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To describe the position of a female writer, Gilbert and Gubar reconfigure the word “disease” into “dis-ease,” and by doing so, they add multiple layers of meaning to it, suggesting that female writers got “dis-eased and infected by the sentences of patriarchy” (1361). A few of the meanings that I can extract from this word include the lack of ease in finding the means of articulating one’s perspective or even viewing it as normal and legitimate and the subsequent lack of ease in a female writer’s role. From this point of view, the “infection” of one’s beliefs and perceptions by the dominant culture’s views and opinions must warp the personal perspective and breed the unease, uncertainty in it. Cixous points out that both men and women “are caught up in a network of millennial cultural determinations of a complexity that is practically unanalyzable” (268). In other words, she points out that male writers were infected by patriarchal ideas as well. However, male writers’ personal experience could not supply any reasons for doubting the ideas that they were conditioned to believe, which may have resulted in the different depictions of female characters by female and male authors.
One of the characters that seem to be portrayed differently by male and female authors is that of a mad or monstrous woman. The character is closely connected to the concept of femininity, which is constructed by the patriarchal society; in particular, this figure is typically associated with a woman who rejects traditional, stereotypical femininity. However, this character seems to reflect different fears and preoccupations when depicted by male and female authors. As shown by Gilbert and Gubar and echoed by Beauvoir and Cixous, while the character’s demonization is characteristic of male and female writers, the latter tend to provide a more complex and less antagonistic depiction, which can be explained by gender-related differences in perspectives and concerns.
The Origins of the Monster Woman: Patriarchal Dichotomies
Traditionally, femininity and masculinity are opposed by the patriarchal culture. Cixous discusses these “dual, hierarchized oppositions” and boils them down to the opposition of activity, which is stereotypically regarded as the key feature of a man, and passivity, which stereotypically is regarded as the key feature of a woman (264). Beauvoir also describes the passivity of a woman, but she describes it as the feature of a mediator, enabler, which is used by the actor (the man) to explore and create (638). Beauvoir shows that various male authors regarded this passivity as immanent, necessary, and even virtuous while coming from a woman. She also notes that the opposite views, which consider masculine to be either superior or inferior to feminine (with the same or similar understanding of the dichotomy), are equally restrictive for women. They depict her as the Other, something different from the man (the human), their opposite. In every case of a male writer that Beauvoir analyses, the traditional (stereotypical) femininity is described from the point of view of the traditional (stereotypical) masculinity in a way that would be convenient and complimentary for the latter. These examples can be regarded as illustrations of the phallocentric perspective, and their wide variety, while showing that the concept of femininity is very flexible, also indicates that it is always meant to be altruistic if not servile with respect to a man.
In general, the passive woman who conforms with the role that is required of her is regarded as a saintly figure in the traditionally patriarchal culture. In contrast, the woman who refuses to be a mediator is viewed as a monster or a madwoman. It is also apparent that the notion of the woman being the “other” also contains certain connotations of her being a monster (different, inhuman). In this respect, I would suggest that the angelic figure of a woman (the positively sexist one) corresponds to this view in making the woman non-human as much as the monstrous madwoman’s figure. However, it also seems to be clear that of the two, the monstrous woman is the one that patriarchy has discredited successfully.
The Features of the Monster Woman
As shown by Gilbert and Gubar, the “vexed and vexing polarities of angel and monster” are widely represented in traditional literature, which makes it possible to define certain characteristics of the latter (1361). The monstrous women are regarded as powerful but demonic figures of “Gorgons, Sirens, Scyllas, serpent-Lamias, Mothers of Death or Goddesses of Night” (Gilbert and Gubar 1366). Also, Gilbert and Gubar suggest that a monster woman is the one that seeks “self-articulation,” which is regarded as a form of power that women (including those involved in creative activities) have traditionally been refused (1366). In other words, the authors suggest that the monstrous woman is also a creative woman, which makes the character particularly relevant for female writers (1366). The authors suggest that traditionally (that is, within the definition enforced by the patriarchal ideas), women involved in creative spheres of life are demonized since they appear as active rather than passive creatures.
In other words, due to the mentioned dichotomies, creativity, power, and anger, all of which have always been regarded as perfectly normal for a male character, were seen as craziness when applied to a female one. Here, it should be pointed out that considering the madwoman in terms of the patriarchal duality can be rather restrictive. For instance, Cixous also mentions madness, but she discusses it in terms of a person who defies the dichotomy of male/female and contains “certain homosexuality,” considering them stronger, more flexible, and also more fragile (269). The monstrous woman would probably be better defined as non-conforming to female gender stereotypes rather than conforming to male gender stereotypes. Given the importance of the dichotomies for the patriarchal society, it is not surprising that the rebellious woman would be regarded as a concern if not a danger.
The patriarchal society was concerned with women failing to fulfill the role of mediators or succeeding in the role of actors, which can indeed be exemplified by the vast number of monstrous and powerful female demon characters that were meant to be destroyed or tricked by male ones. However, the fear of the mirror, in which the madwoman resides, demonstrates that this character was not only a patriarchal concern (Gilbert and Gubar 1365). The patriarchal culture had been (possibly, has been) defining how women regard themselves, which is true for female writers (Gilbert and Gubar 1366). Female writers and other women, tend to “find it easier to doubt themselves than the censorious voices of society” (Gilbert and Gubar 1364). As a result, while possibly identifying with monstrous women, female writers might not always be willing to admit it. The fear of the mirror suggests difficulties in coming to terms with one’s inability to correspond to societal expectations, which can be regarded as a significant concern for female writers.
