sandra m. gilbert

It is debilitating to be any woman in a society where woman are warned that if they do not behave like angels they must be monsters…Whether she is a passive angel or an active monster, in other words, the woman writer feels herself to be literally or figuratively crippled by the debilitating alternatives her culture offers her, and the crippling effects of her conditioning sometimes seem to ‘breed’ like sentences of death in the bloody shoes she inherits from her literary foremothers.
—  “The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination” from Chapter 2 Infection in the Sentence: The Woman Writer and the Anxiety of Authorship - Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar
Because Emily Brontë was looking oppositely not only for heaven (and hell) but for her own female origins, Wuthering Heights is one of the few authentic instances of novelistic myth-making, myth-making in the functional sense of problem-solving. Where writers from Charlotte Brontë and Henry James to James Joyce and Virginia Woolf have used mythic material to give point and structure to their novels, Emily Brontë uses the novel form to give substance–plausibility, really–to her myth. It is urgent that she do so because, as we shall see, the feminist cogency of this myth derives not only from its daring corrections of Milton but also from the fact that it is a distinctively nineteenth-century answer to the question of origin: it is the myth of how culture came about, and specifically of how nineteenth-century society occurred, the tale of where tea-tables, sofas, crinolines, and parsonages like the one at Haworth come from.

Because it is so ambitious a myth, Wuthering Heights has the puzzling self-containment of a mystery in the old sense of that word–the sense of mystery plays and Eleusianian mysteries. Locked in by Lockwood’s uncomprehending narrative, Nelly Dean’s story, with its baffling duplications of names, places, events, seems endlessly to reenact itself, like some ritual that must be cyclically repeated in order to sustain (as well as explain) both nature and culture. At the same time, because it is so prosaic a myth–a myth about crinolines!–Wuthering Heights is not in the least portentous or self-consciously “mythic.” On the contrary, like all true rituals and myths, Brontë’s “cuckoo’s tale” turns a practical, casual, humorous face to its audience. For as Lévi-Straus’s observations suggest, true believers gossip by the prayer wheel, since that modern reverence which enjoins solemnity is simply the foster child of modern skepticism.


Having arrived at the novel’s conclusion, we can now go back to its beginning, and try to summarize the basic story Wuthering Heights tells.


There was an Original Mother (Catherine), a daughter of nature whose motto might be “Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law / My services are bound.” But this girl fell into a decline, at least in part through eating the poisonous cooked food of culture. She fragmented herself into mad or dead selves on the one hand (Catherine, Heathcliff) and into lesser, gentler/genteeler selves on the other (Catherine II, Hareton). The fierce primordial selves disappeared into nature, the perversely hellish heaven which was there home. The more teachable and docile selves learned to read and write, and moved into the fallen cultured worlds of parlors and parsonages, the Miltonic heaven which, from the Original Mother’s point of view, is really hell. Their passage from nature to culture was facilitated by a series of teachers, preachers, nurses, cooks, and model ladies and patriarchs (Nelly, Joseph, Frances, the Lintons), most of whom gradually disappear by the end of the story, since these lesser creations have been so well instructed that they are themselves able to become teachers or models for other generations. Indeed, so model are they that they can be identified with the founders of ancestral houses (Hareton Earnshaw, 1500) and with the original mother redefined as the patriarch’s wife (Catherine Linton Heathcliff Earnshaw).


Looking oppositely for the queendom of heaven, she insists, like Blake, that “I have also the Bible of Hell, which the world shall have whether they will or no.” And in the voice of the wind that sweeps through the newly cultivated garden at Wuthering Heights, we can hear the jaguar, like Blake’s enraged Rintrah, roaring in the distance.
—  Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, “Looking Oppositely: Emily Brontë’s Bible of Hell,” The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination   
Sandra M. Gilbert, "Last Poem About the Snow Queen"

Then it was that little Gerda walked into the Palace, through the
great gates, in a biting wind…. She saw Kay, and knew him at once;
she flung her arms round his neck, held him fast, and cried, “Kay,
little Kay, have I found you at last?”

But he sat still, rigid and cold.

—-Hans Christian Andersen, “The Snow Queen”

You wanted to know “love” in all its habitats, wanted
to catalog the joints, the parts, the motions, wanted
to be a scientist of romance: you said
you had to study everything, go everywhere,
even here, even
this ice palace in the far north.

