Annette R. Federico, ed. Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic After Thirty Years. Columbia: U ofDoes the Madwoman Still Belong in the Attic?
Annette R. Federico, ed. Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic After Thirty Years. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2009.
Annette Federico presents a collection of essays by multiple authors in her book entitled Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic After Thirty Years (Gilbert ). Federico opens with a reminiscence of her own personal introduction to the landmark feminist literary criticism found within Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (Madwoman). Indeed, Federico proudly admits that her original copy of the book is still protected in a plastic coating. Federico allows her readers to share in the joy of her initial discovery of Madwoman, and Federico’s joy perhaps emulates Sandra Gilbert’s use of the word ecstasy in the book’s Foreword, in which Gilbert recalls the delight that she experienced while reading the essays included in Gilbert.
Mutual compliments aside, however, Federico chooses an assortment of articles which prove to be both critical and thought-provoking. Federico recognizes that the inquiries posed by Gilbert and Gubar in 1979 are still “fundamental—primitive—questions for feminist analysis” (14), even after the advent of third-wave feminism. Federico selected thirteen essays that push beyond the initial paradigm suggested by Madwoman; such paradigm specifically refers to the nineteenth-century women writers’ obsession with using two opposing female archetypes (angel versus fanatic) to portray the author’s frustration with patriarchy and subjugation. Through readdressing Madwoman thirty years after its initial publication, Federico offers her readers discussions which address many issues radiating throughout contemporary literary criticism.
Indeed, perhaps the most pervasive commentary within Gilbert is the recognition that each author credits to Gilbert and Gubar’s pioneering ideologies about Victorian female repression found within the literature of the nineteenth century. Both of the first two essays, “After Gilbert and Gubar” by Susan Fraiman and “Modeling the Madwoman” by Marlene Tromp, declare support of Madwoman’s continued usefulness in feminist studies, with Fraiman paying particular attention to university pedagogy. Despite changes within the academy and the literary canon itself, Madwoman remains a foundational text for exploring the literary expressions of domination and subversion.
In subsequent chapters of Gilbert, the focus of each essay narrows to specific applications of Madwoman. Carol Blessing discusses the support for and (more often) rejection of Madwoman which continues to reverberate through Miltonic studies, and she comments that regardless of its position about Milton’s misogyny, Madwoman undeniably breathed new life into the studies of Paradise Lost. Katey Castellano’s chapter addresses the effects of the legacy of Madwoman upon the re-readings of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and The Last Man. Castellano sees Madwoman supporting “updated activist, feminist rereading that might reveal the way a masculine logic of domination contributes to these problems” (91); Castellano thereby invites Madwoman to have a voice in the burgeoning field of ecofeminism. The modern film industry makes an unexpected appearance in Gilbert with the addition of Hila Shacher’s chapter. Shacher identifies the impact that Gilbert and Gubar’s poetics has had upon subsequent film releases of Wuthering Heights, and she suggests that the modern storyline is no longer a romantic love story, but an exploration of gender and sexual politics. Postcolonial concerns about native peoples come to the forefront in Narin Hassan’s essay. Hassan utilizes many of Gilbert and Gubar’s approaches toward understanding Bertha as a symbol of colonial oppression.
Continuing in the theme of new and innovative uses for Gilbert and Gubar’s work, Danielle Russell uses Toni Morrison’s Beloved as the framework for her essay. Russell remarks that while Madwoman is sometimes criticized for its deficiencies in addressing women of color, the book invites discussion about the oppression of underprivileged and disregarded peoples in all societies. Keren Fite questions the allegory of the madwoman as it pertains to Louisa May Alcott’s literary genius. Madeleine Wood contrasts Gilbert and Gubar’s linear reading of Jane Eyre with psychoanalytic reading. And Lucia Aiello expresses her concern over Gilbert and Gubar’s reduction of Emily Dickinson’s work to the work of a female manipulator.
Furthermore, Gilbert and Gubar’s work, while consistently respected, is often critiqued for what it does not address. Tamara Wagner discusses the absence of noncanonical authors in Madwoman, especially Charlotte Yonge, who may have proven too conservative to represent Gilbert and Gubar’s views of the frustrated, nineteenth-century woman writer. Carol Davison laments Gilbert and Gubar’s omission of early gothic writers, and she suggests gothic contributions to Victorian writing surely would have bolstered Madwoman’s thesis. Thomas Fair postulates that Elizabeth Gaskell, widely known for her novel North and South, was not included in Madwoman because Gaskell did not fit the mold of an angry, female Victorian writer . It would seem that this particular selection of essays, while they express concerns for authors left out of Madwoman, is primarily focused on explaining why some writers were not included in Gilbert and Gubar’s original work. These essays expose some of the possible biases contained within Madwoman and suggest possible ways to make Gilbert and Gubar’s theories more robust.
The selections chosen by Federico are impressive and diverse. Many of the essays explore new frontiers and present novel applications of Gilbert and Gubar’s research, but there are other fields, criticisms, and possibilities for stretching the relevance of Madwoman. In particular, I noticed that at least one relevant viewpoint was missing from the discussion in Gilbert. Gilbert and Gubar’s method of feminist literary criticism might be utilized to make a critical assessment of male writers of the nineteenth century. One of the overall themes of Madwoman is that Victorian women writers were secretly subversive of patriarchy and that the writers encoded their frustrations within the pages of their poetry and prose. Gilbert and Gubar portrayed attic-dwelling Bertha from Jane Eyre as one manifestation of the madwoman lurking within the minds of female authors. I wonder, though, if we might find that male writers of the same period were sometimes able to hear those madwomen in the attic. If men did hear the cries of frustration, what was their response? I specifically think of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance (written only a few years after Jane Eyre), and his treatment of feminist Zenobia’s concerns within the novel. Alternatively, I could ask how Charles Dicken’s treatment of Lady Dedlock in Bleak House (also published a few years after Jane Eyre) portrayed the struggles of a woman locked within the constraints of society. If Gilbert and Gubar’s methods are robust—and I believe that they are—then their methods can perhaps withstand the broadening into male nineteenth-century literature and a discussion about men’s portrayals of women’s frustrations.
The fact that I can anticipate further uses for Madwoman is a testament to the longevity of Gilbert and Gubar’s methodology; for this reason, readers will not be disappointed with Federico’s showcase of so many diverse approaches to utilizing Madwoman. Overall, each contributor was careful in tempering their praises for Madwoman with a sound criticism of the limitations and implications of the work. Gilbert, then, is not simply a glance into history; rather, Federico has framed a work that acknowledges the past and eagerly looks to the future. Ultimately, Federico hopes that her collection of essays “do some justice to Madwoman’s influence—its capaciousness, its daring, and its limitations” (21). Perhaps the most inspirational aspect Federico’s Gilbert, then, is that her work pays tribute to Gilbert and Gubar through a critical assessment of the sustained value of Madwoman. Through the lens of Federico’s selections, readers will likely find that the madwoman no longer resides in the attic; she is welcomed at the table of modern literary discussions. ...more
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