Mary McCarthy Short Fiction Analysis
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 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...
(The entire section is 1689 words.)