Mary McCarthy

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Mary McCarthy Short Fiction Analysis

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Mary McCarthy’s stories are, on the whole, about errors endemic to intellectuals, which lead them to indignity, despair, and sterility. McCarthy’s typical intellectuals are political radicals or artists who fail to comprehend that their analytical acumen or talent does not raise them sufficiently from the common dilemma to empower them either to save the rest or to live more beautifully than do others. Meg Sargent, who, like Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams, reappears continually in a series of short stories, is McCarthy’s Every-intellectual, her voyage the purgatory of those with pretensions to education. “Cruel and Barbarous Treatment” is a good example of McCarthy’s literary universe, and Meg’s.

“Cruel and Barbarous Treatment”

In this story, Meg is going through a divorce, orchestrating the breakup of her marriage with the self-image of a diva in her greatest role. Meg considers herself to be a member of the intelligentsia, but McCarthy etches her as a grandiose fraud whose view of her situation is riddled with tired clichés. McCarthy comments on Meg economically by simply capitalizing strategically to turn Meg’s thoughts into a series of buzz words. Meg is anxious to hear “What People Would Say” and “How Her Husband Would Take It.” Finally, even the heroine realizes what she is doing. She will go ahead with her divorce, but she understands that The Young Man whom she thought she had waiting in the wings has been her factotum, not her passion. She will not be fool enough to fly into his arms. Unfortunately, her insight does not last, and on the train to Reno, she fabricates a new opera for her fellow passengers, deciding what to answer to queries concerning her destination. Neither will she be vulgar enough to blurt out “Reno” nor will she equivocate and reply “San Francisco.” At first, she will say “‘West,’ with an air of vagueness and hesitation. Then, when pressed, she might go as far as to say ‘Nevada.’ But no farther.”

“The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt”

The most pointed and, some might say, best treatment of McCarthy’s theme, is “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,” her most widely anthologized story. In this story, Meg is traveling West to tell her aunt in Portland that she is to be married again. As a result of her trip, she realizes that she will never marry her new intended. The source of Meg’s revelation is her encounter with Mr. Breen, a mid-level corporate executive in the steel business, whose wife Leonie and three children live comfortably in the Gate Hills section of Cleveland. Meg begins the trip flashing an advance copy of a very unimportant novel with which she intends to impress her suitor with her cultural superiority.

A political radical, Meg patronizes Breen’s position in the corporate structure. Along with Meg’s self-dramatized contempt for the man, however, McCarthy explores attitudes of which Meg is not aware. Meg is a poseur, and she envelops others in mythological poses. Despite her initial characterization of Breen as a “middle-aged baby, like a young pig, something in a seed catalogue plainly Out of the Question,” when Breen reveals that beneath his Brooks Brothers shirt beats a heart that wants to vote for Norman Thomas, Meg immediately romanticizes him as the last of the old breed of real American men. Stringing along behind her fantasy, she allows herself to get drunk in Breen’s private compartment; the predictable revelry and sex follow in short order.

The next morning Meg is filled with shame, but Breen is wildly in love with her and wants to divorce Leonie and throw himself into an unconventional...

(This entire section contains 1689 words.)

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life with his Bohemian Girl. For Meg, sudden realization follows her drunken, sensual orgy; she begins to feel that she is not so much a free spirit, as she has always prided herself, but a sort of misfit. All the men in her life have suited her because they, like her, were in some way “handicapped” for American life. Although Breen seems to break the pattern, he does not. He is fifty, she thinks, over-the-hill. Would he, she wonders, have been in such hot pursuit if he were ten years younger?

What is clear, at least to the reader, is that each character is ambivalent about the characteristic of the other that holds the most attraction. Meg is contemptuous of Breen’s conventionality, and Breen is critical of Meg’s individualism. He tells her to shape up, because, if she does not, “In a few years you’ll become one of those Bohemian horrors with oily hair and long earrings.” The liberation that each affords the other does not mitigate these streaks of aversion. Meg and Breen do not run off together, but Meg also knows that she cannot marry her intended, and Breen manages to tryst with Meg several times before disappearing from her life. Meg has gained, through Breen, some humility about her elite self-image, but only temporarily; ultimately, she writes Breen off. Her last contact with him is a telegram she receives from him after the death of her father: “SINCEREST CONDOLENCES. YOU HAVE LOST THE BEST FRIEND YOU WILL EVER HAVE.” Meg disposes of the missive, disgusted and embarrassed by Breen’s middle-class sentimentality.

