impression that while there might be minor variations, “race” has functioned as a “black/white” issue across cultures and epochs. And white Gubar points out the uneven reciprocity of racechange between whites and blacks in the United States (she admits even to having been “alarmed” by it ), the sheer weight of her analysis—for instance, her introductory fascination with Michael Jackson—actually blunts the force of her ruminations on the dissymmetry of “racechange.” …
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SOURCE: “Battle of the Bien-Pensant,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. 47, No. 7, April 27, 2000, p. 42.
[In the following essay, Appiah discusses the tensions and divisions among academic feminist theorists as they are reflected in Critical Conditions.]
Academic moralism is one of the oldest traditions of the university, which began, after all, as an ecclesiastical institution whose students were mostly destined to be members of the clergy. In the early part of the twentieth century, the ethical voice in the American university was to be heard from the philosophy department as well as the divinity school, both of which were dominated by varieties of Protestantism. When William James or John Dewey spoke to the educated public on the conduct or meaning of life, they were only doing their job. They were not-so-terribly secular clerics, whose voices were heard alongside—occasionally even above—those of the official priesthood.
Sometime before the mid-century, however, professional philosophy in America became more centrally preoccupied with questions in epistemology and metaphysics, which were of less obvious relevance for their lay fellow citizens: the most influential figures in American philosophy in the decades after the Second World War were philosophers—some native, like W. V. O. Quine, some immigrant, like Rudolf Carnap—whose work was dauntingly technical and, by and large, not addressed to the moral life.1 In becoming national and then international, the university had had also to become less sectarian and more secular; and so, as a result, the withdrawal of the philosophers from ethical questions left a gap that could no longer be filled by the divinity school. Questions of public ethical concern were increasingly the subject of the social sciences. But psychologists, sociologists, and economists often proclaimed their “value neutrality.” (That was, to a degree, what made their pronouncements credible: they offered guides to living in the guise of technical, objective, scientific information.) And so when someone had to speak up for values the literature faculty increasingly took up the slack.
It did not always do so comfortably. As the literary scholar John Guillory has observed, modern English departments represent the confluence of two nineteenth-century traditions: belles-lettres and philology. The scientific aspirations of the latter discipline gave rise to an emphasis on interpretative method and theoretical speculation. That focus on literature's mechanics—the medium rather than the message—now goes by the name of “literary theory.” But these theorists never had the field to themselves; the spirit of moralism in academic literary criticism has a long pedigree in twentieth-century America, ranging across the continent, and alphabet, from Irving Babbit to Yvor Winters. And in the postwar period, as the United States assumed more confidently its global leadership, a professor of English like Lionel Trilling could speak for American values, for liberalism and democracy, and find them embedded, already waiting for us, in the high literary canon. The tone was that of a (progressive) gentleman's club; the signature color was tweed.
Today's academic moralism in the humanities sounds rather different. In the Sixties and Seventies of the last century, the liberation movements of blacks, women, and homosexuals often found their voice in literary work; this social fervor crossed the threshold of the English department just as the numbers of blacks, women, and open homosexuals increased at universities that had once been citadels of white and male privilege. The genteel cadences of old did not survive the resulting culture wars, for the liberationists aimed to dismantle the ethical consensus that earlier critics had assumed: Trilling's magisterial “we,” once meant to conjure a moral community, came to be deplored as a blithe “exclusion of difference.” “Essentialism” began as a word for criticizing anyone who assumed that all X's shared the same characteristics. And so, at the turn of the Eighties, the word was first used against nationalists of various sorts and women. There were black and Jewish essentialists, feminist essentialists, lesbian essentialists.
At the same time, in an ironic twist, “essentialist humanism” became a key term of opprobrium, an accusation flung at anyone who did not insist that society had created important differences between men and women, black and white, gay and straight, rich and poor, or who did not accept that those differences undermined the assumption of a shared humanity in the humanities. Now you could be an essentialist both for saying that people were different and for saying that they were the same. The result was to change not just the subject matter but the rhetorical tenor of academic criticism. Trilling, though he might have rejected William K. Wimsatt's approach to literature—which was text-centered and showed no interest in the author's psychological processes—would not for this reason have thought Wimsatt wicked. But if African-American literary criticism was an adjunct of Black Liberation—which, as a matter of dignity and justice, was obviously a business of the highest moral importance—then academic disagreements could easily spill over into conflicts more vulgarly political; and the dissemination of intellectual error might not only undermine the movement, it might also reflect bad character.