You said you were ready, you’d be careful.
Smart girl, you wore two cardigans, a turtleneck,
furlined boots, scarves,
a stocking cap with jinglebells.
And over the ice you came, gay as Santa,
singing and bringing gifts.

Ah, but the journey was long, so much longer
than you’d expected, and the air so thin,
the sky so high and black.
What are these cold needles, what are these shafts of ice,
you wondered on the fourteenth day.
What are those tracks that glitter overhead?

The one you came to see was silent,
he wouldn’t say “stars” or “snow,”
wouldn’t point south, wouldn’t teach survival.
And you’d lost your boots, your furs,
now you were barefoot on the ice floes, fingers blue,
tears freezing and fusing your eyelids.

Now you know: this is the place
where water insists on being ice,
where wind insists on breathlessness,
where the will of the cold is so strong
that even the stone’s desire for heat
is driven into the eye of night.

What will you do now, little Gerda?
Kay and the Snow Queen are one, they’re a single
pillar of ice, a throne of silence—
and they love you
the way the teeth of winter
love the last red shred of November.

For the Queen, as we come to see more clearly in the course of the story, is a plotter, a plot-maker, a schemer, a witch, an artist, an impersonator, a woman of almost infinite creative energy, witty, wily, and self-absorbed as all artists traditionally are. On the other hand, in her absolute chastity, her frozen innocence, her sweet nullity, Snow White represents precisely the ideal of “contemplative purity” we have already discussed, an ideal that could quite literally kill the Queen. An angel in the house of myth, Snow White is not only a child but (as female angels always are) childlike, docile, submissive, the heroine of a life that has no story. But the Queen, adult and demonic, plainly wants a life of “significant action,” by definition an “unfeminine” life of stories and story-telling. And therefore, to the extent that Snow White, as her daughter, is a part of herself, she wants to kill the Snow White in herself, the angel who would keep deeds and dramas out of her own house.

The first death plot the Queen invents is a naively straightforward murder story: she commands one of her huntsmen to kill Snow White. But, as Bruno Bettelheim has shown, the huntsman is really a surrogate for the King, a parental—or, more specifically, patriarchal—figure “who dominates, controls, and subdues wild ferocious beasts” and who thus “represents the subjugation of the animal, asocial, violent tendencies in man."81 In a sense, then, the Queen has foolishly asked her patriarchal master to act for her in doing the subversive deed she wants to do in part to retain power over him and in part to steal his power from him. Obviously, he will not do this. As patriarchy’s angelic daughter, Snow White is, after all, his child, and he must save her, not kill her. Hence he kills a wild boar in her stead, and brings its lung and liver to the Queen as proof that he has murdered the child. Thinking that she is devouring her ice-pure enemy, therefore, the Queen consumes, instead, the wild boar’s organs; that is, symbolically speaking, she devours her own beastly rage, and becomes (of course) even more enraged.

When she learns that her first plot has failed, then, the Queen’s story-telling becomes angrier as well as more inventive, more sophisticated, more subversive. Significantly, each of the three "tales” she tells—that is, each of the three plots she invents—depends on a poisonous or parodic use of a distinctively female device as a murder weapon, and in each case she reinforces the sardonic commentary on “femininity” that such weaponry makes by impersonating a “wise” woman, a “good” mother, or, as Ellen Moers would put it, an “educating heroine."82 As a "kind” old pedlar woman, she offers to lace Snow White “properly” for once—then suffocates her with a very Victorian set of tight laces. As another wise old expert in female beauty, she promises to comb Snow White’s hair “properly,” then assaults her with a poisonous comb. Finally, as a wholesome farmer’s wife, she gives Snow White a “very poisonous apple,” which she has made in “a quite secret, lonely room, where no one ever came.” The girl finally falls, killed, so it seems, by the female arts of cosmetology and cookery. Paradoxically, however, even though the Queen has been using such feminine wiles as the sirens’ comb and Eve’s apple subversively, to destroy angelic Snow White so that she (the Queen) can assert and aggrandize herself, these arts have had on her daughter an opposite effect from those she intended. Strengthening the chaste maiden in her passivity, they have made her into precisely the eternally beautiful, inanimate objet d’art patriarchal aesthetics want a girl to be. From the point of view of the mad, self-assertive Queen, conventional female arts kill. But from the point of view of the docile and selfless princess, such arts, even while they kill, confer the only measure of power available to a woman in a patriarchal culture.

