This book asks the question: If the pen is a metaphorical penis, where does that leave women writers? Answer: Not out in the cold, but boxed in the architectural shapes of patriarchal society (from the parlor to the glass coffin) and of paternal literary forms. When a woman picks up the pen, argue English professors Gilbert and Gubar (Univ. of Calif., Davis, and Indiana Univ., respectively), she is transformed from the angel of papa's house to slimy monster and falls victim to understandable anxiety. Consequently, they say, the work of 19th-century women writers is haunted by complementary images of confinement and agoraphobia; the heroine often is trapped in her mirror like Snow White or, like Jane Eyre, twin to the madwoman in the attic. Aware of their fall from Lilith's primordial power, the women writers spin images of disease and more subtle fantasies of subversion. The authors advance this picture of the female literary imagination in three relentlessly metaphoric chapters moving ""toward a feminist poetics,"" then illustrate and amplify their theory by close (sometimes microscopic) readings of Austen, the Brontes, Eliot, Dickinson, and a score of other writers. At times their analysis strikes brilliant sparks, but at others it is merely convoluted. On a poem by Christina Rossetti, they write: ""Plainly, the very act of poetic assertion, with its challenge to attempt self-definition or at least self-confrontation, elicits evasions, anxieties, hostilities, in brief painful preoccupations,' from all competitors, so that the jolly poetry game paradoxically contains the germ of just that gloom it seems designed to dispel."" But on the whole it's an ambitious and provocative attempt to reevaluate some of the best and least of 19th-century writers in terms of an aesthetic of their own.