Madwoman in the Attic

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Madwoman in the Attic

Madwoman in the Attic (1979), Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's critical study of British and American nineteenth-century women's literature, attempts to define a "distinctively female literary tradition." The authors also try to unearth significant women's literature and rescue previously disregarded women's history. Gilbert and Gubar's analysis of authors such as Jane Austen, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Mary Shelley, and Emily Dickinson signals a shift in literary studies from examining how male authors write female characters toward a definition of female authorship, or how women authors construct female characters. Gilbert and Gubar take into account the cultural and political climate in which those authors wrote as well as the texts that those authors read. With those issues in mind, Gilbert and Gubar explore "images of enclosure and escape, fantasies in which maddened doubles function as asocial surrogates for docile selves, [and] obsessive depictions of diseases like anorexia, agoraphobia, and claustrophobia" (Gilbert and Gubar 1979, p. XI). In some ways, Gilbert and Gubar contend, the trapped position of female authors within patriarchal literary constructs manifests itself in the literal and metaphorical enclosures about which many of them wrote.

The title of the book refers to the character Bertha Rochester in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), who not only suffers from madness but also serves as a double for the character of Jane. Gilbert and Gubar contend that Jane's central confrontation of the text is not with Mr. Rochester but with Bertha and her manifestation of Jane's emotions. In Jane's coming-of-age journey, she must face oppression, starvation, madness, and coldness at each of the estates in which she lives and works. At Thornfield, Jane meets her "dark double" Bertha, who acts out Jane's feelings of "rebellion and rage." Bertha is the only true "madwoman in the attic" in Gilbert and Gubar's critical study.

Moreover, the authors explore the figure of the madwoman as a double in writings by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge and George Eliot, for example, to demonstrate how nineteenth-century women writers and poets employed mirrors to create the madwoman. These madwomen emerge "over and over again from the mirrors women writers hold up both to their own natures and to their own visions of nature," and they appear "from a silence in which neither [they] nor [their] author[s] can continue to acquiesce" (Gilbert and Gubar 1979, p. 77). The figure of the mirrored madwoman signifies a strategy authors and poets such as Mary Shelley and Emily Dickinson utilized to represent themselves as split or, more specifically, deploying a "female schizophrenia of authorship." This approach also prefigures authors such as Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, and Sylvia Plath, who divide and project themselves onto particular characters.

This groundbreaking book on women's literature drew on work by historians such as Gerda Lerner, Alice Rossi, Ann Douglas, and Martha Vicinus as well as literary-cultural studies conducted by Ellen Moers (Literary Women) and Elaine Showalter (A Literature of Their Own). Gilbert and Gubar's study elicited a range of responses from feminist, literary, and historical critics, who have worked to expand the field of women's literary studies.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brontë, Charlotte. 1847. Jane Eyre. Repr., New York: Signet, 1982.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. 1979. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Moers, Ellen. 1985. Literary Women. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Showalter, Elaine. 1977. A Literature of Their Own. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

                                           Michelle Parke