Mary McCarthy Essay - Critical Essays

Mary McCarthy American Literature Analysis

McCarthy’s primary literary technique, direct and indirect satire, is uniquely suited to her personality and writing style. McCarthy mercilessly focuses upon issues of self-deception, ignorance of history, and lack of human emotional ties. Her dominant societal target, and the one with which she is most familiar, is the “privileged” class. Nevertheless, this familiarity, as some have suggested, does not prevent her from achieving the distance to maintain a compelling satirical stance. What is at times problematic is her lack of internal character development, which, in turn, dilutes the satirical impact of her writing. Greet in Cannibals and Missionaries, Libby in The Group, and Alma in The Groves of Academe are three characters whose more fully realized presentation could have maximized McCarthy’s point of view.

As a social critic, McCarthy is least likely to tolerate that form of self-deception in which the individual opts to negate his or her own knowledge in favor of external conformity. Kay, The Group’s protagonist, who dies at twenty-nine, seeks out and adapts to external expectations rather than developing her own sense of self-worth. On the other hand, in Cannibals and Missionaries, the most conspicuous quarry by normal expectations for satirical focus is Jeroen, a character whom McCarthy instead respects for his integrity and commitment.

Characteristically, McCarthy writes about a human behavior that intrigues or baffles her, seeking the underlying causes for a sociocultural pattern she perceives as destructive. As a result, the author inundates her writing with intricate detail. Such details, both personal and environmental, help to define the incongruity with humor and give her work the precision for which it is justifiably renowned. McCarthy’s intellectual humor, in the form of purposefully inept literary allusions voiced by a pretentious character (Harald in The Group), serves admirably as a device by which the character undermines himself or herself.

The author also uses historical allusion to emphasize the critical condition she has targeted. The Groves of Academe, centered upon the adaptive and deviant behaviors of a college administration and faculty, is rife with both forms of allusion.

Four other forms of humor are employed by the author as reinforcing stylistic devices: antithesis, exaggeration, irony, and parody. In The Group, a classic example of antithesis is Pris and Norine’s conversational skirmish regarding child-rearing practices. Pris, whose child is raised according to the discipline of a strict schedule, battles Norine, whose child is brought up with complete freedom for experimentation. Exchanging verbal blow for verbal blow, Pris (who can be intimidated by any obstreperous voice of authority) predictably yields the victory to Norine.

Foreshadowing (most often in McCarthy’s first chapters) and dramatic irony underscore the author’s themes. Two examples of foreshadowing are the discomfort at Kay’s wedding in The Group as a predictor of her untimely death and, in Cannibals and Missionaries, the cat’s first escape from its cage on the Boeing 747 airplane, precipitating thoughts among the passengers of hijacking so that the actual hijacking is discounted as the cat’s having again escaped. After the explosive conclusion to the hostage situation, McCarthy provides an epilogue chapter heavily underscored with dramatic irony. As the two relatively unscathed survivors board a plane to take them home and review the journalist’s diary written during their captivity, they note a passage in which she states that she would sacrifice an arm for Jeroen to achieve his end in style; she has.

The Groves of Academe

First published: 1952

Type of work: Novel

Professor Henry Mulcahy of Jocelyn College deceives his colleagues into pressuring the administration for a renewal of his teaching contract.

The Groves of Academe is McCarthy’s satiric foray against the administrations and the faculties of liberal higher education. The title is derived from a Horatian quote concerning the search for “truth” within the “groves” of academia. Clearly, from the opening of the first chapter, Henry Mulcahy and the other erudites who scheme to manipulate people and situations to their own ends do not have the search for truth first on their agenda. Even the most nobly portrayed professor, Domna Rejnev, places her own self-interest above truth and the safety of a colleague.

The plot of this scathing comedy of manners advances through the psychological machinations of Mulcahy, a pale, bulbous, tense, incompetent but intelligent instructor with a one-year contract, who fights for reinstatement on the basis of having previously been a member of the Communist Party and of his wife’s devastatingly poor health. The ingenuity of his first claim is that no progressive college such as Jocelyn College, in the age of Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist witch-hunts, would risk a public accusation of terminating a contract on the basis of political beliefs. Underlying his second claim is the idea that the news of his termination would seriously endanger the life of his wife, Cathy, because of the dangerous illness of which she has no knowledge. Neither basis is true; however, Mulcahy has a facility for convincing himself that a lie is truth and then for rallying others to believe. His perceptive reading of what motivates others to act, as well as of their subsequent predictable actions, illustrates his perverted brilliance.

He is also capable of manipulating the truth in his favor. At the end of the novel, when the president and involved faculty members in desperation conduct a covert interview with a visiting poet, who confirms that Mulcahy has never joined the Communist Party, Mulcahy uses the president’s actions as blackmail to retain his position. In addition, he admits to the defeated college president that self-serving justice, not truth, is his preeminent issue. As such, Mulcahy functions as the entrenched antithesis of the utopian standards set by the progressive college.

In direct counterpoint, Domna Rejnev is the altruistic, nobly bred, well-intentioned, intelligent young professor of Russian and French who has dedicated her life to her students. She is both responsible and competent. She is also the “friend” whom Mulcahy beguiles into his most determined advocate. In concert with Alma Fortune, a more politically experienced but equally sincere faculty member, Rejnev and committee successfully present a case for the renewal of Mulcahy’s contract.

Once Rejnev discovers the truth, her only recourse is to withdraw from contact with Mulcahy and to begin quietly documenting Mulcahy’s reckless and incompetent behaviors. Nevertheless, when he later confronts her with the question of who was responsible for the departmental meeting in which he was forced to justify the guest list for his poetry conference, Rejnev tarnishes her idealistic passion for justice by misleading the villainous professor to blame Fortune, when Rejnev herself had reported her concerns. Thus, the contamination spreads.

McCarthy presents Jocelyn College as a progressive educational institution that, based upon a student’s aptitudes, interests, and psychological profiles, ideally functions to maximize the student’s self-actualization. The inevitable problem is the human equation. Individualized instruction, a tutorial course of study in the student’s major field, suffers from both faculty and student abuse or neglect. In another program, the February field-period, consisting of one month of off-campus work in the student’s chosen field, any number of complications sabotage the founder’s intent. Nevertheless, every fall term the faculty, cognizant of the abuses, manage to retain their four free weeks by voting to maintain the field-period.

McCarthy’s satiric thrust in this novel is against those colleges with utopian goals who lack concrete objectives and who do not take into account the human factor. In other words, blind trust in people’s hunger to expand their minds and to share their knowledge freely is destructive without direction. The search for truth is withering on the vines of academe.

The Group

First published: 1963

Type of work: Novel

The lives of nine Vassar College women, eight of whom make up “the group,” are depicted in the seven years following graduation.

Popular acclaim for The Group, McCarthy’s only best seller, has not been reflected by critical reaction. The novel has been lambasted as being written on the level of pulp romance fiction and as containing stock, barely distinguishable characterizations and a strategic lack of focus. On the other hand, many Vassar graduates have been incensed at the apparently realistic characters portrayed without empathy. Both groups have overlooked the penetrating satire through which McCarthy so often expresses...

(The entire section is 3743 words.)