L222 Paper 2
April 23, 2001
Angels and Monsters
In their book The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar address the issue of literary potential for women in a world shaped by and for men. Specifically, Gilbert and Gubar are concerned with the nineteenth century woman and how her role was based on her association with the symbols of angels, monsters, or sometimes both. Because the role of angel was ideally passive and the role of monster was naturally evil, both limited a woman’s behavior into quiet content, with few words to object.
Women in the nineteenth century, Gilbert and Gubar claim, lived quiet and passive lives, embodying the ideals of the “Eternal Feminine” vision in Goethe’s Faust. Passivity led to a belief that women were more spiritual than men, meant to contemplate rather than act. “It is just because women are defined as wholly passive, completely void of generative power that they become numinous to male artists,” they write on page 599. It was this celestial quality that separated them from earthly men capable of lives of action, and thus, capable of handling the pen. Lives without action, of course, were hardly worth recording, so the passive woman had no story to tell, no book to write. According to our two authors, a woman without her own story became an angel in the house, one who heard others’ stories but never told her own. Women were encouraged to live along these descriptions, to be the eternal silent feminine, content only in pleasing society instead of herself. “For in the metaphysical emptiness their ‘purity’ signifies they are, of course, self-less,” write Gilbert and Gubar on page 599.
As self-less beings, women were left without voices, destined to a life of silence. These arguments are not unusual in feminism. With these familiar assertions, Gilbert and Gubar are indebted to women like Judith Fetterley, who wrote “On the Politics of Literature.” But Gilbert and Gubar’s feminist theory doesn’t end there. They extend feminist theory to the literary world, specifically to the art of writing. According to this theory, woman’s role in society, reinforced by the literature of the day, left her incapable of the written language because of the power it represented. In denying her the pen, the nineteenth century woman was, to borrow Fetterley’s line, “asked to identify against herself” (562). Writing was left up to the men, as if the pen was a metaphorical extension of their manhood. In a very real way, women were “denied the autonomy - the subjectivity - that the pen represents,” not to mention the culture of the day (598). It is here Gilbert and Gubar begin to reflect the ideas of Edward Said in his theory of Orientalism. In it, Said claims “knowledge of the Orient, because generated out of strength, in a sense creates the Orient, the Oriental, and his world” (880). In much the same way, the men of the nineteenth century created the Eternal Feminine, the woman, and her world. But what was missing was a sense of the woman herself, because in the world created for her, she wasn’t allowed the power of self expression.
Being angelic seems to have positive connotations, such as a deeper sense of morality and religious faith (but what better reason to rationalize the status quo and be content in one’s passivity?). However, the angels Gilbert and Gubar identify have the liability, mentioned earlier, of being self-less. “In the severity of her selflessness, this nineteenth-century angel-woman becomes not just a memento of otherness but actually a memento mori, an ‘Angel of Death’” (601). There was something supernaturally divine about the nineteenth century woman, but at the same time, the otherness she represented, since she had no real life of her own, must have been the opposite of life. “For to be selfless is not only to be noble, it is to be dead,” and the ideal of the contemplative angel-woman “evokes both heaven and the grave” (602). Thus evolves the being Gilbert and Gubar label the monster, “a kind of antithetical mirror image of an angel” (603). The passive angel in the house whose role it was to nurse and comfort had power to ensure the safety to those in the house. This implies, as Gilbert and Gubar put it so well, “she can manipulate; she can scheme; she can plot - stories as well as strategies” (602).
Just as angels dominated nineteenth century texts, so too did monsters. Gilbert and Gubar examine many examples, from Spenser’s Faerie Queene to the writings of Milton and Swift and even Hebrew mythology. Literary monsters, they say, were responsible for the negative image they caused on female creativity. Suddenly armed with the supernatural power over life and death, these monsters symbolized danger to a patriarchal society, thus stifling potential female creativity. According to our authors, the physical plucking, pruning, and preening women do to their bodies demonstrates their willingness to kill the monsters within. Because women were more afraid of being noisy monsters than silent angels, they were less likely to pick up the pen.