Of course, it wasn't the liberation movements that made literary study contentious. When Harold Bloom urged us to trace literary influences not as the transmission of tradition, the cultivation of a precious heritage, but as an Oedipal struggle of the sons against the fathers, his Freudian allegory was offered as an account of relations among poets. But one might be forgiven for suspecting that the idea came not from communing with the souls of Wordsworth and Blake but from Bloom's own experience of the struggle for existence in the groves of academe. Shelley may not have been battling Milton, but Harold Bloom, the author of Shelley's Mythmaking, was certainly battling Earl Wasserman, the author of Shelley: A Critical Reading. Individuality in scholarship, as in life, begins with defining yourself both within and against a tradition. What the new context added was the increasing moralization of the process of definition. Since academic generations always define themselves by resisting the interpretations of their predecessors, the moralization of intellectual differences (this is not just a point about the English department) was bound to lead to trouble.2
As you will have noticed, the alliance of liberation movements and literary study hasn't made criticism politically potent or politics critically informed: the revival of Zora Neale Hurston hasn't altered wage inequities; nor is her name one to conjure with in the primaries even of her native Florida. But this alliance did bring the conduct of literary scholars under minute “political” scrutiny, at least in the classroom, the conference, and the critical essay. It has raised the heat of literary debate, without always shedding more light. And the feminist shibboleth that the personal is the political—or perhaps one ought to say a particular construal of that shibboleth—has made the personal conduct of critics fair game for interpretation and “critique.”
I once attended a conference on postcolonial criticism at which one of the speakers mistakenly addressed a young African professor as a graduate student and then left the conference early to catch a plane home. Both of these things were surely, at worst, lapses of manners: and yet the incident led to the publication of densely theoretical, fiercely denunciatory essays among the speaker's fellow third world, poststructural, and Marxian theorists. It isn't easy, in such a setting, to distinguish the ad feminam from the substantive objection. Literature may not be, as Matthew Arnold thought, the “criticism of life,” but literary scholarship is, often enough, the criticism of critics.
In 1979, Professors Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar published The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, a work that shaped profoundly the then burgeoning field of feminist literary scholarship.3 Ever since, this book has appeared regularly on reading lists in courses in departments of English around the country. It was not a work of high theory, but one of literary interpretation and textual recovery: it discussed a wide selection of nineteenth-century novelists and their critical reception, among them Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Gertrude Stein. Some of them, such as Edith Wharton, were criticized for their criticism of the work of other women writers. Beginning in 1988, Gilbert and Gubar published three further volumes that continued this work into the twentieth century; and, in 1985, they published the first edition of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English, a work that helped shape, willy-nilly, a canon of women's writing for the next generation of students of English.
These books were feminist in aim, intention, and self-description. And part of their literary energy came from the fact that they were envisaged as part of the project of combating patriarchy and building a new feminist consciousness, especially for the young women in the classes where they were (and are) so widely used. In their 1979 opus, Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert castigated Harold Bloom for the ostensibly masculine bias of his account of literary relations—a man might attack his literary paterfamilias, but the literary relations among women, we were assured, were far more supportive. Far from seeking to overthrow their literary forebears, women writers were seeking a literary community; and the enemy was patriarchy, not their foremothers.
Despite their own experience of successful feminist collaboration, the response to their scholarly undertaking hardly confirmed this happy conviction. In later years, Susan Gubar writes, she has found herself (as part of “that curious entity called ‘Gilbert and Gubar’”) lambasted by various “insurgent” critics for various purported sins: she was “essentialist,” didn't sufficiently acknowledge black women or lesbians, failed to keep pace with high theory—the list was no doubt long. (For example, it was pointed out that “Gilbert and Gubar” had made nothing of the fact that the madwoman in the attic of their title—Bertha Mason in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre—was a Jamaican Creole.) To judge from her new book, Critical Condition: Feminism at the Turn of the Century, the experience has been demoralizing. The field of feminist criticism—a field she did much to establish—is now, she tells us, cluttered with alienating jargon and riven by divisive identity politics.
Critical Condition has its origins in an episode that is sketched—I use this word advisedly—in the book's introduction. At some time (she does not say when) Professor Gubar was “a candidate for a senior position at a school to remain nameless.” Informed by the chairman of the department that there was a risk that her appointment would be opposed by some of his more conservative senior colleagues—and assuming, as one gathers, that she could count on the support of the younger feminists—she gave a talk entitled “Who Killed Feminist Criticism?” in which she referred to some of the ideas of the critics who had attacked her. The talk, she tells us, cost her the job. And the opposition came not from the right but from the left. The visiting feminist progressive found herself condemned, astonishingly, as a troglodyte, perhaps even a racist. When she arrived she was Kate Millett; when she departed, John Rocker.
