Tuesday, 5 March 2013

A critical review on the repression of female writers

Siân Amy Siviter

A critical review on Gibert and Gubar’s 1984 article “The Queen’s Looking Glass”

 From the well acclaimed works of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, “The Mad Woman in the Attic” originally published in 1979 is a piece that explores the conceptions and repression of female writers within the world of literature. Exploring male ideologies regarding women and the act of writing, alongside the analysis and appreciation of female authors, such as Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, this text demonstrates a passionate and argumentative contrast between the thoughts of 18th century men and women regarding literature.

Gilbert and Gubar address the issue of the preservation of masculine dominance in literature, where throughout time men have overshadowed, and indeed purged the works of female writers. Gerard Manley Hopkins stated ‘masterly execution, which is a kind of male gift, and especially marks off men from women.” Here Gilbert and Gubar have presented a male egotistic opinion that they continue to explore throughout the article. From the 18th century male perspective, a pen is somewhat a metaphorical penis, a trait physically and psychologically reserved for the use of men. Hopkins continues to say that “not only is a woman that attempts the pen, an intrusive and presumptuous creature, she is absolutely unredeemable.” This suggests that a woman who tries to express herself through literature is not only exposing herself to society in a masculine, unattractive manner but also presenting herself to the derision of men. It is by no means considered that any woman could write and write well, she is infinitely set to fail such a masculine task.

A letter written by Robert Southey, to the brilliant Charlotte Brontë, author of the intricate and emotional novel Jane Eyre is referred to by Gilbert and Gubar, the extract reading “Literature is not the business of a woman’s life, and it cannot be.” This laughable notion directed at a female mind of excellence, and executed with such ignorance is a stain on the character of the men of this period. Why is it regarded as impossible for a woman to excel at a masculine activity? Who declared writing to be fit for men alone? For sewing and musical displays to be categorised as feminine, while politics and hunting were taken up by men, who was to determine where writing, such a personal act of expression fell? Do women not read books? Do they not write letters, and have thoughts and feelings equal to those of men? Should a woman’s mind be so very restricted that such thoughts and ideas are unable to develop and thrive, let alone be allowed free passage onto paper? Gubar and Gilbert expertly review and consider these ideas, drawing on the opinions of women, expressed through their pens on paper, to counter argue the vicious dictatorship of men.

The oppression of women’s writing meant that to be even considered or viewed in the publishing region, a woman had to hide herself behind a pen name, pretending to be a man so that her work would be appreciated for what is was and not merely dismissed as the idol ramblings of a woman. The article refers to one of Anne Finch’s Poems where she ironically presents women as Cyphers; Nonentities, and the poem reads:

 “We beside you but as Cyphers stand,

T’increase your Numbers and to swell th; account

The poem expresses a scornful tone of the way in which men regard women as mere objects for amusement; they are present in life as mere vessel to carry a man’s spawn into the world. The word ‘swell’ appears to me very symbolic, a penis swells and as William Gass voiced “literary women lack that blood congested genital drive which energizes every great style.” Such a remark stating that a man’s genitalia is where the art of writing stems from, it also presents the notion of women lacking in sexual desire, being unable to write well, as they do not have the passionate desire that a man so clearly relies upon. Swell also relates to the swelling of the womb to accommodate a growing child. This imagery presents a man with his sexual power and a woman with her only valued feature of bearing children. The two juxtaposing categories are bound by the use of the same word a factor not merely present by accident I think, for the act of sex appears to be the only element men of this time valued as worthwhile for a man and woman to participate in together, for certainly a man could not discuss sewing and a woman could not discuss politics. A man did not make flower arrangements and a woman did not take part in sports, so surely there was nothing else to do that would incorporate both genders. Presented here is a conceited ideology that women increase ‘male numbers’ both in biological reproduction and in literature, by being food for men.  Women are presented as the inspiration of such works of great men but by no other means effect any written literature. Gilbert and Gulbar write that a woman’s participation is her ability to ‘pleasure’ either a man’s ‘body, mind, penis, or pen.’ Or such is the opinion of the male society.

When the novel Wuthering Heights circulated in popular society and cleared a space for itself in the canon of great literature, it was widely regarded as being impossible for a woman to have written such a dark, violent piece.  Sexually charged and with complexities in character, plot, language and narration, it was far too unlikely such work had been written at the hand of a woman. It is not that a woman is unable to compose such work; it is the belief of men that women ought to fit a particular ideal, the ideal of being passive, gentle, and obedient and a complimentary article on the life of a man. Women are present not to shine themselves, but to help a man shine more. These ideas presented give cause for further argument of why in a masculine concept does sex have to feature so very vividly. It certainly expresses that men have one trait very much their own and that’s the relation of sex to any given topic. Do these men suggest that their penis is their pen? As previously mentioned ‘an erect penis (congested blood in genital drive) gives energy to a man’s work’ it calls into question if these men are only great writers when sexually charged. If so, this then suggest that men were in fact weak minded and led not by their minds but by their desire, only fuelled by women.

Angela Carters story ‘The Company of Wolves’ taken from the collection of short stories ‘The Bloody Chamber’ published in 1979, is an interesting, dark adaption of ‘Red Riding Hood’. Carter incorporates many issues in the story. Some of which are; sex, coming of age, violence, animalistic impulses, and gender roles. We can relate the story to the previous ideas of women being subject to a man’s desire and present for the purpose of pleasure. In the story, red riding hood is a girl of about thirteen or fourteen, as it is stated she has recently began her monthly periods. Despite being young and seemingly innocent the girl is aware of her own desire to the man/wolf. Her cape of red reflects everything about the story, the violence of the wolf, the lust, the new bleeding that has distinguished woman from girl, and the blood that will be shed when she gives up her virginity.


Throughout the story the male character; the wolf, is portrayed as the dominant role, he leads the girl and imprisons her. The image of entrapment at the hands of a man portrays the repression of women and the restrictions men place upon women, in life and in literature. The act of the girl striping off her clothes when commanded shows that she’s the subordinate. However the girl relishes in her act, she enjoys the sexual desire and offers herself up as a sacrifice not in death but in body. This demonstrates the ongoing belief that a woman’s greatest tool is her sexual element, and that it is this and this alone that gives females their only power over the male population. The girl is unafraid of the wolf for she knows her own influence; his sexual desire is the hunger the wolf feels, rather than a literal need for meat. This can be viewed in two different perspectives, that the female character gains control and wants this relationship, or that it is the expected and natural way for a woman to concede and do as a man wishes, therefore her acceptance and eventual surrender could be regarded by the reader as either personal choice or submission at the forced hand of society and its expectations. The end of the story, features the girl content in the arms of the man/wolf, this leads us to contemplate if Carter’s representation of women, is that they belong imprisoned by a man, for it is not the girl who holds the wolf, but he who firmly wraps himself around her, binding her to him in the act of taking her virtue and physically locking her in place with his strength.

Overall the article presents strong and controversial ideas and while giving two juxtaposing views from the two gender roles, the writers attempt to blur this line created by men and argue that women are equally able to write and write well, if not better. Women are not inspired by carnal acts and do not write with their pen being led by their penis, for we have none. We, the women, write from our brains a feature clearly underestimated and unused by the male population of the 18th century.

Word count: 1,643


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