Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The social and psychological themes of “Cruel and Barbarous Treatment” become clear after a moment’s reflection: the superficiality of social friendships, the difficulty of understanding another human being, the battle of the sexes, and what Edgar Allan Poe once termed “the imp of the perverse,” one’s desire to throw over what in rational terms is in one’s best interest for something more intense and passionate, though risky and destructive. The young woman, while manipulative and dishonest, is nevertheless a very attractive character because of her energy, inventiveness, and ability to play her game with great dexterity. Though condemnations of her behavior spring to mind, nothing in the narrative itself announces or invites them. McCarthy’s satire here is not of the heavy, moralistic sort. The husband, after all, does quite well without her, his social life so busy that he does not have time to see her off on the train to Reno. The wife has more than sufficient resources. Only the Young Man will be hurt, and his problems are never significant in the story except as comedy.

McCarthy herself referred to the story’s main concern as “the quest for the self,” which is also the unifying theme for the collection of short stories The Company She Keeps (1942), in which the story appeared as the first in a connected sequence about a woman who attempts to create a sense of who she is by means of dramatic and often scandalous actions....

(The entire section is 453 words.)