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...
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...s like Irene and Clare is crucial in discovering our power to transcend beyond the discrimination of the society we live in, creating literature that helps change culture for the better. Only when we recognize the struggle between angel and monster can we free ourselves from both.
Fetterly, Judith. “On the Politics of Literature.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers Inc. 1998.
Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. “The Madwoman in the Attic.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers Inc. 1998.
Larsen, Nella. Passing. New York, NY: Penguin Books: 1997.
Said, Edward. “Orientalism.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers Inc. 1998.
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