Lamenting a bygone discipline

Critical Condition
December 15, 2000

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic was a pioneering study of feminist literary criticism when first published in 1979. It was also the only critical text I shelled out money for as a penniless undergraduate because the library copy was always on loan. The madwoman of the title is Bertha Mason, Rochester's imprisoned wife in Jane Eyre , who, to the authors, represented Jane's alter ego, able to express the passions that Jane could not. Madwoman divided critics upon publication, and, since then, Gilbert and Gubar have been subjected to hostile criticism. One of the most famous responses was Gayatri Spivak's 1985 essay, which pointed out the blind spot in Gilbert and Gubar's depiction of Bertha Mason: they ignored the fact that Bertha was a Jamaican Creole, and therefore left out of their account the ways that British imperialism and racism afforded privileges to white women. Gilbert and Gubar have since been accused of ignoring the distinctions among women of different races, classes and nationalities by a range of feminist critics.

As if still looking over her shoulder at these early critics, Gubar celebrates in her new book the many types of womanhood, although these are predominantly middle-class variations. Her range extends from African-American women artists to lesbian creative writers, from Jewish feminists to tenured female professors. This is a dense book and it is not always easy to follow: its style and focus mean it is strictly for the academy. The essay on feminist misogyny is closest to the criticism of Madwoman , tracing a line of anxiety from Mary Wollstonecraft down to Luce Irigaray.

Possibly the most irritating chapter in the book bemoans the plight of the female professor: "Tenured female professors today are expected to be able to interrupt research for teaching, teaching for service activities, and all these for various domestic exertions." Gubar seems to have forgotten that male professors have to do this too and are similarly penalised and frustrated by the tenure system.

So what is the future of feminist criticism? Right now, Gubar suggests, things are falling apart. There is division among the critics and new fields are developing and diversifying, resulting in a dispersal of feminist studies. She looks on the bright side though, likening the break-up to a supernova: "When a star explodes, a 'new' star appears in the sky." What Gubar does not mention, although it is in the subtext of a book that reads like a lament, is that the new star that follows is not as bright as the old one.

Eleanor Birne works in academic publishing.

Critical Condition: Feminism at the Turn of the Century

Author - Susan Gubar
ISBN - 0 231 11580 6
Publisher - Columbia University Press
Price - £16.00
Pages - 237

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