Mary McCarthy

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Mary McCarthy American Literature Analysis

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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 Cannibalsand 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...

(This entire section contains 3743 words.)

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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 her themes.

Three interrelated themes are presented through each chapter’s focus on one character at a time. The women, well educated and not devastatingly affected by the Depression, are ill prepared to cope with life in the real world. One crucial detriment, manifested repeatedly by the different characters, is that these aware women are incapable of putting their progressive philosophies into action. Instead, they become caught up in their own immediate needs or in surrounding circumstances.

Another recurrent McCarthy theme revolves around the inadequacies of living entirely for the present moment without a sense of history. Even as the women delight in Kay’s nontraditional wedding celebration, they are also discomfited by the absence of any member of Kay’s family and are superstitious about Kay’s behaviors that are traditionally considered unlucky. Without the emotional and the spiritual foundations of a family heritage, a stable self-identity is difficult to realize.

Although McCarthy extensively employs in this novel a technique she has termed ventriloquism (allowing the actions, the words, and the intonations of each character to evolve as unique to that character without the controlling intervention of the novelist’s voice), expression of her belief system was important enough to her that she set aside her writing of The Group for eighteen years to find the appropriate internal voice. In the early 1960’s, her development of Kay as a dynamic, rather than a static, character became the voice she had long sought.

Kay Leiland Strong Petersen, whose marriage opens the novel and whose death concludes the novel, is the unifying thread among the other characters’ stories. A shy, slightly overweight westerner upon her arrival at Vassar, Kay outwardly transforms herself into the stereotypical ambitious, iconoclastic disbeliever in all but the material real. Inwardly, however, she remains the shy outsider, lacking self-awareness, seeking to identify herself by association with her friends and her husband. What her friends think of as snooping and confrontive behaviors are actually Kay’s means of discovering an acceptable identity. Kay’s marriage to Harald is another form of this destructive dependency. While she looks to him for love (in which she has externally professed not to believe), guidance, support, and identification, he is indolent, uncaring, self-involved, adulterous, deceitful, and abusive. Reputed to be modeled after McCarthy’s first husband, Harald is, in fact, one of the most villainous male characters in the author’s entire body of fiction.

Nevertheless, Kay maintains the facade of their marriage for her friends and her family in Salt Lake City because she does not believe that she has the ability to accomplish her dreams on her own. Only after her husband has hit her, locked her in their dressing room, and committed her to a mental institution is she able to acknowledge her hatred of him. Within the year, she divorces Harald and dies in a mysterious fall out the window of her Vassar Club room.

In the first chapter, McCarthy caustically discloses a “modern” philosophy of relationships: “If you were going to use a person, then you had to make the best of them.” In her succeeding chapters, the consequences of each character’s life choices indicate that the opposite may instead be true. Three of the six married women have marital relationships about which no serious defects are revealed. Actually, little is known about Pokey’s marriage other than that she has continued in the role of New Jersey wife. Libby has been married to a famous author-client for about a year. Empathetic Polly, a hospital technician, has married a good-hearted former psychiatrist now turned medical researcher.

The intelligent, aloof rationalist, Helena, appears comfortable with the persona she has achieved. Competent and single, she and her mother, Mrs. Davison, are largely responsible for Kay’s funeral arrangements. Having returned from Europe three months earlier, the forthright Lakey brings her opening actions in the first chapter full circle by buying Kay the off-white designer dress she had always wanted. Unmarried, Lakey is fulfilled in a lesbian relationship.

Shy, stammering Pris has adjusted, with some reservations, to motherhood and marriage with a pediatrician who uses his family as guinea pigs for his child-rearing theories. Dottie, the only group member absent from Kay’s funeral, has compromised her affectionate, sensual nature by settling for a pragmatic marriage to an Arizona widower rather than seeking a relationship with the man she says she loves. Norine, the morally corrupt outsider of the group, first marries an impotent man and engages in several adulterous affairs, including one with Kay’s husband, then marries a Jewish banker even though she admits to still loving Harald.

