From Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics (1985)


Gilbert and Gubar are theoretically aware. Their own brand of feminist critical theory is seductively sophisticated, particularly when contrasted with the general level of theoretical debate among Anglo-American feminist critics. But what kind of theory are they really advocating? And what are the political implications of their theses? The first troubling aspect of their approach is their insistence on the identity of author and character. Like Kate Millett before them, Gilbert and Gubar repeatedly claim that the character (particularly the madwoman) is the author's double, "an image of her own anxiety and rage" (78), maintaining that it is

through the violence of the double that the female author enacts her own raging desire to escape male houses and male texts, while at the same time it is through the double's violence that this anxious author articulates for herself the costly destructiveness of anger repressed until it can no longer be contained. (85)

Their critical approach postulates a real woman hidden behind the patriarchal textual facade, and the feminist critic's task is to uncover her truth. In an incisive review of The Madwoman in the Attic, Mary Jacobus rightly criticizes the authors' "unstated complicity with the autobiographical 'phallacy,' whereby male critics hold that women's writing is somehow closer to their experience than men's, that the female text is the author, or at any rate a dramatic extension of her unconscious" (520). Though the two critics avoid oversimplistic conclusions, they nevertheless end up at times in a dangerously reductionist position: under the manifest text, which is nothing but a "surface design" which "conceals or obscures deeper, less accessible . . . levels of meaning" (73), lies the real truth of the texts.


This is reminiscent of reductionist varieties of  psychoanalytic or Marxist criticism, though it is no longer the author's Oedipus complex or relation to the class struggle that counts as the only truth of the text, but her constant, never-changing  feminist rage. This position, which in less sophisticated guises is perhaps the most recurrent theme of Anglo-American feminist criticism, manages to transform all texts written by women into feminist texts, because they may always and without exception be held to embody somehow and somewhere the author's "female rage" against patriarchal oppression. Thus Gilbert and Gubar's readings of Jane Austen lack the force of their readings of Charlotte Bronte precisely because they persist in defining anger as the only positive signal of a feminist consciousness. Austen's gentle irony is lost on them; whereas the explicit rage and moodiness of Charlotte Bronte's texts furnish them with superb grounds for stimulating exegesis.


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Gilbert and Gubar's belief in the true female authorial voice as the essence of all texts written by women masks the problems raised by their theory of patriarchal ideology. For them, as for Kate Millett, ideology becomes a monolithic unified totality that knows no contradictions; against this a miraculously intact "femaleness" may pit its strength. If patriarchy generates its own all-pervasive ideological structures, it is difficult to see how women in the nineteenth century could manage to develop or maintain a feminist consciousness untainted by the dominant patriarchal structures. As Mary Jacobus has pointed out, Gilbert and Gubar's emphasis on the deceitful strategies of the woman writer makes her "evasive at the cost of a freedom which twentieth-century women poets have eagerly sought: the freedom of being read as more than exceptionally articulate victims of a patriarchally engendered plot" ("Review of The Madwoman in the Attic," 522).


In other words: how did women manage to write at all, given the relentless patriarchal indoctrination that surrounded them from the moment they were born? Gilbert and Gubar avoid this question, blandly stating as the conclusion of their first chapter that "Despite the obstacles presented by those twin images of angel and monster, despite the fears of sterility and the anxieties of authorship from which women have suffered, generations of texts have been possible for female writers" (44). Indeed, but why? Only a more sophisticated account of the contradictory, fragmentary nature of patriarchal ideology would help Gilbert and Gubar to answer this question. . . .


Feminists must be able to account for the paradoxically productive aspects of patriarchal ideology (the moments in which the ideology backfires on itself, as it were) as well as for its obvious oppressive implications if they are to answer the tricky question of how it is that some women manage to counter patriarchal strategies despite the odds stacked against them. In the nineteenth century, for instance, it would seem true to say that bourgeois patriarchy 's predilection for liberal humanism as a "legitimizing ideology" lent ammunition and arguments to the growing bourgeois feminist movement.  If one held that the rights of the individual were sacred, it became increasingly difficult to argue that women's rights somehow were not. Just as Mary Wollstonecraft's essay on the rights of woman was made possible by the emancipatory if bourgeois-patriarchal ideas of liberté, egalité and fraternité,so John Stuart Mill's essay on the subjection of women was the product of patriarchal liberal humanism. Gilbert and Gubar overlook these points, referring to Mill only twice en passant, and both times as a parallel to Mary Wollstonecraft. Their theory of covert and inexpressed rage as the essence of century "femaleness" cannot comfortably cope with a "male" text that openly tackles the problem of women's oppression.


This impasse in Gilbert and Gubar's work is both accentuated and compounded by their persistent use of the epithet "female." It has long been an established practice among most feminists to use "feminine" (and "masculine") to represent social constructs (patterns of sexuality and behavior imposed by cultural and social norms), and to reserve "female" and "male" for the purely biological aspects of sexual difference. Thus "feminine" represents nurture and "female" nature in this usage. "Femininity" is a cultural construct: one isn't born a woman, one becomes one, as Simone de Beauvoir puts it. Seen in this perspective, patriarchal oppression consists of imposing certain social standards of femininity on all biological women, in order precisely to make us believe that the chosen standards for "femininity" are natural. Thus a woman who refuses to conform can be labeled both unfeminine and unnatural. It is in the patriarchal interest that these two terms (femininity and femaleness) stay thoroughly confused. Femininists, on the contrary, have to disentangle this confusion, and must therefore always insist that though women undoubtedly are female, this in no way guarantees that they will be feminine. This is equally true whether one defines femininity in the old patriarchal ways or in a new feminist way.


Gilbert and Gubar's refusal to admit a separation between nature and nurture at the lexical level renders their whole argument obscure. For what is this "female creativity" they are studying? Is it a natural, essential, inborn quality in all women? Is it "feminine" creativity in the sense of a creativity conforming to certain social standards of female behavior, or is it a creativity typical of a feminine subject position in the psychoanalytical sense? Gilbert and Gubar seem to hold the first hypothesis, though in a slightly more historicized form: in a given patriarchal society all women (because they are biologically female) will adopt certain strategies to counter patriarchal oppression. These strategies will be "female" since they will be the same for all women submitted to such conditions. Such an argument relies heavily on the assumption that patriarchal ideology is homogeneous and all-encompassing in its effects. It also gives little scope for an understanding of how genuinely difficult it is for women to achieve anything like "full femininity," or of the ways in which women can come to take up a masculine subject position--that is to say, become solid defenders of the patriarchal status quo.


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From one viewpoint this is a laudable project, since feminists obviously wish to make women speak; but from another viewpoint it carries some dubious political and aesthetic implications. For one thing it is not an unproblematic project to try to speak for the other woman, since this is precisely what the ventriloquism of patriarchy has always done: men have constantly spoken for women, or in the name of women. Is it right that women now should take up precisely that masculine position in relation to other women? We might argue, in other words, that Gilbert and Gubar arrogate to themselves the same authorial authority they bestow on all Women writers.