Sunday, February 17, 2008

Book: The Madwoman in the Attic

The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar


This so-called classic of feminist literary criticism has been sitting on my shelf for a while now (I actually started it on the plane to London but of course was way too busy to do any reading for the rest of the trip; after that I was trying to spend time with people before deploying).  I figured now was as a good time as any to give it another shot.  Even though the book was very accessibly written, the idea of reading over six hundred pages of literary criticism still seemed slightly daunting.


The book works best when analyzing individual works.  In Part I, Gilbert and Gubar discuss the idea of authorship and literary tradition and how women have been excluded from it.  They address the internal conflict women authors must have felt writing in a society where women were supposed to be submissive, and how the very act of writing was a challenge to their gender roles.  As a result, many of these women felt a certain type of anger that is hidden within their work and behind their declarations that theirs is but a lowly attempt at the pen, and shouldn't be considered a real work of art.  This section also contains an interesting discussion of the fairy tale "Snow White."  At some points, they seem to go overboard: they discuss the use of caves in women's work, and it's almost as if they find every single reference to a cave in any woman's work to prove their point.  Of course, this was one of the earliest works of feminist literary criticism, so they may have felt they had more to prove, and therefore went above and beyond to argue the existence of a woman's literary tradition.  Due to this, it occasionally felt like they were trying too hard to make everything fit (every time a cave appears, it means this etc.) but it is an understandable flaw given the book's background and timing.


The next five parts of the book deal with different topics and authors.  I enjoyed the discussion of Austen a lot, but I wouldn't have had a problem if they had expanded it some.  They devoted two chapters to Austen while each of Charlotte Brontë's novel had a chapter of its own.  Granted, Austen's novels deal with the same themes in similar ways, but they still could have talked about them more.  Considering that the book gets it title from Jane Eyre, it is only fitting that Gilbert and Gubar would spend the largest amount of time discussing Brontë's work.  Other chapters focus on the works of Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot and Emily Dickinson.


One of the interesting topics that repeats itself throughout the chapters is the use of doubles.  They are especially prominent in C. Brontë's fiction, but many of the chapter discuss how the authors used different characters to portray different options as well as how in some cases, one character acts out the secret desires and rage of the proper heroine (such as Jane Eyre and Bertha Rochester).  I enjoyed the discussion of Shelley's Frankenstein a lot, and I hadn't realized the influence that Paradise Lost had had on it (I've never read Frankenstein, and only sections of Milton - should probably change that soon).


Based in the biographical description of Eliot, it seemed like she was the most conflicted of all the authors.  At least from what Gilbert and Gubar write, she appears to have most wanted to fit into the mold of the good, proper woman, and had the strongest need for male approval (another theme discussed throughout the book - daughters as their father's helpers in emulation of Milton and his daughters), and yet her life (other than Mary Shelley) fit into that idea the least.  She spent a good part of her life involved with a married man, after all, while Austen and Dickinson were both spinsters (Dickinson was obviously the more eccentric of the two), and the Brontës died rather young with little scandal outside of the plots of their novels.  I'm kind of curious about one thing: the Brontës all wrote under an alias and yet when we speak of their novels, we speak of the Brontë sisters, and their actual names.  However, whenever Middlemarch and her other works are discussed, we still refer to them as George Eliot's, which was a pseudonym for Marian Evans, instead of her real name.  Why is that?  Is it part of Eliot's own conflict and desire to be a proper woman that continues to keep her work separate from Marian Evans?


While Gilbert and Gubar are arguing for a cross-Atlantic woman's tradition of writing, they focus mainly on British authors with the exception of Emily Dickinson.  Still, they use American women writers throughout the different chapters to show similarities and parallels and to add to their discussions.  It was kind of interesting to hear about writings by Harriet Beecher Stowe that weren't Uncle Tom's Cabin (I hated that book).  There was one comment in their discussion of Uncle Tom's Cabin that bugged me, though: "the black woman dressed in white also illustrates the bond between all women who are enslaved by what Stowe has depicted as an overwhelmingly patriarchal slave economy" (534).  I just have a problem with the statement about how all women shared some type of bond within the slave system because as several books since have argued, there is no universal female experience.  White women in the slave system and black women in the slave system were not united in their misery, and in fact, white women participated in the system of oppression, directly and indirectly.  Obviously, white women didn't have much power compared to white men, but they had power over black men and women so the idea of a bond is a romantic and false idea of sisterhood.


I have a few other minor problems with the book.  As mentioned above, it could be more concise and still make the same point.  In some cases, Gilbert and Gubar assume too much of a familiarity on the part of the readers with 19th century literature.  For example, at one point they were referring to a few characters in passing, and I had no clue who they were talking to or what novel they came from, such as Lucy Gray and Geraldine (I was wondering if they were talking about a Charlotte Smith novel, but it didn't quite fit into the context).  Sometimes, these questions are cleared up in later chapters when they say Wordsworth's Lucy, and Coleridge's Geraldine, so part of the problem may also be that they didn't write the chapters in chronological order, and therefore didn't realize that they hadn't actually mentioned that text or character before.  Also, when they discussed Austen, I couldn't quite remember which minor character went with which novel when they were all quickly listed.  Other than that, my only other real issue is that there is no bibliography.  They have quite a few footnotes, but I still would have liked to see a complete bibliography in addition to the footnotes to see exactly what texts they used without having to search through all their notes.


After completing this book, I'm kind of thinking I need to give both the Brontës another shot because I've never been a big fan of either. I already ordered Villette so we'll see if that helps me share the love that Gilbert and Gubar obviously feel for Charlotte Brontë's work.

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