Thornfield (and Its Attic), Gothic Space, and Gender Relations The

Thornfield (and Its Attic), Gothic Space, and Gender Relations The

Thornfield (and Its Attic), Gothic Space, and Gender Relations The “madwoman in the attic” motif is one of Jane Eyre’s most famous elements, as it rep...

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Thornfield (and Its Attic), Gothic Space, and Gender Relations The “madwoman in the attic” motif is one of Jane Eyre’s most famous elements, as it represents issues of racial, feminine, and sexual oppression in dramatic and compelling ways that mark it as uniquely Gothic. In Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic, one of the most popularly quoted texts on studies of female hysteria, the authors address the significance of “madness.” In large part, Gilbert and Gubar draw on historical context about the status of women to ground their case that madness is largely artificial and patriarchal. In the nineteenth century, Victorian notions of womanhood dictated that women be thought of as either pure and angelic or insane and evil. In Jane Eyre, Bertha’s madness clearly places her in the second category. However, her madness has lent itself to much critical speculation. While her husband claims to have imprisoned Bertha because she is mad, it is also entirely possible that she is mad because she has been imprisoned. Since the first half of the nineteenth century, women had increasingly become the subjects of institutionalization in asylums when husbands hoped to dispose of unruly wives. Thus, the latter argument is a historically logical one. In their text, Gilbert and Gubar argue for the representation of madness in the novel as a reflection of nineteenth-century female oppression. Much like Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the lack of autonomy afforded to women at this time—especially married women—seems to drive women to madness. In Jane Eyre, therefore, Bertha’s madness becomes an example of the way in which marriage literally suffocates women. As a novel that is distinctly Gothic, the attic functions as a house haunted by the ghost of a mistreated wife. For Jane, the ghost-woman of the attic is particularly effective as a source of psychological terror, which suggests her own sense of discomfort with Victorian notions of marriage. The feminist implications of this reading suggest that the novel’s horror derives from the poor treatment of women, thereby conflating the traditionally terrifying elements of the Gothic with a rather subversive political stance.

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