Study Guide

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar Introduction

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Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar Introduction

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar are like the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of feminist literary criticism. They did it first, they did it well, and they'll never be forgotten.

Sometimes, it's hard to believe that it took until the 1970s for people to really think about what Rochester's wife Bertha Mason was doing all locked up in that attic in Jane Eyre. What did they think she was doing up there, running her own eBay business?

But Gilbert and Gubar are truly the O.G. dynamic duo. To talk about one is, inevitably, to talk about the other. You see, these two were meant to be. They met in an elevator, of all places, and even though they were worlds, we mean states, apart—Gilbert at Princeton and Gubar at University of Indiana—they were just destined for greatness.

You could say that Gilbert and Gubar were like academic star-crossed lovers. Except that unlike Romeo and Juliet, there were no warring families. Just collaboration across 2,000 miles before the advent of email and social media. They, like, sent each other actual manuscripts back and forth. Impressive.

When The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination—their masterpiece of feminist criticism—came out in 1979, everyone paid attention. Now, not all of that attention was positive; Gilbert and Gubar took some heat. But it was all worth it.

With this book, the impenetrable Western canon was no longer exclusively populated by men. The 19th century had a rich literary tradition of female writers, many of whom had been forgotten by the 20th century. It's hard to imagine how revolutionary Madwoman was—but trust us, it resurrected some writers who otherwise would have remained in the dusty archives.

They put female writers like Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman on the map. Did we mention that Madwoman opens with the query, "Is a pen a metaphorical penis?" You get the point. And their work still has legs.

Gilbert and Gubar have published more critical work as a team than they have as individuals. And Gilbert and Gubar's many collaborative works now have a permanent, well-earned place on the shelf next to Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence, Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, Eve Sedgwick's Between Men, and Edward Said's Orientalism.

Now some feminists don't love Gilbert and Gubar's work (cough cough Judith Butler and Mary Daly cough cough). In her Sexual/Textual Politics, Toril Moi accused them of being "patriarchal"—of speaking for women in the same way men always have. Other critics have asked, Why separate women off from the male tradition? Isn't reading women through the lens of madness a little, well, unsophisticated and reductionist? 

But no matter what negative feedback has been aimed this book's way, there is no denying that Madwoman changed literary criticism forever. Particularly, scholarship on Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Emily Dickinson will never be the same. We worry that Second Wave Feminism may not have infiltrated literary studies if it weren't for Gilbert and Gubar's sweeping tome.

What you really wanna know, though, is if these two are BFFs IRL, are we right? We'd say so. Look: no friendship is perfect. Even when you see eye-to-eye on the "aesthetics of renunciation."

Over the course of their collaborative writing careers, Gilbert and Gubar have had their differences—about George Eliot, for example—but they've done their darndest to write with a unified critical voice. Sure, they've had had a few quibbles over whether to use the word "moreover" so much, but they always manage to work out their differences. (We're not joking; see Rethinking Women's Collaborative Writing: Power, Difference, Property for proof. Academics take their conjunctive adverbs very seriously.)

Not impressed enough yet? These two have produced formidable individual works as well. Gilbert's published nine poetry collections, for which she has won big, impressive awards.

Gubar's written such notable books as Rooms of our Own (2006), a fictional work about the women's movement; Judas: A Biography (2009), about the history of Christian wrath for that wayward disciple; True Confessions: Feminist Professors Tell Stories Out of School (Norton, 2011); and Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer (2012), about the often brutal and dehumanizing procedures to which the body is subjected when being treated for cancer.

In 2012, these gangbuster feminist critics took home The National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award—the Grammy of intellectual achievement—for "their pioneering work in feminist thought, which revolutionized criticism." Nice.

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