Saundra Gilbert and Susan Gubar
Gilbert and Gubar Photo

Saundra M. Gilbert (left) and Susan Gubar (right)

Born Saundra Gilbert: 1936, New York City, NY

Susan Gubar: 1944, New York City, NY

Relevant Work The Madwoman in the Attic


(NATC, 2nd ed.)

Biographies Edit

Sandra Gilbert Edit

  • Sandra M. Gilbert was born in New York City in 1936
  • attended Cornell University, NYU, and Columbia University
  • She has taught at CSU Hayward, Indiana University, Princeton University, and UC Davis

Susan Gubar Edit

  • Susan Gubar was also born in New York City and she received her Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1972
  • Gubar is a distinguished professor at Indiana University.


In 1973 Gilbert and Gubar met as professors at Indiana University; they taught a women's literature course together and The Madwoman in the Attic was born out of this teaching partnership.

from The Madwoman in the Attic Edit

Background and Historical Context Edit

Gilbert and Gubar's work is considered to be influenced by and a part of the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960's. While first-wave feminism was primarily concerned with obtaining legal rights for women such as the right to vote and hold property, second-wave feminism broadened its view to include social issues like sexuality, family, reproductive rights, and the workplace.

Key Words and Terms Edit

Anxiety of Authorship - an anxiety built from complex and often only barely conscious fears of that authority which seems to the female artist to be by definition inappropriate to her sex.

Women Writers - form their own subculture and literary group that is very different from the group known as male writers; they all have stolen the "right to write that society extended only to men" (NACT 1924).

Anxiety of Influence - Bloom's theory that "poets are hindered in their creative process by the ambiguous relationship they necessarily maintained with precursor poets" ("Anxiety of Influence").

Key Quotations Edit

"The madwoman in the attic (a reference to Bertha, Rochester's hidden first wife, in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre) stands for everything the woman writer must try to repress--though never with complete success--in order to write books acceptable by male standards" (1924). “A Word dropped careless on a Page / May stimulate an eye / When folded in perpetual seam / The Wrinkled Maker lie / Infection in the sentence breeds / We may inhale Despair / At distances of Centuries / From the Malaria” (NATC 1926). Emily Dickinson

"I stand in the ring / in the dead city / and tie on the red shoes. / They are not mine, they are my mother’s, / her mother’s before, / handed down like an heirloom / but hidden like shameful letters" (1926). Anne Sexton

"Bloom's model of literary history is intensely (even exclusively) male, and necessarily patriarchal. For this reason it has seemed, and no doubt will continue to seem, offensively sexist to some feminist critics. Not only, after all, does Bloom describe literary history as the crucial warfare of fathers and sons, he sees Milton's fiercely masculine fallen Satan as the type of the poet in our culture, and he metaphorically defines the poetic process as a sexual encounter between a male poet and his female muse" (1928).

"Thus the 'anxiety of influence' that a male poet experiences is felt by a female poet as an even more primary 'anxiety of authorship'--a radical fear that she cannot create, that because she can never become a 'precursor' the act of writing will isolate or destroy her' (1929). "Her battle, however, is not against her (male) precursor's reading of the world but against his reading of her. In order to define herself as an author she must redefine the terms of her socialization" (1929-30).

"Thus the loneliness of the female artist, her feelings of alienation from male predecessors coupled with her need for sisterly precursors and successors, her urgent sense of her need for a female audience together with her fear of antagonism of male readers, her culturally conditioned timidity about self-dramatization, her dread of the patriarchal authority of art, her anxiety about the impropriety of female invention--"(1930).

"On the one hand, 'we' (meaning especially women writers) 'may inhale Despair' from all those patriarchal texts which seek to deny female autonomy and authority, on the other hand 'we' (meaning especially women writers) 'may inhale Despair' from all those 'foremothers' who have both overtly and covertly conveyed their traditional authorship anxiety to their bewildered female descendants." (NATC 1931) "Seeking motherly precursors, says Gottlieb, as if echoing Dickenson, the women writer may find only infection, debilitation. Yet still she must seek, not seek to subvert, her 'female power, which is important' to her because her lost literaty matrilineage" (1932).

