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Angels and Monsters of Feminist Fiction

ISSUE:  Spring 1981
The Madwoman in the Attic. The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Imagination. By Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Yale. $25.00.

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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