“It would not be too much to say that Anglo-American feminist criticism barely existed before [Gilbert and Gubar] rocked literary studies.”
Deborah D. Rogers, The Times Higher Education.
In 1979, Susan Gubar and Sandra M. Gilbert published The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, a hallmark of second-wave feminist criticism. Over 700 pages long, The Madwoman in the Attic presents an analysis of a trope found in 19th-century literature. Gilbert and Gubar proposed that all female characters in male-authored novels can be categorised as either an angel or a monster; women in fiction were either pure and submissive or sensual, rebellious, and uncontrollable (very undesirable qualities in a Victorian daughter/mother/wife).
In their book, Gilbert and Gubar discuss the angel/monster trope in novels written by women, covering the works of Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, and the Brontës. They claim that 19th-century female writers carried a lot of rage and frustration about the misogynistic world they lived in and the predominantly male literary tradition they tried to enter, and that this gender-specific frustration influenced these writers’ creative output. According to Gilbert and Gubar, their rage was often shown through the figure of the mad woman. They conclude by urging female writers to break out of this patriarchal dichotomy and not to let themselves be limited by its impositions.
The title of the book is derived from Jane Eyre‘s Bertha Mason, who is locked away by her husband Mr Rochester in the attic of Thornfield Hall. She is an ominous character, full of uncontrollable passion, violence, sensuality, and madness, almost bestial in her behaviour.
In the deep shade, at the farther end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.
Bertha acts as a foil for Jane’s pure, calm, and controlled nature. However, one could argue that the lines between angel and monster are blurred and that Bertha is not Jane’s opposite, but her double. The two women are more similar than initially meets the eye: Jane possesses some of Bertha’s passion and rebelliousness, acting out as a child and refusing to submit to a position of inferiority to the men in her life.
The Madwoman in the Attic was revolutionary because Gilbert and Gubar showed that literature written by women is not an anomaly, but that there is, in fact, a distinct female literary tradition to be found. After the book’s publication, there was a new wave of appreciation for works by female writers, and, consequently, works that had faded away into oblivion were once again being read and their significance recognised. It has since been criticised more and more in recent years (at times rightly so, but keep in mind that it was written in the seventies!), but there is no denying that this is a foundational work, not only for feminism, but for all of literary theory.
N.B. The angel/monster dichotomy still exists, albeit in a slightly different form: the Madonna/Whore Complex (warning: once you’ve read up on this, you will see it everywhere you go.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) – review here.
This book tells the story of Bertha Mason from her point of view, starting with her childhood in Jamaica.
Woolf, Virginia. “Professions for Women” (1931, can be found in the collection The Crowded Dance of Modern Life).
In this lecture, Virginia Woolf talks about how ‘the angel in the house’ would interfere with her writing, and how she chose to kill it, thus freeing herself from the angel/monster dichotomy.