The Canon: The Madwoman in the Attic

August 20, 2009

The Madwoman in the Attic By Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar

During the late 1970s at Columbia University, we used to play a game called Humiliation. Would-be scholars racked up points by confessing which works of literature they had not read. Most of us scored by knowing few female authors. By winning, however, we were losing a great deal.

Enter Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. It would not be too much to say that Anglo-American feminist criticism barely existed before they rocked literary studies. Still in print on its 30th anniversary, their iconic Madwoman in the Attic (1979) continues to occupy a seat at the table.

The trope that governs this massive (700-page) analysis of 19th-century literature by women invokes Jane Eyre, where Rochester's crazy-mad wife is locked in the attic of Thornfield Hall. At once Jane's foil and double, this figure represents Charlotte Bronte's repressed anger.

Through stunning interpretations that still resonate, Gilbert and Gubar analyse images of female characters in their restricting historical, economic, social and cultural context. Assuming the influence of gender on creativity and on the anxiety of authorship, they make their classic argument (a hallmark of second-wave feminist criticism) that 19th-century female writers bridled against misogyny and submerged their rage beneath orthodox male formulas. As if to (you should forgive the expression) raise consciousness (after all, this was the 1970s), they uncover and foreground this female subtext.

Their fatwa distinguishes a distinctly female (Eurocentric) literary tradition and debunks the myth of female inferiority. Never entirely superseded, The Madwoman formed the basis for later feminist criticism, which would go on to include French theory and to address variations in race, religion, nationality and sexual preference.

Gilbert and Gubar for ever changed the way we read. But they did more than that. Although they themselves may have focused on Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, the Brontes, George Eliot and Emily Dickinson, their consideration of literature by women as something more than an anomaly launched the effort to reclaim significant but forgotten works by other female authors.

Influenced by The Madwoman to rescue from oblivion important works by 18th-century female writers, Dale Spender has argued that the lack of an acknowledged female literary tradition, which constitutes "the symbolic meanings and understandings of half of humanity", erodes women's confidence to the point that "if women were indeed without a great literary tradition much could be said for the advisability of inventing one, for the positive influence it could provide for women and women's literary endeavours".

Thanks to works such as The Madwoman, students today may be more likely to win at Humiliation by not having read Tobias Smollett than by not having read Ann Radcliffe. For this reason, some argue that ghettoising female authors is no longer necessary to counteract their marginalisation. For them, the time has come for a more integrative history of literature. But, echoing my children's complaints on long drives, I can't help but ask: "Are we there yet?"

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