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Gilbert and Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic After Thirty Years
University of Missouri PressCopyright © 2009 The Curators of the University of Missouri
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Chapter OneAfter Gilbert and Gubar
Madwomen Inspired by Madwoman
"Is a pen a metaphorical penis?" Thus begins Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic, with a first sentence only slightly less famous than that of Pride and Prejudice. This was, of course, back in the dark ages—long before it had become routine for literary critics to rehearse their childhoods or parse their eroticism in public. Thirty years ago, to say "penis" in print was rather daring. Gilbert and Gubar might well have called upon the dandified, Continental "phallus." Many would do so in the decade to come. But no—for them, only the plain-spoken, tell-it-like-it-is word "penis" would do. I begin here because I want to recall and to celebrate how audacious, original, and even profane Madwoman was at the time of its publication. This essay will reflect on the intervention Madwoman made in the late 1970s, on the influence it had on me and those of my generation throughout the '80s, on the ways it has been usefully critiqued and elaborated in subsequent years, and on its continuing pedagogical value in the training of graduate students today.
Early in their preface, Gilbert and Gubar refer to Charlotte Brontë as an "often under-appreciated nineteenth-century novelist." If this description takes us by surprise in 2009, when few novels are taught so frequently as Jane Eyre, it is in part thanks to Madwoman, whose focus on Brontë has helped to gain her a central place in accounts not only of women's writing but also of the British novel and the Victorian period. Without question, one of Madwoman's most lasting contributions has been to the sweaty project of tearing down and rebuilding the canon. By rereading works such as Jane Eyre and Frankenstein, Gilbert and Gubar made the familiar strange; by resurrecting works such as Brontë's The Professor and Shelley's The Last Man, they made the strange familiar. The result of their labors has been to heighten if not wholly redefine our appreciation for the likes of Charlotte Brontë and Mary Shelley, who can no longer be seen as secondary figures with an alarming tendency to stray from the path of realism. Beyond this, while overhauling the reputations of known women, Madwoman ranged widely and ever so casually over many more candidates for recovery, calling our attention to neglected nineteenth-century writers from Louisa May Alcott to Charlotte Mary Yonge. Indeed, six years before Gilbert and Gubar actually edited The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, the very Norton-esque heft of their first coauthored volume argued implicitly for the massiveness of women's contribution to the Anglo-American literary tradition.
This was hardly an argument with canonicity per se nor was it an attempt to look beyond the strictly literary at various popular women's genres. It was, on the other hand, far more than a polite effort simply to include great works by women according to existing criteria. Rather, at a time when a similar project was being undertaken by African Americanists, Gilbert and Gubar joined other American feminist critics in denaturalizing the canon—historicizing its formation, questioning its terms of inclusion, and starting a process that would quickly encourage a broader study of cultural forms. If D. A. Miller and Ann Cvetkovich would go on, for example, to raise our awareness of Victorian sensation novels, they were surely enabled to do so by Madwoman's prescient recuperation of a nineteenth-century thematics of secrets, insanity, and cruelty—pivoting on female figures. Gilbert and Gubar's revision began by contesting Harold Bloom's patrilineal theory of literary influence; from there they proceeded to a study of books by women, with the goal of saying how these are marked as well as linked by ideologies and strategies involving gender. In helping to formulate a woman-centered criticism, Gilbert and Gubar made several closely related assertions that would be fundamental to American gynocritics for the next ten years. These assertions are familiar to those of us whose training coincided with the emergence of feminist scholarship. Our students, however, do not take them for granted, and these days we ourselves may feel defensive and old teaching courses that even reference "women" in the title. So before I consider ways of updating such courses, I want to reiterate and affirm a few of the assumptions that made them possible.
First, that literary production is inextricable from social conditions and that these are structured in part by gender. Texts by women, constrained by and contributing to notions of the feminine in a particular context, share certain features and differ in some though not all ways from texts by men. It is the job of a feminist poetics to collate and affiliate works by women in order to make visible and to value this difference. Along with Elaine Showalter, Deborah McDowell, Nancy Miller, and a great many others, Gilbert and Gubar endeavored, in short, to explore the culturally constructed gender specificity of works of literature. In Madwoman's account of nineteenth-century women's writing, this specificity lay primarily in the troping of female anxiety and confinement as well as in covert expressions of feminist rage. This brings me to a second cluster of assertions. Like other oppositional critics emergent in the late 1970s, Gilbert and Gubar looked to books by outsiders for subtexts, alter egos, and counterplots—for elements, that is, posing a challenge to dominant ideologies and generic conventions. By shattering the surface, decoding the ostensible, they reinvented genteel novels by Austen and sweet poems by Dickinson in terms of their ability to subvert and explode. Examining texts they described as multilayered or "palimpsestic," they focused on that which, most deeply buried, was also most furiously insurgent. Their criticism was, in short, political; it grew out of the twentieth-century movement for women's rights, and it chose purposefully to identify modes and sites of rebellion in women's writing.
