- Gilbert & Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic After Thirty Years
The Madwoman in the Attic (1979) was one of the three most transformative works of American literary criticism of the late twentieth century. Along with Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) and Eve Sedgwick's Between Men (1985), Madwoman introduced a revolutionary way of reading and radically expanded the textual field of nineteenth-and twentieth-century literature for students and scholars. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar did for feminist literary criticism what Said did for postcolonial writing and Sedgwick did for gay studies—introduced a terminology, a methodology, and a theory. Of course, some reviewers sniped that the readings "seemed extravagant or too insistent" (3), some postfeminists loftily criticized Gilbert and Gubar's "naïve liberalism" or ponderously griped about "their unwillingness to interrogate assumptions about a grounded female subject" (9). Some postcolonialists complained about the absence of minority or third world women writers.
But any great work of criticism that introduces genuinely fresh ideas will attract critics. Madwoman was pathbreaking, especially so (as with Said and Sedgwick) for Victorian studies and the Victorian novel. Gilbert and Gubar, moreover, were entrepreneurial and productive scholars who went on to write two more hefty volumes of feminist criticism, later consolidating their discoveries by editing the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1985). Like the great Hollywood studio owners who also established their own chains of movie theatres, Gilbert and Gubar became the moguls of feminist criticism.
This anthology celebrating their achievement includes thirteen essays: stimulating overviews by Susan Fraiman and Marlene Tromp and insightful chapters on Milton studies (Carol Blessing), Mary Shelley (Katey Castellano), the Brontës (Madeline Wood, Narin Hassan, Danielle Russell, and Hila Shachar), Louisa May Alcott (Karen Fite), sensationalism and Charlotte Yonge (Tamara Silvia Wagner), the female gothic (Carol Margaret Davison), Elizabeth Gaskell (Thomas P. Fair), and Emily Dickinson (Lucia Aiello), plus a useful introduction by editor Annette R. Federico and a foreword by Gilbert. The madwoman pictured on the cover seems rather alarmingly aged, more sibyl than seductress; but the book makes clear that the ideas of Gilbert and Gubar remain as fresh and invigorating as ever.
Federico got the idea for the collection while teaching a seminar on the Brontës, and the prominence of Jane Eyre (1847) and Wuthering Heights (1847) in her collection shows how much the Brontës displaced George Eliot for her generation of scholars as the key female Victorian novelists. Her idea was to "recognize and honor Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's contributions to feminist criticism and to nineteenth-and twentieth-century literature" (3). Thus the book is primarily a study of [End Page 715] the influence and impact of Madwoman rather than an analysis of the text itself. Some contributors demonstrate the importance of Gilbert and Gubar's subjects to the canonical fields of English literary studies; others apply the theories and methods of Madwoman to Victorian writers Gilbert and Gubar do not discuss, such as Gaskell and Yonge.
Federico also observes that much of the power of Madwoman "had to do with Gilbert and Gubar's style" (12), their use of metaphors, interwoven images and quotations, and arresting phrases, including their famous opening question, "Is the pen a metaphorical penis?" (qtd. in Federico 9). Although it is always worthwhile to have critical essays, I wish the other contributors had said more about the rich, dense, and unmistakable prose style of Gilbert and Gubar. How has the style and form of feminist criticism been influenced by their trademark series of epigraphs, usually three to four per chapter; their alliterations and catch-phrases (for example, "patriarchal poetics" [qtd. in Federico 12], "gender and genre" , "anxiety of authorship" [qtd. in Federico 2]); their lists and end-rhymes, such as "anorexia, agoraphobia, and claustrophobia" (Gilbert and Gubar, Madwoman in the Attic [Yale University Press, 2000], xi); their parallelisms, chiasmas, and word-deconstructions ("dis-ease" [qtd. in Federico x])? Gilbert...