Still Mad: The Legacy of Madwoman in the Attic in Two Contemporary Novels.
AbstractThe basic purpose of this thesis project is to explore the ways in which the figure of the “madwoman” and the claims of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic appear in contemporary fiction by women. A secondary purpose of this thesis is to engage with criticism of Madwoman in the Attic in the context of feminism, both as it appears in contemporary fiction and also in academic theory. This thesis is necessary to understanding how certain concerns of the Madwoman project persist simultaneous to the ongoing concerns of the larger feminist movement, despite criticisms made against the book on theoretical—particularly post-structural—grounds. The two novels I use to approach the persistence of these concerns are Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs (2013) and Sheila Heti’s Madwoman in the Attic (2012), which are both novels written by women about women artists. Thus, representing a woman artist figure, the novels provide numerous opportunities to ask whether today’s woman artist encounters a similar experience of patriarchy as that offered in Gilbert and Gubar’s analysis of the work of 19th-century woman writers.
My analysis of How Should a Person Be? and The Woman Upstairs explores the enduring relevance of Madwoman’s central thesis concerning a tradition of “female literature,” a female “anxiety of authorship,” and the role of female precursors. To contextualize the question of Madwoman’s relevance—and my claim about it—I use a variety of secondary sources from the fields of feminism and literary theory, a collection of scholarly responses to Madwoman, a variety of author interviews and book reviews, as well as writings on the history and current work of the feminist movement. These secondary sources serve to support my argument on the enduring relevance of Madwoman and work to illuminate the rich relationship of current women’s writing to recent literary criticism and feminist thought. Overall, my analysis of these two novels reveals that the woman artist today, as represented in these novels, does experience the oppression of patriarchy in a very similar fashion to those writers and artists discussed by Gilbert and Gubar and that women novelists are interested in representing the predicament of the woman artist through related Madwoman-esque themes and motifs, and also through intentional strategies regarding form and genre. Additionally, my findings indicate that the novels are engaged in a project—both aesthetic and political—that centers themes of unlikeability, ugliness, messiness, and anger. These findings lead me to conclude that the spirit of the “madwoman” depicted in Victorian literature is connected to the “revolt” of the feminist wave of which Gilbert and Gubar’s work was a part and that this connection extends to the priorities of women writing today.
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