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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Madwoman in The Attic

As promised...

The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, Second Edition (Yale Nota Bene) The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, Second Edition by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar

My review

The Madwoman in the Attic struck one of the first blows for feminist literary criticism and a uniquely female literary tradition. It's near and dear to my heart because it's the first extended lit-crit I've ever read, and also because it's about my favorite bunch of novels: Victorian (well, 19th century) women's fiction. There's also an awesome section on Victorian poetry. Hellooo, Goblin Market!

The basic theory of the book is that women writers twisted the Madonna/whore stereotype back in on itself, using doubles and alter egos to show different paths women take in a patriarchy, and alternate modes of handling female confinement: submission, madness, deception, searching for an equal (male) partner.

This book is where the theory of Bertha Mason, Rochester's mad first wife, as Jane's alter ego in Jane Eyre, an expression of her inner rage, first became popularized. Gilbert and Gubar--aka the "Gs" as a friend calls them--also discuss some of my other favorite literary interpretations: Heathcliff, yes THAT Heathcliff, (Wuthering Heights) as the essential feminine, the unfettered wild womanly spirit that Cathy must subsume to enter society. Catherine deBourgh in Pride and Prejudice as a possible projection of Elizabeth's future. The sea, in Persuasion, as representing an egalitiarian, romantic space far from the gender roles of society where equality is possible. Or how about Will Ladislaw in Middlemarch as the ideal partner for a woman because of his matriarchal lineage, his cast-out status, and his lack of threatening qualities. (He's a real ladies' man).

Obviously, I eschew the idea of literary theory as being some sort of be-all and end- all. Certainly feminist, Marxist, Freudian, historicist or whatever theories all need to be balanced with each other and an appreciation of the texts we read themselves. But sometimes lit-crit can be fun, a nifty prism through which we re-enjoy our favorite works, and this book is totally one of those times! Word to that.

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