Exposing the Role of Women in The Madwoman in the Attic
In their book The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar address the issue of literary potential for women in a world shaped by and for men. Specifically, Gilbert and Gubar are concerned with the nineteenth century woman and how her role was based on her association with the symbols of angels, monsters, or sometimes both. Because the role of angel was ideally passive and the role of monster was naturally evil, both limited a woman’s behavior into quiet content, with few words to object.
Women in the nineteenth century, Gilbert and Gubar claim, lived quiet and passive lives, embodying the ideals of the “Eternal Feminine” vision in Goethe’s Faust. Passivity led to a belief that women were more spiritual than men, meant to contemplate rather than act. “It is just because women are defined as wholly passive, completely void of generative power that they become numinous to male artists,” they write on page 599. It was this celestial quality that separated them from earthly men capable of lives of action, and thus, capable of handling the pen. Lives without action, of course, were hardly worth recording, so the passive woman had no story to tell, no book to write. According to our two authors, a woman without her own story became an angel in the house, one who heard others’ stories but never told her own. Women were encouraged to live along these descriptions, to be the eternal silent feminine, content only in pleasing society instead of herself. “For in the metaphysical emptiness their ‘purity’ signifies they are, of course, self-less,” write Gilbert and Gubar on page 599.
As self-less beings, women were left without voices, destined to a life of silence. These arguments are not unusual in feminism. With these familiar assertions, Gilbert and Gubar are indebted to women like Judith Fetterley, who wrote “On the Politics of Literature.” But Gilbert and Gubar’s feminist theory doesn’t end there. They extend feminist theory to the literary world, specifically to the art of writing. According to this theory, woman’s role in society, reinforced by the literature of the day, left her incapable of the written language because of the power it represented. In denying her the pen, the nineteenth century woman was, to borrow Fetterley’s line, “asked to identify against herself” (562). Writing was left up to the men, as if the pen was a metaphorical extension of their manhood. In a very real way, women were “denied the autonomy - the subjectivity - that the pen represents,” not to mention the culture of the day (598). It is here Gilbert and Gubar begin to reflect the ideas of Edward Said in his theory of Orientalism. In it, Said claims “knowledge of the Orient, because generated out of strength, in a sense creates the Orient, the Oriental, and his world” (880). In much the same way, the men of the nineteenth century created the Eternal Feminine, the woman, and her world....