The portraits of Meg’s individualism and Breen’s conventionalism are ironic, but, although both characters are supremely flawed, the story nevertheless treats Breen’s limitations more charitably than Meg’s. If Breen is corny, at least he fulfills the obligations of social convention to be nurturing, even if he is a bit obtuse. The nature of the intellect is to enlighten society, and Meg is too cliché-ridden to fulfill her obligations; all one sees are her limitations. In the end, her bohemian lifestyle is merely another form of convention. She shreds Breen’s telegram at the end of the story because “It would have been dreadful if anyone had seen it.” No bourgeoise could have better phrased the sentiment. McCarthy is a mistress of such deft, deflating touches. In the final ten words of the story she irretrievably nails Meg to the wall, just as she did at the end of “Cruel and Barbarous Treatment.” She frequently uses a parting shot to devastate her protagonists.

McCarthy also grants her characters an occasional victory. When she does, the victory is hard-won and painfully small, but it can be lyrically affecting, as in “Ghostly Father, I Confess.” In this story, Meg is now the wife of Frederick (perhaps based on Edmund Wilson) and is in analysis with Dr. James. Through numerous digressions, much is learned about other people in Meg’s life, but the story takes place almost entirely during a session with her analyst. The beginning of the session is awash with stereotype; Meg stereotypes Dr. James, and he counters with the routine Freudian castration theory and dream interpretation. They move past this initial standoff, however, and begin to examine the effect of Meg’s childhood on her terrible marriages. The details are all recognizable from McCarthy’s own biography.

Meg explains how her marriage to Frederick shows that she is in a downward spiral initiated by the cruelty of her childhood guardians. James comes forward with a surprising inversion of Meg’s rather obvious, although painfully arrived at, analysis, suggesting that “This marriage took more daring on your part than anything you have done since you left your father’s house.” He goes on to say that, with the marriage to Frederick, Meg has stopped denying the trauma of her childhood because she is now strong enough to face it and work through it. James quiets Meg’s doubts by referring to her brains and beauty, which he tells her will overcome her problems. The session comes to a sudden close as James snaps shut his notebook, as though clicking the interview off. He is transformed, now uninvolved. Meg is upset by the abruptness but somewhat intoxicated by her discovery that James has given her five extra minutes and by his parting remark about her brains and beauty.

Once in the street, Meg is suddenly struck by the meaning of the dream for which James had given her an unsatisfying, conventional interpretation during the session. In her dream, she had seen herself loved by a Byronic figure who slowly metamorphosed into a Nazi war prisoner. She understands that the changing figure is her own mind revealing its true identity, not truly Byronic, after all, but a victim of rigidity and cruelty. As in the other stories, Meg has an insight into her fraudulent self-images, but this time the self-awareness seems to take hold. The story closes with the image of Meg in front of a window full of hot water bottles begging God to let her hold onto her uncomfortable revelation. McCarthy cryptically ends her narrative with the statement, “It was certainly a very small favor she was asking, but she could not be too demanding, for, unfortunately, she did not believe in God.”

McCarthy’s sly portrait explores the enormity of trying to think at all. The mind tends to fall in love with its own creations and perpetrate frauds on itself. There is the fraud of the analyst who can turn his involvement on and off; the vanity of Meg’s greed for five more minutes; the possible disingenuousness of James’s remark about brains and beauty; the war between flesh and spirit, one of which desires the vulgar comfort of the hot water bottle, the other the irritant of enlightenment; and James’s inordinate pleasure about his various interpretations, although we do not know if they are true or false. Finally, there is the magnitude of the universe for which we desire the comfort of a caretaker, whom McCarthy would deny as a vulgarity equal to the hot water bottle. The mind is surely nine-tenths dissembler, but Meg, by intuiting profoundly her own shabby role-playing has made an inroad on that great disabler of the intellect, its own narcissism. Such an inroad is the outer limit of McCarthy’s concept of human achievement.


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