Key Ideas of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar

Like Showalter, Gilbert and Gubar have analysed the nineteenth century for the position of the  woman novelist in The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), the 2-volume No Man’s Land (1987-89) and their edition of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1985). Their interest, like Showalter, is in the material conditions of the woman writer’s creativity. Hence their reading of authors like Austen, the Brontes, Mary Shelley, George Eliot and Emily Dickinson in Madwoman is mainly an analysis of the social conditions of authors’ lives, the literary canon and the archives. The early nineteenth century women writers were working from within a male vision of creativity. Women had to negotiate with the male fantasies of the female, which were either of the submissive female-as-angel or the dangerous female-as-monster. These fantasies were literary models for women authors. Gilbert and Gubar argue that the madwoman image in most fiction by the woman author represented her (the author’s) double, the “schizophrenia of authorship” and the anxiety/rage of creation. Beneath the surface of the conformist woman’s text, Gilbert and Gubar detect a “true” woman’s story. Women’s texts, argue Gilbert and Gubar, construct techniques of evasion and concealment. Women writers responding to early authors present characters who resort to subterfuge to win the battles. By the projection of rebellious impulses into mad/monstrous women, the female authors of the nineteenth century “dramatise their own self-division, their desire to both accept the structures of patriarchal society and to reject them.” Bertha Rochester represents for them the symbol of confinement and revolt.

The women move out of the attic—to which they have been confined like Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre—to wage a battle with men, Studying the works of male authors the essays in No Man’s Land (Volume one: Thc War of the Words) presents the battle in figures of erotic duels, the impotent man, plots where men defeat hypersexual women and so on. In volume two, Sexchanges, the model of battle is extended to consider sexchanges. Gilbert and Gubar write “the sexes battle because sex roles change, but when the sexes battle, sex itself (that is eroticism) changes.” These changes include the rebellion against the feminisation of the American woman in World War I, lesbianism and transvestism.

Thus Gilbert and Gubar suggest two theoretical models to chart the female tradition.

(1) The “anxiety of authorship“deriving from Freud‘s notion of the Oedipus complex. If women (argue Gilbert and Gubar) follow a female resolution of the Oedipus complex, the father/male literary canon becomes the object of female desire and the pre-Oedipal desire for the mother/female literary canon is abandoned. Twentieth century women authors have the option of the “affiliation complex” which allows them to adopt literary mothers, now that a female literary tradition has been established, and thereby escape the father’s anxiety of influence. Traditionally in Freudian theory, the girl-child upon discovering that her mother is castrated turns away from the mother and towards the father as the source of power and authority. This was easier for the nineteenth century woman authors. The twentieth century is more complex. If the female author tries a normative, that is rule-bound, resolution of the Oedipus complex, it may lead to anxiety of having usurped paternal primacy and therefore fear of male retribution and vengeance. A non-normative resolution may help a “masculinist complex” which grants autonomy, maternal relation with female/mother predecessor authors and the creative option of male mimicry. However, Gilbert and Gubar suggest that such identification with the mother/precursor author is not free from anxiety—this time it is fear of castration at the hands of the mother. They write: “we suspect that the love women writers send forward into the past is, in patriarchal culture, inexorably contaminated by mingled feelings of rivalry and anxiety.”

(2) Fantasies figure prominently in the theories of Gilbert and Gubar. These may be linguistic fantasies or fantasy identifications. Feminist and linguistic fantasies grant a primary role to the mother rather than the father in the process of language acquisition. Women fantasize not about a revision of women’s language but a revision of the woman’s relation to language. They argue that the use of the sentence as definitive, the acquisition of a priestly language which resists the vernacular and the “mother tongue” as modes of retaining male authority over language. Woman authors now seek fantasies in identifications with alternative figures, myths and metaphors: Sappho, Aphrodite, and transvestism.

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