Review of The Madwoman in the Attic

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Author: Annette Kolodny
Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Date: 2001
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Book review; Critical essay
Length: 1,596 words

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[(review date March 1980) In the following review, Kolodny praises The Madwoman in the Attic for opening up a new way to read women writers, but regrets that the authors, despite their fine chapter on Emily Dickinson, do not distinguish between British and American conditions of authorship for women.]

Following upon a richly detailed anatomy of the ways in which women in general have found themselves "enclosed in the architecture of an overwhelmingly male-dominated society," and would-be women writers, in particular, have discovered themselves "constricted and restricted by the Palaces of Art and Houses of Fiction male writers authored" (p. xi), Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar observe that, despite all obstacles, "by the end of the eighteenth century ... women were not only writing, they were conceiving fictional worlds in which patriarchal images and conventions were severely, radically revised" (p. 44). To delineate what they perceive as "a common, female impulse to struggle free from social and literary confinement through strategic redefinitions of self, art, and society" (p. xii), and thereby account for the artistic development of those "nineteenth-century women writers who found viable ways of circumventing" (p. 72) the encumbrances of what Gertrude Stein called the "patriarchal poetry" of our literary inheritance, Gilbert and Gubar set themselves the formidable task of constructing "a feminist poetics" (p. 17).

A healthy corrective to the habit of explaining away women's writing as the irregularity in an otherwise regular design, The Madwoman in the Attic quite literally excavates the imputed "'oddity' of women's writing" (p. 73) to discover the underlying coherence of an art designed "both to express and to camouflage" (p. 81). Swerving "from the central sequences of male literary history," according to Gilbert and Gubar, women writers "achieved essential authority by telling their own stories," but--and this is the key--they did so "by following Emily Dickinson's famous (and characteristically female) advice to 'Tell all the Truth but tell it slant--In short," they conclude,

like the twentieth-century American poet, H. D., who declared her aesthetic strategy by entitling one of her novels Palimpsest, women from Jane Austen and Mary Shelley to Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson produced literary works that are in some sense palimpsestic, works whose surface designs conceal or obscure deeper, less accessible (and less socially acceptable) levels of meaning. Thus these authors managed the difficult task of achieving true female literary authority by simultaneously conforming...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100036824