The Madwoman in the Attic after Thirty Years
Annette R. Federico, ed. Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic After Thirty Years. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2009. xiii+272 pp. $42.50 (c).
Rev. by Laura J. Faulk
This anthology focuses on four aspects of Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination: its personal feminist elements and effect on readers, the excitement aroused both inside and outside of the academy with its publication, its late 1970s context, and both its accomplishments and shortcomings as a work of literary criticism. While the less scholarly sections of Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic After Thirty Years arouse nostalgia for one’s first reading of Madwoman and the “aha” moment that accompanied it, its analysis of the history of feminism in academia and new appropriations of, or contentions to, Gilbert and Gubar’s ideas make the work valuable to an academic audience interested in maintaining Madwoman’s status as a groundbreaking text while updating its arguments and interests.
The preface, introduction, and first two chapters of this collection are set apart in their focus on emotional reactions to Gilbert and Gubar’s text. They develop a distinctly personal tone which is overturned by the more traditional scholarly essays in the latter part of the volume. In the preface Gilbert writes of the ecstasy the two authors felt when creating their work. As she notes, “writing Madwoman wasn’t a quotidian scholarly experience,” which “the contributors to Federico’s volume seem so clearly to understand” (ix). These personal elements of Gilbert and Gubar’s book are echoed in Annette R. Federico’s introduction and Susan Fraiman’s and Marlene Tromp’s essays. While the introduction explains the organization of the collection and provides summaries of each essay, it also dwells on Federico’s encounter with Madwoman as a graduate student. In her essay, “After Gilbert and Gubar: Madwomen inspired by Madwoman,” Fraiman examines the book’s scholarly effect in the late 1970s and 1980s, how “feminist critics of the past three decades” have expanded its argument (31), and, most importantly for this volume, its relevance today. She concludes with Madwoman’s positive effect on future academics, reiterating the anthology’s purpose: “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” (32-33). Yet she cannot quite spread this claim to feminists in general and instead seems to lament the loss of second-wave feminism: “At a moment when feminism and identity politics of any kind are regarded warily . . . Madwoman’s greatest value may just lie in its second-wave willingness to give women, with all their motley madness, priority” (33).
Marlene Tromp’s essay on feminism and the academy is the most unexpected addition to the collection; she picks up Fraiman’s praise as she argues that Madwoman was revolutionary, both within and outside of the academy, in inspiring future feminists through its contexts as well as its practices and strategies. She backs her study with published scholarly reactions to the book and current assessments of its place in academia by many professors whom she contacted for this purpose. The result is an unusually personal essay in which Tromp examines both her own encounter with Madwoman and the academic and emotional responses many current professors had when they first read the work.
By the third chapter, After Thirty Years loses much of its intriguing spotlight on the personal and adopts the more familiar form of the anthology. The remaining eleven chapters cover a variety of critical readings of authors’ works discussed in Madwoman: Mary Shelley, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson, and John Milton. A handful of essays approach novels not discussed in the foundational text, often to criticize their exclusion and consider how they affect Gilbert and Gubar’s argument: Tamara Silvia Wagner critiques the elision of domestic women writers, particularly Charlotte Yonge; Carol Margaret Davison laments the ironic omission of the female gothic as a “disregarding” of “literary foremothers” (205); and Thomas P. Fair questions Elizabeth Gaskell’s absence from Madwoman, contending that Gaskell’s female characters “temper the madness” of the “oppressed and enraged Madwoman” (218). Two chapters expand the relevance of Madwoman’s critical approach: Danielle Russell reads Toni Morrison’s Beloved with the same lens that Gilbert and Gubar and responding post-colonial critics utilize for Jane Eyre, and Narin Hassan examines the themes shared by Jane Eyre and a nineteenth-century autobiographical book, Saguna, by Indian woman writer Krupabai Satthiandhan.
Katey Castellano’s “Feminism to Ecofeminism: The Legacy of Gilbert and Gubar’s Readings of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and The Last Man” and Hila Shachar’s “The Legacy of Hell: Wuthering Heights on Film and Gilbert and Gubar’s Feminist Poetics” are stimulating in their different approaches to Madwoman. The first, as the title indicates, argues that Shelley’s writing encourages ecofeminist critique, which Castellano claims is the “great-granddaughter” of Gilbert and Gubar’s literary criticism. She discusses the social and environmental effects of the “masculine logic of domination,” concluding by placing earth/nature in the same vacillating dichotomy of angel and madwoman (78). Shachar’s essay considers Madwoman as a cultural inheritance of feminist analysis that has influenced film adaptations of Wuthering Heights for the last thirty years. She traces the portrayal of mythic elements as a form of feminist politics in three adaptations, including MTV’s 2003 version.
While After Thirty Years faces many of the issues that haunt anthologies, such as repetition and varying strengths of essays, its very publication secures its relevance and supports its purpose. The scholars included in this anthology, diverse not only in their interests but also in their professional situations, indicate the enduring weight of Gilbert and Gubar’s work. The Madwoman in the Attic was and is a noteworthy book that continues to influence literary criticism. As the contributors to this volume demonstrate, Gilbert and Gubar’s feminist approach to nineteenth-century literature cannot and should not be forgotten.
Laura J. Faulk is currently a doctoral student at Louisiana State University. Her article, “Surviving the Economy: Madams, Houses, and Profits in Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure,” is forthcoming in an anthology of businessmen in literature.