One of the problems in The Group is the unevenness of its characterization. Although the novel is saturated with detail, some characters (Pokey, Helena, and Libby in particular) are not given as full a treatment as they deserve. Another difficulty may be that the author’s ventriloquistic distance fosters ambiguity. Nevertheless, McCarthy’s writing is most vital when she describes the attitudes and the interactions of a society trapped by its own conditioning. For example, each episode of Dottie’s love affair, including her pre-wedding talk with her mother, scintillates with humor and pathos, and Helena’s reactions to Norine and Norine’s home are exquisitely drawn in an unexpectedly dramatic confrontation. The Group is considerably more than a venture into the pulp romance genre.

Cannibals and Missionaries

First published: 1979

Type of work: Novel

A handpicked group of liberals investigating rumors of the shah of Iran’s torture of prisoners and tourists of millionaires’ art collections are hijacked by a multinational terrorist group.

Cannibals and Missionaries, McCarthy’s least autobiographical novel, is more a character study of human response to fear, deprivation, and imprisonment than a classic espionage tale. The title is derived from a classic riddle asking how, using a two-passenger boat, three cannibals and three missionaries can cross a river without ever having the missionaries outnumbered. Even though the solution is supplied by the “friendliest” captor, Ahmed, the answer to the question of which group (terrorists, millionaires, or liberals) is the cannibals and which is the missionaries is left to the reader.

The investigative committee led by Senator Jim Carey and Dutch Parliamentary Deputy Henk van Vliet de Jonge is the terrorists’ primary target; the first-class tour group with Charles Tennant as self-appointed liaison is a secondary target. Jeroen, a surprisingly sympathetic figure, leads an international terrorist force that has secured a farmhouse stronghold in Flevoland on the polders of Holland by posing as a television crew filming a documentary.

The terrorists’ demands are fivefold. For the helicopter that transported them to the polders and its crew, the ransom is more than one million dollars, half to the terrorists and half to the Surinam poor. For the liberation of the committee members (including a college president, two religious figures, an international journalist, a Middle East specialist who is an undercover agent, and a history professor), the stipulations are more complex: the withdrawal of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from Holland, cessation of Dutch-Israeli relations, and the release of “class-war prisoners.” For their wealthy captives, the terrorists have demanded a one-person helicopter to carry taped ransom demands to families of the prisoners.

Jeroen believes that murder should be the last avenue of action. Formerly an artist, he has conceived a plan by which his wealthy prisoners can ransom themselves and pay for their capitalistic crimes by relinquishing to his group specific art masterpieces from their collections. In this way, he lowers his captive count and holds instead as hostage paintings that the world might be even more reluctant to count as casualties. The first-class prisoners are eventually exchanged for their artworks; however, the investigative committee remains hostage because the Dutch government cannot accede to the demand of NATO withdrawal. Consequently, Jeroen, who understands action as his only remaining art form and who sees a primary aim of terrorism as retributory, taking from a corrupt society that which is irreplaceable, acts.

After ordering all prisoners and guards out of the house for an extended exercise period, he detonates the farmhouse, the paintings, and himself. Unfortunately, Greet, one of the terrorists, senses impending disaster and returns early. As a result, only the Episcopalian priest, Frank Barber, and the college president, Aileen Simmons, escape death or serious injury. Jeroen dies in the explosion, knowing that his precautions to avoid senseless slaughter have been futile.

Expected and unexpected character bonding, as well as the materialization of idiosyncratic behaviors, create a spell-binding effect. The most sympathetic terrorist characters are self-sacrificing Jeroen, dedicated to his cause; Ahmed, the young poet; and Greet, once a KLM hostess and now (out of love) committed to Jeroen. The most sympathetic among the captives include de Jonge, the flawless poet-politician who understands Jeroen’s commitment; Senator Carey, an alcoholic widower poet-politician past his time of effectiveness; Sophie Well, a brilliant and beautiful journalist uncomfortable with the spoken word; and Tennant, the wealthy raconteur who cannot bear to be separated from the action. The author’s characterization of these, as well as many of the other less sympathetic characters (such as the alcoholic, cat-carrying undercover agent Victor Lenz), is witty, perceptive, and provocative.