There is, finally, a third set of assertions exemplified by Madwoman and typical of American feminist criticism generally. Gilbert and Gubar's big book offered not only a genealogy of ties between female writers but also a narratology downplaying heterosexual romance in favor of ties between female characters: Fanny Price and Mary Crawford, Catherine Earnshaw and Isabella Linton, Dorothea Brooke and Rosamond Lydgate, Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason. Its madwoman paradigm transformed rivals into doubles, reconciled wife and mistress, showed us Bertha acting on Jane's behalf. By intertwining women, this work gave us stunning new readings and, equally important, struck a blow to the traditions of fairy tale and cat fight. Along these lines, one thing only remains to be said. Their names composited like partners in a law firm, their fates knotted like members of a rock band, Gilbert and Gubar have demonstrated the power of sisterhood not least in their own remarkable collaboration. Gender specificity, political agenda, ties between women defying compulsory heterosexuality: these premises were taken for granted during the period we now identify with "difference" or "cultural" feminism (falling roughly between 1975 and 1985), when an emphasis on women and sexual difference was revamping scholarship across the disciplines. Though complicated in important ways by subsequent work in such areas as postcolonial studies and queer theory, they are premises that were crucial to my own training as a critic, that continue to inform my writing and my pedagogy, and that influenced other strains of late-twentieth-century theory to a greater extent than is often acknowledged.
Here begins the pedagogical section of this essay. Radical theologian Mary Daly was long known for her controversial practice, harkening back to 1980s separatism, of limiting her feminist ethics course to female students. While I myself can see the advantages of an all-female classroom, I also value the thoughtful male students who seek out my courses in order to interrogate conventions of gender and sexuality. In another sense, however, I remain true to the separatist ethos of the 1980s by continuing, not a little self-consciously, to teach feminist theory from an all-female syllabus. In my graduate-level course, for example, I use primary texts by British and American women writers—a fluid roster including Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, Karen Yamashita's Through the Arc of the Rainforest, Jennie Livingston's film Paris Is Burning, Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, among numerous others—to introduce theoretical readings and debates centered on each. In keeping with Madwoman's readings of women writers, we are typically attuned to elements of subversion and happy to explore figurations of sisterhood. The course has been completely transformed over the years and is slightly reinvented each time I teach it, but no matter how many changes I make, it always seems to open with Charlotte Brontë, or perhaps Jane Austen, and thus, more often than not, with a chapter by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar.
As I have suggested, however, our class not only takes up Madwoman as a compelling model, illustrating the premises and procedures outlined above, but also attempts to gauge its limitations and juxtapose it with more recent scholarship. Indeed, the lineup of female writers now serves to challenge as much as to assert their use of a common language; the very gender of figures in Hall and Livingston (if not that of the authors themselves) is up for grabs; and the assignment of foundational texts such as Gilbert and Gubar's means coming to terms with those aspects of early feminist work that have not worn well. From a vantage point three decades after its original publication, I see the weaknesses of this magisterial study as arising by and large from its historical moment as well as from the psychoanalytic leanings of its framework.
The questions I would raise about Madwoman, represented here by its chapter on Jane Eyre, fall into three categories. First, while this is by no means another psychosexual reading of Brontë, its psychoanalytic approach to the text's doubleness does implicitly view the "repressed" level of Brontë's novel as more original and real than the manifest level, which is regarded as mere cover story. Though I have said I agree with the political priority given to the angry subtext, I would not give it the epistemological weight that Gilbert and Gubar's model, based on the individual psyche, would seem to suggest. Rather, I prefer to see both docility and defiance regarding gender as social structures of feeling available to Brontë in her time and place.
Second, while the mad double theory works well to claim for Jane the violence projected onto Bertha Mason, it also has the effect of reducing Bertha to little more than a facet of Jane's mind. As Gayatri Spivak has famously remarked, for critics to celebrate the Anglo woman's subjectivity without noticing the price paid by Bertha is to repeat Brontë's own staging of pale Jane's success at the darker woman's expense. As we all now realize, the readiness of early feminist criticism to generalize about women too often glossed over distinctions and inequities among them, and it would take additional readings of Jane Eyre—of which there have now been many—to bring out the meanings of race, nation, and class as they interact with gender in Brontë's novel.
The third and final issue is related to the first two. Madwoman, let us be clear, is contextual in its assumptions. As I have noted, it insists that women's historical subordination to men has an effect, albeit highly mediated, upon literary production. In addition, though many forget this, its purview is not all women's writing, but writing by British and American women in the course of a carefully specified century. Nevertheless, I think it's fair to say that, having framed their argument in loosely historical terms, Gilbert and Gubar are more interested in psychological than social conditions, and are therefore usefully supplemented by critics who do more to explain in specific historical detail why, for example, an English governess in the 1840s might be having bad dreams.