A final version of this talk is printed toward the end of the book as “What Ails Feminist Criticism?” (Dr. Gubar has, on sober reflection, taken the unusual step of moving the patient from the morgue back to the ICU.) She admits that the original paper was “probably written in too bellicose a manner.” But if it was anything like the essay in this volume, it was its subject, not its tone, that was bound to cause trouble, and for at least two reasons. First, in considering feminist criticism, she objected (as she puts it here in the introduction) to “what Toni Morrison calls ‘the calcified language of the academy.’” This confirmed the opinion of those who thought her insufficiently theoretical; since, if you object to academic language, it is often assumed that this is because you—unlike your more savvy colleagues—have a hard time understanding it.
But worse was to come; for Gubar also criticized “certain sponsors of African-American, postcolonial, and poststructuralist studies” for “subverting the term ‘woman’ that feminism needs to assure its political agency.”4 That is, she argued (to uncalcify the language a bit) that often, in the struggle for justice, what you need to insist on is not what divides women but what they have in common. Since what divides women, as she argued, was insistence on their differences, she could be pigeonholed by her critics with those essentialists who are allegedly hostile to women of color and lesbians. The effect of her remarks was thus only to confirm the worst suspicions of her detractors. A quondam insurgent critic fell victim to a new insurgency.
What Gubar had done was to respond to the major criticisms of her earlier work in the natural way: by attacking the works of her critics. The effect was only to inflame them. Given the new moralism, this led not just to vigorous disagreement but also to assaults upon her character. She did not give up: she read versions of the paper on several other occasions around the country and finally published it (in 1998) in Critical Inquiry, which is about the most visible journal in literary studies. After the response she reports, this was either courageous persistence or evidence of masochism.
Clearly Susan Gubar believes that her dogged criticism of the new insurgency has left her with a reputation (if only in some soi-disant bien-pensant—or at least soi-pensant bien-disant—quarters) as an essentialist and a reactionary. So her new book is both apology and apologia—or, to put it another way, it is an act of what's known, on Madison Avenue, as “positioning.” The opening chapters feature sympathetic discussions of African-American art (the quilts of Faith Ringgold, the conceptual art of Adrian Piper, the performances of Anna Deavere Smith); lesbian literature (the poetry of Marilyn Hacker and the “astonishingly diverse productions” of Jeannette Winterson); and her discovery of her own “inner ethnic” as she explores the relations of Judaism and feminism.
Each of these essays is a concession to “difference”: to the recognition that women are, after all, not all the same. If, as the critics alleged, when “Gilbert and Gubar” wrote “woman” what they had unconsciously assumed was a female heterosexual of the white middle classes, then displaying the range of her interest in women who were neither straight nor white would seem to be a suitable act of clarification, if not atonement. At the very least, as Professor Gubar writes in the book's introduction, she hopes that her “positive engagement with the insights of African-American, postcolonial, and poststructuralist thinkers in what are now the opening chapters” will “free me from the allegation that I had dismissed or calumniated their labors.” This book is driven by something other than the ordinary academic worry that one might be in error; it is, so to speak, Susan Gubar's soul, not her mind, that seems to be up for judgment.
Well, I, for one, am happy to acknowledge the essential goodness of Professor Gubar's soul.5 The question is why she has ended up having to defend herself before a tribunal that is largely unseen and unnamed. Discriminating between what is and isn't worthwhile is the purpose of intellectual judgment. Why, then, could she not criticize her critics without having her character impugned? The answer is, in part, that the intertwining of academic and social agendas has given rise to an outlandish rhetorical inflation, a storming-of-the-Bastille bombast brought to bear on theoretical niceties. Individuals get taken for kinds: a particular third world literary feminist theorist comes to represent all women of color. Not teaching Jeannette Winterson is taken to mean excluding her from the canon, which is easily inflated into excluding lesbians from it; and soon we have unqualified talk of the “exclusion” of lesbians—or gays or blacks—which sounds as though you're keeping them out of the class, or the university, or running them out of the neighborhood. This is indeed moralism; but it is moralism run amok.
There is, to be sure, an argument lurking in the background here: it is that literal exclusion somehow stems from literary exclusion. Or, to speak more precisely, that much of the oppression in the world is the result of speaking and writing and thinking about people in the wrong way. If all men thought about women in the right way, fewer men would beat up their wives. I believe this is a truth, even a truism. But there remains a difference between thinking ill of a black woman's critical writings and thinking ill of her or of all black women. And there is yet a further distinction between thinking or speaking ill of people and beating them up. The point is that not every intellectual error about women—or blacks or lesbians—is as harmful as every other. Once you conflate errors of these different orders, you end up dissipating energy in pointless skirmishes while the vital battles are being lost all around you.