Nevertheless, certain deficiencies detract from the potency of this novel. McCarthy stated that Cannibals and Missionaries was her last novel because as one ages one’s awareness is blunted. Although she had conducted detailed factual research for the book, her nonrealistic, soft-edged portrayal of the terrorist force is disappointing. Furthermore, her customary philosophical editorializing is conspicuously absent except for discussions of art. Finally, whether intentionally or unintentionally, the author’s pace distractingly falters.

Memories of a Catholic Girlhood

First published: 1957

Type of work: Autobiography

McCarthy subjectively relates her childhood experiences and her family memories, with editorial comments on their verifiability.

Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, the most deeply passionate of McCarthy’s published writings, is a moving chronicle of her early years, through her adolescence. Beginning her account with a careful, italicized address to the reader, the author sets the tone for the following eight chapters by philosophizing that “to care for the quarrels of the past . . . is to experience a kind of straining against reality, a rebellious nonconformity that, again, is rare in America.” Although this was written within the context of discussing the merits of Catholic education, it is also a skillful summary of Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, her other writings, and her life.

Discriminating between what she remembers but cannot be corroborated, what has been corroborated, and what is in conflict with her memories, McCarthy painstakingly pieces together the fragments of her early history. Following each chapter except the last, she acknowledges, again in italicized print, the substantiations and the contradictions to her story. This technique imbues Memories of a Catholic Girlhood with an almost indisputable credibility.

Although McCarthy’s presentation is essentially chronological, as with all memories, there occurs an associational movement back and forth in time. Gradually the full picture emerges. Recollections of a favored beginning reveal a period of delightful surprises and unconditional love. Her father, at home because of a chronic heart problem, was an irrepressibly joyful companion. Both parents, deeply in love and married against their families’ wishes, willingly shared that love with their children.

The flu epidemic in 1918 raged through her family when her father’s parents withheld his monthly stipend and insisted that the family return from Seattle to their hometown of Minneapolis. Only dimly aware of her surroundings by the time the train reached its destination, McCarthy awoke some days later in a bleak, institutionalized sewing room of her wealthy grandparents’ house.

Some weeks later, after waiting daily for her parents’ return, she realized on her own (because no adults had spoken with her) that her mother and her father had died. Consequently, when her three brothers disappeared one day, she took for granted that they also were dead. The resulting emotional paralysis that McCarthy describes in herself as a child of six was exacerbated by the abusive five years she endured after being sent to join her brothers.

Unwilling to take on the raising of four children, her grandparents had hired their great-aunt Margaret and her husband, “uncle Myers,” to care for them in a dilapidated house two blocks away. Shabbily clothed, ill fed, beaten regularly (with no apparent pattern other than if anyone “misbehaved,” then that child and all of his or her older siblings were whipped), McCarthy and her brothers learned that no one was to be trusted. No explanations were given for the adults’ behaviors. Instead, their “role models” were erratic, irrational, manipulative, and self-involved.

Being rescued by their maternal grandfather Preston, apparently not because of the abuse McCarthy and her oldest brother had detailed but because McCarthy was not wearing her glasses (a punishment for falling and breaking them), was both a relief and a source of bewilderment to McCarthy. Another puzzle was the fact that she remained temporarily with her maternal grandparents while the boys were sent to boarding school (the youngest, Sheridan, later than the others).

Although satire is noticeably absent in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, irony is used most effectively in highlighting McCarthy’s internal processes as she copes with different environments. For example, in order to gain positive attention at a Catholic all-girls boarding school, the author evaluates several plans and chooses to announce just before a retreat that she has “lost” her faith. In the process of her arguments with two priests, however, she realizes that what she thought was simply an attention-getting lie is actually the truth. To make the problem even more complex, she must now pretend for the rest of her stay at this school that she has found her lost faith so that she can receive Eucharist with the other girls.

The impact of her early dehumanizing experiences as well as of those school years when she could not overcome her “outsider” feelings was to color McCarthy’s life in both her satiric writing style and her detachments from people. Memories of a Catholic Girlhood is a poignant chronicle of debasement, the search for meaning, and survival.


Mary McCarthy Short Fiction Analysis