A Dangerous Woman

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Mary McGarry Morris’ A Dangerous Woman (1991) focuses on the emotionally disabled Martha Horgan and the people around her who feed her inadequacies until disaster is inevitable. It is a cheerless and disturbing novel that offers little comfort or hope.

The novel begins: “The murder is seldom discussed without someone recalling that warm autumn night years before when Martha Horgan was only seventeen,” but it is not until nearly the end of the novel that “the murder” is revealed. Instead, the opening chapter details the gang rape of the adolescent Martha. The townspeople find it convenient to blame the victim, saying she is crazy and oversexed. Literally myopic, Martha stares through her thick glasses, trying in vain to see how to act like others. Her failures to do so confirm the worst expectations of the people around her and perpetuate an endless cycle of inappropriate actions and reactions.

Martha’s mother died when Martha was a baby, and her father who reared her seldom spoke to her. She had no siblings or friends. Martha was so isolated as a child that a single afternoon with another girl is transfigured into a dominating fantasy that the girl is Martha’s best friend, and for long afterward Martha repeats the girl’s comments as if they were her own. This pattern continues, especially since the townspeople decide that Martha is a permanently defenseless object of scorn. Even a second generation of children have learned to point at her and taunt her with cries of “Marthorgan,” as though she is a ridiculous oddity. It is little wonder that when she encounters anything less than cruelty she is apt to overrate it as love and undying friendship.

Martha’s fixation with Birdy Dusser, manager of the local dry-cleaning shop, is a prime example of Martha’s inability to adapt to the society around her and is a major cause of the tragedies that unfold in the novel. Birdy shows some friendliness toward Martha when Martha comes to work at the shop, and for the first time Martha feels some sense of self-worth and acceptance. One day, though, an important customer comes to pick up his jacket, which through an oversight of the owner is not ready. The owner tells him it is the fault of his incompetent employees and that he is making one of the workers press it a second time. Martha, whose understanding of truth is rigid, runs after the customer shouting that he has been overcharged, that the jacket was not really cleaned but merely spot-cleaned at the last minute, that her boss is cheating him. Birdy supports the boss’s claim that of course the jacket was properly cleaned, and the boss shrugs at the customer, saying that nothing else could be expected from Martha Horgan. He then fires her.

Because Martha has seen another employee, Getso, take money from the cash register, she decides that she must have been fired because the boss thinks she stole it. Cut off from her only source of happiness at work, she begins haunting Birdy, phoning endlessly at both the shop and Birdy’s home, writing at least one long letter every day to Birdy, and following her around to try to convince her that the accusations are false and to warn her against the real thief, Getso. Birdy wants nothing to do with such obsessions and refuses to talk to her. The situation is complicated when Birdy starts dating Getso and Martha sees Getso with another woman. She rants even more at Birdy, thinking that she should warn her against such a cheat, and she tries to enlist others to mail letters or phone Birdy on her behalf.

It is this compulsive behavior toward Birdy that eventually leads to Martha’s unpremeditated stabbing attack on Getso and the horrors that conclude the novel. It is also representative of the cycles of sick action and reaction between Martha and those around her. Indeed, Martha is socially and mentally retarded, but she is made much more so by the way others treat her. Martha’s aunt and guardian, Frances Beecham, strips away Martha’s precarious self-esteem by telling her...

(The entire section is 1651 words.)