Memories of a Catholic Girlhood Essay - Critical Essays

Mary McCarthy

Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Memories of a Catholic Girlhood Analysis

In the preface, McCarthy mentions that some of her readers have read the memoirs as fictions, questioning the Jewishness of her grandmother and the cruelty of her uncle, for example, while being fascinated by the odd behavior of people who were not in themselves unusual. The opposition by both sides of the family to the marriage of her father and mother; the weak health, high spirits, and extravagant, romantic nature of her father; the beauty and religious fervor of her mother, a convert; and, finally, the tragic deaths of her young parents (at twenty-nine and thirty-nine) are not extraordinary circumstances in themselves, but when combined in the life of one precocious and strong-willed child, they do acquire a fascinating strangeness, especially when narrated in a notably detached and objective manner. Thus, McCarthy describes herself as a passionate, intense, competitive girl while maintaining a dispassionate, almost aloof tone, often humorous and self-deprecating, never self-pitying or sentimental. The two strains of her Catholicism are important to an understanding of this book: One was of goodness and beauty, as exemplified by her mother and the Minneapolis priests and nuns, the other of dour narrow-mindedness, as personified by her grandmother McCarthy. For both aesthetic and intellectual reasons, the author does not regret having been a Catholic, though at the end of the preface she states that she is one no longer.

The inexplicably abusive treatment of the orphaned children is described in the first essay, “Yonder Peasant, Who Is He?” Victims of influenza themselves, the children were sequestered in their grandmother’s sewing room until they recovered, after which they were moved to a nearby house under the guardianship of two middle-aged people, Grandaunt Margaret and her husband, Myers. Never directly informed of their parents’ deaths, the children slowly came to the awful realization. Because of the deprivations and cruelty practiced on them, Mary and her brother Kevin regularly ran away and tried to enter an orphanage. In this chapter, only their pious and autocratic grandmother is described in detail; in the short commentary that follows, McCarthy expresses her purpose as having been to indict the privileged for indifferent treatment of the underprivileged. Viewing as an adult the peculiar circumstances of their deprived and penurious years in Minneapolis, McCarthy shows an understanding that was not available to her as a child, when she suffered without question or hope.

In the next essay, “A Tin Butterfly,” McCarthy...

(The entire section is 1050 words.)