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“The Queen’s Looking Glass”

The first chapter in The Madwoman in the Attic, one of the most influential literary criticism texts of the 1970s, begins the discussion of women’s literary potential.  Author Gilbert and Gubar begin their discussion of nineteenth-century women writers by providing the historical context for those writers. They trace the patriarchal theory of creativity as a product of a male consciousness from Aristotle to the contemporaries of the female writers, forming the beginning of an argument that will assert that women writers faced discrimination in attitudes as well as treatment as they began to write seriously. Gilbert and Gubar’s argument also begins to answer the question of why there were no female equivalents of Aristotle, Homer, Chaucer, and Shakespeare throughout documented history.


Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Illus. by Dinah. London: Raphael Tuck & Sons, [c. 1936].

Gilbert and Gubar move then in their discussion to how male writers view their creations, as possessions, which also helps explain, perhaps, why women themselves have been perceived as objects for men to possess throughout various times in history.  They note that male and female writers in the nineteenth century have two main images of women depicted in their writings:  the angel and the monster.  The angel, they note, is usually an ideal representation of feminine-associated attributes like purity, submissiveness, and self-denial. The monster, conversely, has traits typically associated with masculine behaviors, like aggressiveness (or assertiveness), selfishness (or independence), and the lust for fame and fortune (or ambition and a work ethic). Women writers, they believe, must navigate between or through these depictions of women to re-define what women are—who they really are—before they can be successful at expressing their stories.

The Tale of the Dead Princess and the Seven Knights. Alexander Pushkin. Translated by Peter Tempest. Illus. by V. Konashevich. Moscow, USSR: Progress Publishers, 1973.

Finally, to illustrate what they mean Gilbert and Gubar perform what Elaine Showalter considers a feminist critique; they analyze the Grimms’ fairy tale of “Little Snow White” to expose the assumptions and the sexist double-standards and definitions that go virtually unnoticed by most readers of the “harmless” child’s tale. Through their analysis, one can see the pervasiveness of patriarchal values and definitions.
For a more in-depth discussion of gender roles in the nineteenth-century, look ahead to Women in the Nineteenth Century

The top two images are from Kay E. Vandergrift's website on Snow White Illustrations . The bottom two are from the Walt Disney film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937.

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Contact Kimberly M. Radek, the instructor of Women in Literature, at Kimberly_Radek@ivcc.edu  

This page was last updated on 21 April 2008 . Copyright Kimberly M. Radek, 2001.