Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

McCarthy describes this story as a “stylization.” The voice itself in this third-person-limited narrative stays for the most part very close to the vocabulary and mental forms of the character being described. The sequence of events, the capitalized divisions of the ritual, the mental improvisations within the tightly closed divisions, the carefully balanced parallels of a sentence such as “the deception was prolonged where it had been ephemeral, necessary where it had been frivolous, conspiratorial where it had been lonely,” all describe a mind that loves, not free spaces but securely fenced ones. All this evidence of symmetry and control supports the idea that this woman is not interested in wild abandon, or even passion but rather in power (and in a very small arena).

This explains McCarthy’s technique of condescension, for the reader is always made aware that there is a world bustling about outside this self-absorbed mind, that there is a great irony in the direct quotation marks as the protagonist announces to her silly Young Man that she should have been “a diplomat’s wife or an international spy.” In irony, the highest consciousness must be reserved for the implied author, and McCarthy here has taken it. The protagonist, clever rather than imaginative, is not “superior” as she believes herself to be, and the authorial consciousness shows this, in the protagonist’s fear of what others will think of her lover once he is revealed, in her jealousy at her husband’s warm reception by their mutual friends, and in her self-delusion concerning fate near the end of the story. The character’s lack of self-knowledge reveals her inferiority to the consciousness that controls the story itself.

The protagonist is in the best sense a “flat” character, or to repeat McCarthy’s own term, an “essence.” Thus there is no development of awareness, or other evidence of change. The story is frankly analytic, depending on explanation of a fixed principle of character. The surprises result not from revelations of hidden recesses but from the virtuoso variations on the single theme: How much excitement, how much plot, can the young woman create for herself using such limited resources? All these variations reflect on the satiric mind behind the story’s conception.

Cruel and Barbarous Treatment Bibliography

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Abrams, Sabrina Fuchs. Mary McCarthy: Gender, Politics, and the Postwar Intellectual. New York: Peter Lang, 2004.

Auchincloss, Louis. Pioneers and Caretakers: A Study of Nine American Novelists. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1961.

Brightman, Carol. Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1992.

Epstein, Joseph. “Mary McCarthy in Retrospect.” Commentary 95 (May, 1993): 41-47.

Gelderman, Carol W. Mary McCarthy: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.

Grumbach, Doris. The Company She Kept. New York: Coward, McCann, 1967.

Kiernan, Frances. Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.

McKenzie, Barbara. Mary McCarthy. New York: Twayne, 1966.

Pierpont, Claudia Roth. Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

Stock, Irvin. Mary McCarthy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1968.

Stwertka, Eve, and Margo Viscusi, eds. Twenty-four Ways of Looking at Mary McCarthy: The Writer and Her Work. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Wilford, Hugh. “An Oasis: The New York Intellectuals in the Late 1940’s.” Journal of American Studies 28 (August, 1994): 209-223.