Gilbert and Gubar make strong arguments in The Madwoman in the Attic however, they are not without their limitations. Other than the obvious limitation of only discussing nineteenth century women and writing, Gilbert and Gubar’s work also fails to distinguish between women of different classes and races, just as Marxist theory ignores sex and Freudian theory ignores class. While it may be true that the images of angel and monster were universal among rich and poor, or black and white, it’s likely that the literature containing these images made more impact on those most literate and with the best access to literature. In other words, the wealthy and white. On the other hand, to make such distinctions within the gender may be counterproductive if it leads women to subdivide into smaller groups and fight each other rather than fighting the patriarchal society they all oppose. Gilbert and Gubar, perhaps wisely, make no such distinctions. Because they don’t, it almost seems inappropriate to examine the theory of angels and monsters to Nella Larson’s Passing, a book about black women passing for white in the early twentieth century. But with a closer reading, Gilbert and Gubar’s theory can and does apply.
Standard feminist theory applies to Passing because there’s a parallel between race and gender in the story. In becoming white for social reasons, the women in the book are crossing over to a part of society less restrained by oppression. This is not unlike female authors writing with male pen names. Both are pretending to be something they’re not because to do otherwise would be at their disadvantage. Passing for white in a white man’s world allowed the characters of Passing more opportunity for a desirable future, while at the same time, it was a very dangerous act. Passing, then, is like writing. The women must dare to be what they’ve been told not to be, in order to discover their voice and their self. They must dare to be discovered, either as a monster or a Negro in order to avoid a lifetime of indentured servitude. Both the acts of passing and writing have the power to emancipate. But at the same time, as Clare and Irene demonstrate, they mustn’t abandon their true nature, just as women writers must find a healthy medium in their identity between angel and monster. In order to someday abolish racism, society must change from the inside out, just like Fetterley believes that “to create a new understanding of our literature is to make possible a new effect of that literature on us... to provide the conditions for changing the culture that the literature reflects” (566).
Specifically the characters of Irene and Clare can be seen as near embodiments of Gilbert and Gubar’s angel and monster. While both women pass, Irene does so less often and only when it’s convenient, like for lunch at the Drayton Hotel. Clare, on the other hand, has disguised herself even to her racist white husband. In many ways Irene, because she clings to her conservative black middle class life, symbolizes the angel in the house. Her cautious passivity defines her character as one without a story of her own until her childhood friend, Clare Kendry, re-enters her life. Clare symbolizes the monster, the creature created when women dare pass from contemplation to action. She’s a danger to the dominating society just as a woman writer endangers a patriarchy. It’s precisely their differences that make Irene and Clare so similar. While Clare yearns to spend time around her own race, Irene in particular, the latter can’t resist Clare’s company and at times seems almost envious of her friend’s fearlessness in passing. In this way, they’re like the angel searching for her self and the monster afraid only of her reflection in the mirror. While it seems each wants what the other has, neither wants to relinquish the position they’re in. Irene’s violent reaction illustrates this when she becomes convinced that Clare is stealing her husband. What they both long for is not the other, but somewhere in the middle of angel and monster, somewhere both safe and emancipating, both feminine and free.
In these ways, Gilbert and Gubar’s theory prompts us to recognize women’s struggle within for self identity. Understanding the angel and monster in ourselves as well as in characters like Irene and Clare is crucial in discovering our power to transcend beyond the discrimination of the society we live in, creating literature that helps change culture for the better. Only when we recognize the struggle between angel and monster can we free ourselves from both.
Fetterly, Judith. “On the Politics of Literature.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers Inc. 1998.
Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. “The Madwoman in the Attic.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers Inc. 1998.
Larsen, Nella. Passing. New York, NY: Penguin Books: 1997.
Said, Edward. “Orientalism.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers Inc. 1998.