- The Madwoman in the Attic’s Legacy
Annette R. Federico, ed. Gilbert and Gubar’s “The Madwoman in the Attic” After Thirty Years. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2009. ix + 272 pp. $42.50
This collection of essays offers a comprehensive and thoughtful survey of the influence of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s groundbreaking work of feminist literary criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic. Despite her admiration for Gilbert and Gubar’s work, Annette Federico has resisted the urge to eulogize her subjects and, instead, pays them a far greater tribute by allowing the exciting and often contentious conversation begun in 1979 to continue. The thirteen contributors to this collection are in no way an uncritical fan club, and while many of the essays extend or even defend the argument of The Madwoman in the Attic, several of the best essays question Gilbert and Gubar’s methods, interpretations, and legacy. The Madwoman in the Attic was written to challenge patriarchal myths about authorship and women’s writing, but as one contributor to this collection observes, its critical paradigm has acquired a mythical status of its own. Not only has it helped remake the canon, but its readings of some texts are now themselves canonical. If we have learned anything from Gilbert and Gubar’s work, we know that myths—even those produced in response to more pernicious myths—need to be interrogated.
Federico’s collection does a good job of balancing familiar criticisms of The Madwoman in the Attic with new questions and concerns. In “Jane Eyre’s Doubles? Colonial Progress and the Tradition of New Woman Writing in India,” Narin Hassan mounts an interesting alternative to Gayatri Spivak’s postcolonial critique. While Spivak argues that Gilbert and Gubar’s use of Bertha Mason reproduces patriarchal power [End Page 111] by silencing the native “other,” Hassan asserts that their attention to themes of enclosure and agency can help us see how Indian women writers adapted the tropes of English novels to frame questions about “identity and native subjectivity.” Danielle Russell also considers race in one of the collection’s most surprising essays, “Revisiting the Attic: Recognizing the Shared Spaces of Jane Eyre and Beloved.” Rather than take sides in the debate that has surrounded The Madwoman in the Attic’s treatment of identity politics, Russell argues that “permitting one aspect of identity to dominate to the exclusion of others proves to be a trap.” So even as she reads Jane Eyre and The Madwoman in the Attic through the lens of Toni Morrison’s “Playing in the Dark,” she also demonstrates how Gilbert and Gubar’s attention to gender and enclosed spaces can produce valuable insights to Morrison’s Beloved.
While these essays attest to The Madwoman in the Attic’s enduring usefulness, several others focus on the limits of the madwoman paradigm. Keren Fite pushes back against madwoman-inspired readings of Louisa May Alcott’s work, arguing that Gilbert and Gubar’s particular myth of female authorship obscures Alcott’s complex revision of the Romantic model of poetic genius. And in “Mimesis and Poiesis: Reflections on Gilbert and Gubar’s Reading of Emily Dickinson,” Lucia Aiello questions the readings produced by Gilbert and Gubar’s mostly narrative approach to the poems. Still other critics draw attention to women writers ignored by Gilbert and Gubar to reveal alternative models and readings. Thomas Fair’s “Elizabeth Gaskell: A Well-Tempered Madness” suggests that “Gaskell often balances … a rebellious individual with a conventional figure” and that her heroines “should be read as an imperative alternative to the oppressed and enraged madwoman.” In “Sensationalizing Women’s Writing: Madwomen in Attics, the Sensational Canon, and Generic Confinement,” Tamara Silvia Wagner suggests that Gilbert and Gubar’s emphasis on rebellious heroines and the consequent surge in attention to sensation fiction has served to marginalize “conservative” writers such as Charlotte Yonge. And Carol Margaret Davison traces the book’s subversive female plot back to eighteenth-century women writers such as Anne Radcliffe in “Ghosts in the Attic: Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic and the Female Gothic.”
This collection succeeds at including a wide range of women writers and texts...