Gilbert and Gubar

Assigned: Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. From The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, from Chapter 2: “Infection in the Sentence . . .” (1841-53). Also read the editors’ introduction (1839-41).

From The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979)

From Chapter 2. Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship

1. On 1842-44 (“What does it mean to be a woman writer…”), how do Gilbert and Gubar define and assess Harold Bloom’s key notion that male authors are always subject to a certain “anxiety of influence” vis à vis their male predecessors? Bloom’s model has at times been called sexist, but in what sense do Gilbert and Gubar find value in it for their own feminist purposes? Explain.

2. On 1844-45 (“For our purposes here, however…”), Gilbert and Gubar discuss the “anxiety of authorship” (1844) that confronts female authors and differentiates their struggle to create from that of male authors. How do they define and develop this concept? How is it vitally different from Bloom’s model for male authors?

3. On 1845-47 (“Unlike her male counterpart, then…”), Gilbert and Gubar address what they call the “darker side” of “female literary subculture” (1846). What are the most troubling effects of the anxiety of authorship on women writers? In responding, consider, for example, the comments the authors make about the near-impossibility of a woman writer’s competing productively with her male precursors.

4. On 1847-48 (“Emily Dickinson’s acute observations…”), Gilbert and Gubar comment on the meaning of the Emily Dickinson line, “Infection in the sentence breeds” from poem 1261, “A Word dropped careless on a Page.” How do they explain the significance of this line in connection to the anxiety of female authors—what is the “infection,” what is the “sentence,” and in what sense does the infection “breed”? They also refer to the binary opposition that seems to govern female writers, indeed any woman, at least in earlier times: they will be viewed either as “angels” (see Victorian author Coventry Patmore’s poem, “The Angel in the House”) or as “monster[s].” How does the frequently diagnosed condition of “hysteria” connect to this ruthless binary imposed on women’s lives and art? (1848)

5. On 1848-49 (“Such diseases are caused by…”), how, according to Gilbert and Gubar, are the diseases they mention (hysteria, anorexia, agoraphobia, etc.) not random occurrences but rather maladies “caused by patriarchal socialization” (1848)? How does training in various kinds of “renunciation” (1848) literally make women sick? In what sense, beyond even the training in question, were “female diseases […] the goals of such training” (1849)?

6. On 1849-51 (“Given this socially conditioned epidemic…”), Gilbert and Gubar shift from the effects of renunciation forced upon the typical Victorian and post-Victorian “angel in the house” to the pains of women trapped on the other side of the angel/monster binary. How does patriarchal discourse of the sort Gilbert and Gubar quote from Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop connect women’s artistic creativity to madness? (1850). How, too, does their reading of part of Anne Sexton’s poem “The Red Shoes” reinforce this connection?

7. On 1851-53 (“In this connection, a passage…”), Gilbert and Gubar discuss several more “diseases and dis-eases” (1851) besetting women writers and the texts they produce. Which of these conditions do they name? How do they sum up the feminist project in literary history that they will be carrying out in the rest of The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination? On the whole, do you think that Gilbert and Gubar have offered us a successful redefinition of Harold Bloom’s key concept for understanding women’s literary history up to a period you can specify? Why or why not?

8. General question: In our excerpt from Chapter 2 of The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979), Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar adapt Harold Bloom’s patriarchal Oedipal model of literary influence as a way of analyzing the history of literature authored by women. Coming to this discussion several decades later, how do you assess the shorter history of such literature in the time since Gilbert and Gubar’s groundbreaking work on the topic? Do you think women writers connect and learn from one another’s work and lives in more positive and less difficult ways than the “anxiety of authorship” model our authors describe? Why or why not?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake