The Mermaid and the Minotaur Critical Essays

Dorothy Dinnerstein


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Dinnerstein’s analysis of the problematic structure of gender begins with the assumptions of the universality of the practice and meaning of women’s mothering. For Dinnerstein, the significance of women’s mothering lies primarily in its emotional impact on children. She argues that the dependence of the infant on the mother underlies many of the contradictions of the human situation. Indeed, the tie between infant and mother is the prototype of the human relationship to life: The child experiences both pain and pleasure from the mother, both the fear of being cut off from her and the desire for independence. Children are not fully aware of these experiences. Instead, they become influential components of the unconscious. Thus, they affect people’s fantasy lives, emerging as images such as those of minotaurs and mermaids. They also come into play in sexual relations, impelling people toward others with whom they can reenact the experiences of pleasure and remedy those of pain that they underwent in their early years.

First, female-dominated child care guarantees the double standard of sexual behavior upon which men insist and with which women comply. The man seeks to repeat the exclusive relationship he had as an infant with his mother in his relationship with women. Similarly, the woman seeks to be for the man what her mother was to her: a stable source of love and affection. Simply put, the sexual double standard is the result of the emotional connection between mother and baby.

Second, women’s mothering has the consequence of making women into quasi-human creatures. For the infant, the mother is omnipotent, the representative of nature, which provides nurturance but which may also be capricious and uncertain. This equation of the mother with nature secures a wide variety of antagonisms within human relations: the fear of female subjectivity, the conviction of...

(The entire section is 776 words.)