"Surrounded as she is by images of disease, traditions of disease, and invitations both to disease and to dis-ease, it is no wonder that the woman writer has held many mirrors up to the discomforts of her own nature" (1936). "Whether she is a passive angel or an active monster, in other words, the woman writer feels herself to be literally or figuratively crippled by the debilitating alternatives her culture offers her." (1936)

Discussion Edit

Anxieties Edit

The Madwoman in the Attic is a commentary on the outcomes of women being continually oppressed by society. Both the physical and psychological toll that this oppression takes on women are discussed in the work. The question(s) of where the female writer "fits in" to the processes and anxieties that the male writer goes through when writing are central to the work. An attempt at an answer is made, though it is complicated by the assertion that the female writer deals with an altogether different "anxiety of influence" than that of the male writer (NACT 1938).

Gilbert and Gubar discuss how a woman writer does not fit into the overwhelmingly and essentially male literary history. Because women must approach precursors who are mostly male and significantly different from her, she has to fight against definitions of herself and her potential, which has been reduced to stereotypes by men, that conflict with her own sense of self, subjectivity, autonomy, and creativity (1929). This is felt as the “anxiety of authorship” which is a “radical fear that she cannot create” or become a precursor and, therefore, the act of writing will “isolate or destroy her”. A woman’s ultimate struggle is against the male precursors reading of her, so she must redefine the terms of her socialization. Gilbert and Gubar argue that women seek to find a female model as a way of legitimizing their rebellion. Additionally, women writers, unlike male writers, experience their gender as a painful obstacle. Their struggle has created a subculture that has distinctive literary traditions, even though it defines itself in relation to male-dominated literary traditions and culture (Pg. 1930). Women can attempt to write with authority because their foremothers struggled through the 18th and 19th century in “isolation, that felt like illness, alienation that felt like madness, obscurity that felt like paralysis to overcome the anxiety of authorship that was endemic to their literary subculture” (1931).

Female Writers Edit

The authors analyze the anxieties found in works of canon female authors such as the Bronte sisters, Austen, Barret Browning, Shelley, and Dickenson. While these female characters seem to emanate an unsettling air of amnesia, it must be noted that they do not spend the books searching for a lost or forgotten past; they are focused on building a new future. Thus, this theme of amnesia could be interpreted instead as a liberation from patriarchal powers and social roles that were embedded in 19th-century families. The absence of a family or past could instead be a liberation and an opportunity for the characters to start over and create a new role for themselves in society. They fail, however, to acknowledge the differences among women writers or to analyze how anxieties might be different for non-white female writers or writers from lower classes. Certainly, these famous literary women did not have predecessors which could have caused some anxiety, but their representations of women without pasts indicates that they saw their works as a chance to create something new. It is disempowering to see their works as being filled with anxiety about the lack of female, literary role models.

Major Criticism and Reception Edit

Gilbert and Gubar's work has been criticized for being "Anglo-American" and "liberal" feminism. Their work has been criticized for being too focused on achieving equality for women within the preexisting social structures rather than focusing on the problems within those preexisting social structures. Gilbert and Gubar's work has also been criticized for making gross generalizations regarding its examination of women as a singular group. Their work's lack of attention to historical, racial, ethnic, sexual and class differences among women are pointed to as signs of their overgeneralization (Simon 1925). These are common criticisms of the second-wave feminist movement, of which Gilbert and Gubar's work is a part.

In her work Sexual/Textual Politics, Toril Moi explains the criticisms for Madwoman in the Attic from the "French Feminist" point of view.

Related Works Edit

  • Aristotle. Poetics. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Peter Simon, W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.
  • De Pizan, Christine. "Christine's Reaction to Jean de Montreuil's Treatise on the Roman de la Rose." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Peter Simon, W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.
  • Haraway, Donna. A Manifesto for Cyborgs. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Peter Simon, W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.
  • Lacan, Jacques-Marie. "The Mirror Stage as Formative of teh Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Peter Simon, W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.
  • Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Peter Simon, W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.

References Edit

“The Anxiety of Influence.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

Barnard College I Columbia University First-Year Experience “Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship.”

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence, 1972.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre, 1847. (Where the term madwoman in the attic came from in reference to Rochester's wife, Bertha).

Leitch, Vincent B., editor. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed., W.W. Norton & Co., 2010.