In her introduction, Susan Gubar worries that many women undergraduates today “do not define feminism as equity for women or an awareness of the social construction of gender or reproductive control or political agitation for the ending of sexual violence.” Presumably these young women would be happy to identify with feminism if they did define it as “equity for women” and the like; and one is therefore inclined to ask why they do not. Professor Gubar suggests that at least part of the explanation has to do with the nature of recent feminist debates: what she describes as “mind-numbing battles in which so-called social constructionists faulted so-called essentialists for their naive totalizing, feminists of color blamed white scholars for their racism, lesbian critics accused straight thinkers of homophobia.” Perhaps, if academic disputation looks to her students as it does to Professor Gubar, being a feminist doesn't seem like much fun.6
Neither, I suspect, does being a literary critic. In the last few decades, as countless cultural theories have jostled and collided, as the concept of literature itself has been relentlessly “interrogated,” academic criticism—which is to say, literary scholarship and interpretation for its own sake and its own satisfactions—has lost a sense of cultural purpose. Accordingly, critics have increasingly turned to writing about each other. (“Garbage is garbage,” a well-known philosopher used to say, “but the history of garbage is scholarship.”) This soon becomes something of a tar pit: Susan Gubar's new book is, in no small part, criticism about criticism of criticism. Which, I suppose, means that what you're now reading is criticism of criticism about criticism of criticism. I'm sorry: it's just the spirit of the times.
Susan Gubar, it must be said, is clearly interested in literature as well as committed to political feminism. The book she's produced, however, tells us less about literature than about the social tensions in her profession at the end of the twentieth century. There is even a chapter, entitled “The Graying of Professor Erma Bombeck,” devoted in part to discussing the personal and professional relations of older and younger women scholars. Such matters, I have come to feel, are probably better handled by practitioners than by critics of narrative: one finishes her book convinced that the most interesting version of l'affaire Gubar would be a novel by David Lodge, or Molly Hite.7 (Or Philip Roth, whose forthcoming novel, The Human Stain, has much to say about the literary academy today.)
And, despite the generality of the reference to feminism in the book's subtitle, it is actually largely about literary feminism within the academy; which is, as Susan Gubar says in her introduction, “less an activist, more a scholarly enterprise.” A review of her book is not, therefore, the place to discuss whether feminism outside the literary academy is dead, let alone ailing. But so far as the literary academy goes, my sense is that the heyday of the sort of Mau-Mauing to which Professor Gubar was subjected has passed, not just in feminist debates but also in those about race and sexuality as well. “Identity politics” has fallen into bad odor, at least among many members of university faculties (which does not guarantee, of course, that you recognize it when you do it yourself). Theory for its own sake, too, has lost some of its luster, another small victory for the spirit of belles-lettres in its apparently endless struggle with philology. Indeed, mirabile dictu, there are more and more literary critics—feminist and otherwise—who actually devote themselves to … literature. Susan Gubar's field may well be in a “critical condition,” but there are signs that it is on the mend.
This process is described and lamented in Cornel West's American Evasion of Philosophy (University of Wisconsin Press, 1989). It's perhaps worth observing that, with John Rawls's A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press, 1979), ethics once more assumed a place of honor in professional American philosophy, and that philosophers of distinction have increasingly addressed not only moral theory—which can be as dense and difficult as the most abstruse metaphysics—but also practical ethics.
The struggle to overthrow the theories of one's predecessors is central, if in very different ways, to the natural sciences as well—at least, if either Karl Popper or Thomas Kuhn (who agree in this, if in little else) is to be believed. But what is at stake is not usually moralized in the natural sciences.
Reviewed in these pages by Helen Vendler. See The New York Review, May 31, 1990.
It is, in this context, a none-too-subtle reframing of the original talk—which did not mention Morrison—to put the first complaint into the mouth of the best-known living black woman writer.
This is probably the place to admit that her first chapter has an epigraph from an essay of mine; though, alas, the suggestions she quotes were glossed by me—in a phrase she does not cite—as “the proposals of a banal postmodernism.”
It occurs to me that if these young women accept what Susan Gubar sees as feminism's goals, while rejecting the label, this might be accounted not a defeat but a victory.
This is something Gilbert and Gubar plainly know: their main joint work of the 1990s was Masterpiece Theatre: An Academic Melodrama (Rutgers University Press, 1995).