In the graduate classroom, then, following on Gilbert and Gubar, I might teach Suvendrini Perera and Susan Meyer on the racial and colonial thematics of Brontë's novel; Mary Poovey on the vexed figure of the governess mid-century; and Anne McClintock on the fascination of genteel Victorians with women of the laboring classes, their hands swollen and faces darkened by the dirtiness of their work. The result of these critical juxtapositions, I hasten to add, is not simply to tout the later texts but also to show their degree of indebtedness to Madwoman. After all, it was Gilbert and Gubar who first cast a sympathetic eye on Bertha and made her available for further recuperation, and it was likewise Gilbert and Gubar who first identified Jane's "ambiguous status as a governess" (349). I would also note that discussions of native and working women cannot grapple with race and/or class apart from some concept of the "feminine"; and needless to say, we remain indebted to Gilbert and Gubar for launching our inquiry into the discursive production of gender. As I see it, therefore, feminist critics of the past three decades have enlarged rather than displaced Madwoman's view of Brontë's text. These days when I teach Jane Eyre we still go straight to the attic, but what we find is not one but at least three madwomen shaking the rafters of Thornfield. There is Bertha Mason, Jane's angry psychological double; Bertha Mason, dehumanized, self-immolating subaltern; and finally, my personal favorite and addition, Grace Poole, the laboring woman half-awake to the distant sounds of Chartism.
Clearly Madwoman works well in the graduate classroom to demonstrate the continuing explanatory power of Anglo-American feminist criticism since the late 1970s; as the first in a series, it sets in motion a train of feminist thought that can then be followed up to our present day. Teaching Austen as well as Brontë, I invariably begin with Gilbert and Gubar, whose claiming of bad girls Catherine De Bourgh and Mary Crawford helps to bring out the darkness I see in Aunt Jane, countering the still pervasive myth of her harmlessness. Let us not forget, too, that Gilbert and Gubar are superb close readers. I may call on Claudia Johnson to historicize Regency-era notions of personal happiness, placing Pride and Prejudice in dialogue with the political debates of Austen's time, but nothing works better than Madwoman to foster an intimate, nuanced engagement with the linguistic texture, narrative details, and shifting tones of Austen's novels and juvenilia.
I want to close with the somewhat less obvious suggestion that Madwoman works equally well to point students in the direction of other postmodern approaches to literature and culture. I have already mentioned its use of psychoanalysis to explore the splittings, doublings, repressions, and rebellions in books by Brontë and her peers. I have also noted the tension between this and more materialist methodologies implied if not elaborated by the opening section. Beyond this, I would say that Madwoman, published by Yale University Press in the heyday of American deconstruction, gives a taste of those poststructuralist critical practices underwritten by the likes of Lacan and Derrida. There is, for example, Gilbert and Gubar's sense of women's writing as self-referential—staging the anxieties of female authorship even while authorizing female narrators like Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe. And certainly their study teaches students to read from the margins, to pull a stray thread and watch the rest unravel, to dwell on the unintended and unsaid. After Madwoman, readers can no longer assume that primary characters are more important than secondary ones, or that the end of a narrative necessarily trumps the middle. There is, in addition, this volume's investment in disobedience, discipline, madness, and incarceration, making Madwoman a good segue to the Foucauldian thematics so central to contemporary queer theory.
In the training of graduate students, then, Madwoman provides a gateway not only to feminist criticism but also to the methods and concerns of contemporary theory more generally. Its method of skeptical close reading runs parallel to that of deconstruction, while its interest in the "deviant" and abject looks ahead to queer theory. Madwoman's feminist approach can nevertheless be distinguished from these in at least one important way. Whereas much queer theory recruits poststructuralism in the service of an anti-identitarian politics, the project represented by Madwoman assumes the provisional stability and strategic uses of identity categories like "woman" and "lesbian." And much as I appreciate the pressure exerted on these categories by those who note their exclusivity and normativity, I also see them as necessary if not sufficient to thinking about gender and sexuality, and to a politics stemming from these. Since 1979, we have learned to emphasize that gender is neither fixed, undifferentiated, nor necessarily paramount as an axis of identity and framework for analysis. Yet if gender is not always salient (and never uniformly so), it may bear reiteration that sometimes it is. At a moment when feminism and identity politics of any kind are regarded warily—too incipiently essentialist for many within the academy, too alarmingly polemical for those outside it—Madwoman's greatest value may just lie in its second-wave willingness to give women, with all their motley madnesses, priority.
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