Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar – from _The Madwoman in the Attic_

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, from The Madwoman in the Attic,
(1979), pp. 27-36

I must admit that Gilbert and Gubar have never been favorites of mine. While I do believe that a great deal of what they have to say is important, I can rarely stand to listen to them say it. Although perhaps justified in their righteously indignant (if not, at times, angry) tone, it grates my nerves to read it. Of course, I’m not helping the situation any, because, by their metrics, I am just another patriarchally repressive male who is subconsciously horrified at the terrible sight of not just one but two females who have taken up the transgressive act of writing.

As suggested by the title of their book, Gilbert and Gubar are chiefly concerned with the idea of “the monster-woman.” A great deal of this excerpt shows the authors tracing this figure’s various occurances, developments, mutations, and transformations throughout literature. The authors see the monster-woman as an expression of “male anxieties about female autonomy [that] probably go as deep as everyone’s mother-dominated infancy,” of “male scorn of female creativity,” and, finally, “of man’s ambivalent feelings about his own inability to control his own physical existence, his own birth and death.” While the monster-woman is occasionally viewed as a perversion of the “sweet heroine inside the house,” Gilbert and Gubar press on to argue that all women, in fact, are on some level viewed by males as monstrous due to their very femininity, especially as it is tied to their sexuality and physical sex organs.

Gubar and Gilbert (to liberate the authors from the tyranny of alphabetical order, a form of oppression that I frequently endured in elementary school lunch lines as a Weatherford. Oh, the sweet freedom granted by teachers enlightened by the wisdom of Reverse-alphabetical Orderists!) posit that all female authors must endure, at least on some level, being characterized as monster-women, insofar as writing is a form of creation, which is (to use one of the authors’ favorite words) inexorably tied to supposedly disgusting female physicality and sexuality. Moreover, a woman undertaking the act of writing is not only repulsive but also threatening to males as it represents the possibility of a woman defining herself in a manner than disrupts the safe, patriarchal binary of masculinity and femininity with which men stabilize their worlds. To quote Gilbert and Gubar, “like mothers of illegitimate or misshapen offspring, female writers are not producing what they ought.”

My two favorite portions of this excerpt came near its conclusion. First, I found the authors’ observation that “the sexual nausea associated with all these monster women helps explain why so many real women have for so long expressed loathing of (or at least anxiety about) their own inexorably female bodies” particularly interesting and provocative. Second, the closing image of Lilith as emblematic of the experience of female writers is a wonderfully striking conclusion to the article.

To conclude, perhaps I find Gilbert and Gubar disagreeable because they are still in the mindset of Showalter’s Feminist phase, whereas I, like Showalter herself, find the understanding of women in literature presented by the Female phase more instructive, helpful, and engaging. This is not to say that their work is not valuable; indeed, one must have, I think, the foundation of Feminist critique before one can move on to Female creation. Perhaps I have simply heard enough critique recently and am ready for more creation.


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