Certainly when the kindly huntsman-father saved her life by abandoning her in the forest at the edge of his kingdom, Snow White discovered her own powerlessness. Though she had been allowed to live because she was a “good” girl, she had to find her own devious way of resisting the onslaughts of the maddened Queen, both inside and outside her self. In this connection, the seven dwarves probably represent her own dwarfed powers, her stunted selfhood, for, as Bettelheim points out, they can do little to help save the girl from the Queen. At the same time, however, her life with them is an important part of her education in submissive femininity, for in serving them she learns essential lessons of service, of selflessness, of domesticity. Finally, that at this point Snow White is a housekeeping angel in a tiny house conveys the story’s attitude toward “woman’s world and woman’s work”: the realm of domesticity is a miniaturized kingdom in which the best of women is not only like a dwarf but like a dwarf’s servant.

Does the irony and bitterness consequent upon such a perception lead to Snow White’s few small acts of disobedience? Or would Snow White ultimately have rebelled anyway, precisely because she is the Queen’s true daughter? The story does not, of course, answer such questions, but it does seem to imply them, since its turning point comes from Snow White’s significant willingness to be tempted by the Queen’s “gifts,” despite the dwarves’ admonitions. Indeed, the only hint of self-interest that Snow White displays throughout the whole story comes in her “narcissistic” desire for the stay-laces, the comb, and the apple that the disguised murderess offers. As Bettelheim remarks, this “suggests how close the stepmother’s temptations are to Snow White’s inner desires."83 Indeed, it suggests that, as we have already noted, the Queen and Snow White are in some sense one: while the Queen struggles to free herself from the passive Snow White in herself, Snow White must struggle to repress the assertive Queen in herself. That both women eat from the same deadly apple in the third temptation episode merely clarifies and dramatizes this point. The Queen’s lonely art has enabled her to contrive a two-faced fruit—one white and one red "cheek"—that represents her ambiguous relationship to this angelic girl who is both her daughter and her enemy, her self and her opposite. Her intention is that the girl will die of the apple’s poisoned red half—red with her sexual energy, her assertive desire for deeds of blood and triumph—while she herself will be unharmed by the passivity of the white half.

—  Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, “The Queen’s Looking Glass: Female Creativity, Male Images of Women, and the Metaphor of Literary Paternity” (excerpt)
Landscape: In the Forest

Midnight. The witch’s hut
splits like a pomegranate.
Dried flowers pour from seams in the wall.
The floorboards shiver, shred, caress
themselves with splintery claws,
pine needles, in love with their own scent.

And now the forest, where only this evening
the coaches of princes clattered,
is silent - the ladies vanished like light,
the fur, the velvet - and now
the witch in her child clothing
wanders among green branches,

her skin the wax of berries, her feathery hair
innocent as new leaves.
—  Sandra M. Gilbert

Literally so super stoked to read this. Chapter titles include:

“Infection in the sentence: the woman writer and the anxiety of authorship”

“Milton’s bogey: patriarchal poetry and women readers”

“Horror’s twin: mary Shelley’s monstrous eve”

“Looking oppositely: Emily Bronte’s bible of hell”

“George Eliot as the Angel of destruction”


“Strength in agony: nineteenth century poetry by women”

Frigid December twilight in Paris, hurrying
hungers, homeward bound, time

for a kir, for a Lillet, or even a whiskey
to ward off the cold, & you say you want

oysters Rockefeller, so we stop at the stand
for crustacés outside the Monoprix & buy

two dozen plump ones, & then at the verger
en foce
for the spinach, the parsley, the shallots,

& we have gros sel, a lot of it
to grill the hopeless little lumps of ocean

flesh alive, wrapped in a millionaire’s
blanket of herbs–& O

the sweet salt green warm mouthfuls
of seaside innocence that we swallowed that night

slowly, tenderly, licking the shells & sipping
our kirs at our small round table,

each blessed taste of earth & ocean
still hot from a heavy bed of salt

itself so hot some devil might have
boiled down gallons & gallons

of the North Sea to leave this burning sparkle
of debris, just for us, just

for a few minutes in the icy
gut of winter.


‘Oysters Rockefeller,’ Sandra M. Gilbert in Aftermath, Poems (W.W. Norton, 2011)