susan gubar

The sexual nausea associated with all these monster-women helps explain why so many real women have for so long expressed loathing of (or at least anxiety about) their own, inexorably female bodies. The “killing” of oneself into an art object – the pruning and preening, the mirror madness, and concern with odors and aging, with hair which is invariably too curly or too lank, with bodies too thin or too thick – all this testifies to the efforts women have expended not just trying to be angels but trying not to become female monsters. 

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, “The Madwoman in the Attic" 

His unremitting intellect is the hornmad Iago ceaselessly willing that the moor in him shall suffer. // 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.
—  James Joyce, Ulysses // Sandra M. Gubar and Susan Gilbert, The Madwoman in the Attic
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   
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
If Victor Frankenstein can be likened to both Adam and Satan, however, who or what is he really? Here we are obliged to confront both the moral ambiguity and the symbolic slipperiness which are at the heart of all the characterizations in Frankenstein. In fact, it is probably these continual and complex reallocations of meaning, among characters whose histories echo and re-echo each other, that have been so bewildering to critics. Like figures in a dream, all the people in Frankenstein have different bodies and somehow, horribly, the same face, or worse – the same two faces.
—  Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, “Horror’s Twin: Mary Shelley’s Monstrous Eve”

sadybusiness replied to your post: Can we please agree that if feminism is a thing worth preserving or defending to begin with, then there are wrong ways to do feminism?

Can we allow that feminists talking about how other feminists do feminism wrong is the least interesting, most circular jerking part of feminism?

sadybusiness replied to your post: Can we please agree that if feminism is a thing worth preserving or defending to begin with, then there are wrong ways to do feminism?

That sounded weird and/or mean. I just mean that feminists online talking about online feminists often just gets things trapped in a talking-rather-than-doing, mirror-looking-into-a-mirror kinda space.

No, I understood where you were coming from. I don’t really have any real experience with that, though, so I didn’t think about it. It wasn’t on my mind. White Feminist Blogger telling White Feminist Blogger she’s not zeitgeisty enough, or has a bad opinion about Taylor Swift and is therefore politically irrelevant, is neither noble nor pretty. But we know there is a difference between that bullshit and the willingness to say that, for example, a thing is racist. But I didn’t articulate that difference. 

I’m mostly really hostile to the infighting argument because it was a historically reactionary argument that came from and thrived in anti-Black Feminism (anti-Third World Feminism, anti-Womanism, etc.) conversations. (See Susan Gubar’s “What Ails Feminist Criticism?”/“Who Killed Feminist Criticism?” [her answer: black women killed feminist criticism by being rude to white women.] [I’m not even being facetious, that’s almost exactly what she argued.]) And any arguments against infighting seek to preserve a whole, which is not…a good thing. A hostility toward infighting and a political obligation toward “feminist” unity is a historical, political construction, and its goal is forfeminismto survive.

In my thoughts, there is a big “if” behind whether feminism should survive, and what a living feminism would look like.

While I could propose thinking about “wrongness,” consent, boundaries, (and that’s really the exciting part here), I wasn’t really trying to reinvent a subject. I just think that a worthwhile feminism is a feminism that is willing to call imperialistic bullshit Not Feminism. This is really old! Why is that a risky position to stake? Why is that a statement that meets hostility? Why do we still have to have this fight? Is it really the fault of someone naming “wrongness” if a feminist refuses to “back down” on their entitlement to say whatever they want whenever they want and be validated? Who is ~~~starting that fight, really? I think that it’s this defense of entitlement that causes those mirror-in-a-mirror arguments, more often than anything. (Or people getting really mad about equally “viable” positions with regards to a pop culture figure, arguments which I guess sometimes get ugly and result in one feminist telling another feminist they are wrong. I don’t have opinions about this situation, if you want to know the truth.)

This is, of course, a really base thing to say, and it’s not accounting for the dynamics of speaking in general. I’m actually really agitated with myself for saying some of that stuff, just because stuff like “the right to speak” and “entitlement” and “opinions” and “dialogue” are so fraught and stupid anyway. Like, feminism’s job is to validate me saying this. That’s so dumb. I hate that. I hate that feminism taught me that I’m entitled to speak, when really it’s politically contemptible that I speak. I don’t know, really.

I just want to consider what an argument would look like if we allowed ourselves to employ “wrongness.” If we allowed ourselves to say “that’s not feminism.” Truly, that statement was so basic and underdeveloped because I was only thinking about the gajillions of times that this has happened:

a: a statement about feminist politics/racism/whatever
b: but you can’t say that because you don’t own feminism and I’m allowed to make whatever argument I want, because feminism

like, WHAT IF

a: right but racism is bad feminism so plz

and WHAT IF that was not met with

b: right but feminism can be whatever I want it to be



*racism is feminism is racism so nvm

(A lot of this is what Robyn Wiegman talked about in “What Ails Feminist Criticism? A Second Opinion,” which might be a worthwhile read for a lot of people. Anyone got a PDF of these two texts?)

In conclusion, I don’t know the difference between talking and doing because I’m confused about verbs.


The Rape by René Magritte
1. The Rape, 1934
2. The Rape, 1935
3. The Rape, 1948

Analysis of The Rape series from Representing Pornography: Feminism, Criticism, and Depictions of Female Violation by Susan Gubar (1987):
“Endowed with blind nipples replacing eyes, a belly button where her nose should be, and a vulva for a mouth, the female face is erased by the female torso imposed upon it, as if Magritte were suggesting that anatomy is bound to be her destiny. That the face associated with the body is sightless, senseless, and dumb implies, too, that Magritte may be subscribing to the view of one of William Faulkner’s fictional surrogates, a man who celebrates the feminine ideal as “a virgin with no legs to leave me, no arms to hold me, no head to talk to me” and who therefore goes on to define woman generically as “merely [an] articulated genital organ. While an anatomical surprise turns the female into a bearded lady, the articulation of the woman as genital organ makes her inarticulate, closing down all of the openings that ordinarily let the world enter the self so that Magritte’s subject seems monstrously impenetrable or horrifyingly solipsistic. Paradoxically, even as it fetishizes female sexuality, Le Viol denies the existence of female genitalia, for the vulva-mouth here is only a hairy indentation. In this reading of the painting’s title, the represented figure-robbed of subjectivity and placed on display like a freak-deserves to be raped: this is the only consummation which will penetrate her self-enclosure and, given the humiliation of her fleshiness, it is all she is good for. When the female is simultaneously decapitated and recapitated by her sexual organs, the face that was supposed to be a window to the soul embodies a sexuality that is less related to pleasure and more to dominance over the woman who is “nothing but” a body.”

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)

New from W. W. Norton, Reading and Writing Cancer: How Words Heal, by Susan Gubar.  Winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle, Gubar has expanded her “Living with Cancer” column from the New York Times into this remarkably literate, witty and practical new book.

If I started out skeptical about the current treatments of ovarian cancer and soon grew convinced of their barbarism, why then did I—a woman persuaded that I had been granted a richly rewarding existence, a person for some time committed to hospice and to the acknowledgment of my own mortality—continue to pursue subsequent protocols that prolonged or escalated my misery?
—  Susan Gubar asks impossible questions in Memoir of a Debulked Woman. Tonight the NBCC gives her and Sandra Gilbert a lifetime achievement award for their work in feminist criticism, including the groundbreaking The Madwoman in the Attic. Read a short excerpt from Gubar’s memoir here.