Mothers, Fathers and Others by Siri Hustvedt
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Ramsay was the “angel in the house”, a submissive middle-class woman, trapped into a domestic space, and, as Woolf writes herself, “Killing the angel […] was part of the occupation of a woman writer.” In a new collection of essays entitled Mothers, Fathers and Others, Siri Hustvedt takes feminist discourse to a new level, talking about “the legacy of the Angel” in contemporary Western culture through the prism of her personal life experience as a granddaughter, daughter, wife, mother and a female author.
“Our desires are shaped by experience, by pleasures and pains, and dos and don’ts,” Hustvedt states, highlighting the multiple factors that influence our understanding of the world. She brings up Charles Pierce’s semiotic theory and Umberto Eco’s “cognitive type” to emphasise that the human perception of “new” depends dramatically on existing knowledge and expectations. The past is engraved on the body and brain, defining the present. This is how one draws boundaries and, sometimes unconsciously, creates classifications.
Sex difference is still a crucial part of the contemporary world – scientific fields, colours and even food are gender-specific: “…steak is masculine; salad is feminine. Pink is for girls. Blue is for boys”. Even in the description of the fertilisation process, the ovum is assigned the role of a passive prize, for which the sperm overcomes obstacles, while recent studies show that this metaphor appears to be wrong.
The essays range from memoirs to anthropology, politics and literary criticism. Hustvedt shares the story of her family to demonstrate the invisible bond that connects us to one another. We are made of the experiences and lives of our ancestors, and their heritage: “…there are the memories of others that we adopt and catalogue with our own, sometimes confusing theirs with ours”.
“Every book is invented, not only by the writer but by its reader,” the author notes, unfolding the ideas of the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, who asserted that life is participating in a dialogue. Thus, the discussion of gender cannot be separated from the social, political and historical context.
Mothers, Fathers and Others is a powerful collection with an impressive variety of disciplines through whose prism the themes of art, motherhood, neuroscience, misogyny and sex are revealed. It is an engaging and educational read that makes a valuable contribution to contemporary feminist discourse.
Mothers, Fathers and Others is published by Hodder & Stoughton at the hardback price of £20, and is available in the UK on 2nd December 2021.