Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar

The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination forges a ground-breaking contribution to feminist literary criticism. In this study, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue for the existence of a distinctly female literary imagination in women writers of nineteenth-century. Their landmark study has influenced how we read women writers ever since. 

Gilbert and Gubar systematically deconstruct the obstacles women authors faced and how their struggles are manifested in their works, beginning with the fundamental perception that literary authorship was perceived as an exclusively male activity, a patriarchal endeavor, bestowing ownership and authority on the work. As such, it not only excluded women from authorship, it asserted that women who were authors defied their essential nature, i.e. they were being “unfeminine.” Unlike their male counterparts who suffered from an “anxiety of influence,” women authors suffered from an “anxiety of authorship.”

Among the many patriarchal constructs inhibiting women’s writing were the stereotypical depictions of her as either angel or monster; the circumscribed space she was forced to inhabit in society; her limited sphere of permissible activities; the plethora of literary texts saturated with male hegemony and female subordination; the misogyny of Milton’s Paradise Lost; the trap of “feminine” roles in patriarchal homes; the deliberate malnourishment for her writing; the assumption of a vapid intellectual life; and the interiorization of her as Other.

Through their brilliant analysis of the writings of such authors as Jane Austen, Christina Rossetti, the Brontë sisters, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and through references to numerous others, Gilbert and Gubar demonstrate the strategies for artistic survival women developed to counteract these crippling constructs.

Comprehensive in scope, the study weaves the author’s biography with detailed textual analysis and discussion of her work to show how her thoughts evolved and in what ways and to what degree she was able to counteract patriarchal constructs. By interpreting the literature through the “mad woman” lens, Gilbert and Gubar open the literary work to subtleties and nuances, revealing sub-merged layers of meaning that may otherwise have been overlooked.

This is a fascinating study, a consummate tome of feminist literary criticism, and so well deserving of the high praise it has received. It is highly recommended as a valuable resource for students of Victorian women writers and for the readers who love to immerse themselves in the literary masterpieces they crafted.