Mad and monstrous women characters created by female writers “seek to destroy all the patriarchal structures,” but they can end up being punished for their rebellion (Gilbert and Gubar 1366). Indeed, another defining feature of the character of a madwoman in the attic is her being trapped. Gilbert and Gubar consider various forms and hints of imprisonment and escape to be characteristic of female writers (1369-1370). The forms of imprisonment are multiple, including the literal confinements of the kitchen and women’s clothes or the metaphorical ones of a “loathsome” pregnant body and the passive, submissive role that is forced upon a woman.
Gilbert and Gubar consider being “imprisoned” in a pregnant body from the point of view of objectivation. In other words, when a woman’s body becomes a “home” for the embryo, it becomes “owned” by the latter; hence, the ability of the woman to establish her ownership over her body becomes questioned. Beauvoir also mentions objectivation, in which a woman is regarded as flesh, fertile soil, a thing that can be essential for survival but cannot be seen as a person. In my view, objectivation is strongly connected to the woman’s traditional role, which can be again referred to the passivity and mediating features of the angel-like woman. The madwoman in the attic is not comfortable in the role of an object, which is viewed as a flaw from the male writer’s perspective. There are more layers to the issue for the female writer, more concerns to be discussed when gender stereotypes are considered.
While monstrous, madwomen are not antagonistic to the main characters in female writing. In male lore, Gorgons are meant to be slain by male heroes, and Sirens and Sphinxes create obstacles that have to be destroyed. On the other hand, Gilbert and Gubar insist that monstrous women are doubles of female writers, reflecting the duplicity of their literature and the self-division, fragmentation of those who are “dis-eased” by the traditional dichotomy (1366). If insanity can be connected to the rejection of the role, which was already defined as a form of imprisonment, it can also be regarded as a liberation. For instance, Gilman’s character from “The Yellow Wallpaper” that Gilbert and Gubar discuss ends up being insane, which would turn her into an unreliable narrator and make her perceive the world devoid of any sense. However, the madwoman’s delusions are insightful and more meaningful than the arguments of the woman before the breakdown. As a result, Gilbert and Gubar suggest that this madness endows the character with “mirages of health and freedom” (1373).
Similarly, Gilbert and Gubar demonstrate the two ways, in which patriarchy comes to terms with a creative woman: either by ensuring that her field of activity is labeled as woman’s literature (and devaluated when compared to “real” one) or by forcing her to mimic “male” literary forms. However, the authors suggest that in this mimicry, which can be regarded as a survival technique of its own, female writers developed a way to introduce their female perspective, even though they did it covertly. Gilbert and Gubar regard the duplicity of literature (and lifestyle) as a survival technique for the subordinate cultures, including those of color, colonized populations, and women. From this point of view, the monster woman character could become a secret, indirect voice of the female writer, which dared to reflect the perspective that would be difficult to express overtly. Thus, the character of a madwoman can be described as a liberator and enabler. Still, in this case, she enables the woman, which seems to be opposed to a female character’s traditional patriarchal aims.
To sum up, Gilbert and Gubar believe that female writing is more sophisticated, “revisionary and revolutionary” than it is typically viewed, particularly because of the multiple covert or overt reconsiderations of the character of the madwoman (1367). These layers of meanings seem to be impossible to portray by male writers, possibly, because of the lack of relevant experience. It should be pointed out that this lack of experience cannot absolve the purposeful silencing of the female perspective and the typical focus of the traditional literature on men’s experiences and feelings only, which is highlighted by Cixous. However, it can be used to offer a theoretical explanation for the phenomenon: lacking the complex concerns of the “dis-eased” female writers, male ones could only express their own disturbance or awe at the madwoman; they could hardly understand this character or, which is more likely, they never searched for the means to do so, content with labeling women as incomprehensible and potentially dangerous Others.
The present essay cannot be referred to as the entirety of literary works of any period. Still, the patterns that are demonstrated by Gilbert and Gubar, Cixous, and Beauvoir seem to indicate that certain discrepancies can indeed be found between the female figure as portrayed by male and female authors. These discrepancies are caused by the differences in the two groups’ experiences, which were conditioned by their distinct positions in the patriarchal culture. Both men and women were trained to believe certain stereotypes about femininity. Still, while male authors were content with the dominant views, female ones had the opportunity to test them, apply them to their lives, and discover their issues.
As a result, both female and male writers accept the existence of the mad and monstrous female character. Still, it is the female writers who manage to make her more complex than the one-dimensional antipode of the conventionally feminine woman. Given the ability of the dominant culture to enforce certain ideas and the fact that an unexpected female perspective was unlikely to be accepted by patriarchal readers, it is not surprising that the insane woman was often punished or neglected. Still, this fact could not diminish the importance of her mission as the secret voice of the author and a woman. Reflecting the concerns of both groups, the madwoman’s character can be employed to examine the experiences of female writers, which used to be silenced and overlooked, but which still found their expression in the overt and covert manifestations of gender nonconformity in female characters.
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Beauvoir, Simone de. “Myths: Of Women in Five Authors.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, edited by David Richter, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998, pp. 635-640.
Cixous, Helene. “Sorties.” Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, edited by Nigel Wood and David Lodge, Longman, 2000, pp. 263-270.
Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. “Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, edited by David Richter, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998, pp. 1360-1374.