Mary McCarthy Long Fiction Analysis - Essay

Mary McCarthy Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Mary McCarthy’s novels often feature herself, with an assumed name, as protagonist; she also exploited her husbands and other people close to her for fictional purposes. Her characters generally have a superior education or intellect, or both, so that citations and quotations from learned sources—mainly classical or artistic—spring into their conversations. This heightened discourse promotes compact paragraphs of dialogue, in which several persons speak to the same topic, in contrast with the usual fictional technique of a separate paragraph for each speaker. Yet, in the close conceptual unity of McCarthy’s novels, lengthy paragraphs of extensive character analyses frequently fill several pages without interruption. As a result, the technique of several speakers in one paragraph seems to support the general schema. It supports, also, the paradigm of the group.

Structurally, the three novels preceding The Group develop around separate chapters, each presenting the viewpoints and the consciousness of the different characters; their point of unity is the common awareness of the social group. A protagonist, often a reflection of the author, generally emerges from among these peripheral persons, but the effect of each chapter remains that of the portrait or sketch.

Several factors of McCarthy’s work can be inferred from this structure. As an orphan and a Catholic among Protestants, she no doubt had an early sensitivity to the significance of the group and the outsider. Furthermore, the intensely autobiographical nature of her work blurs the lines of genre, so that her essays read like short stories and her short stories like essays. Genre distinction, then, becomes a problem in any analysis of her work. An example is The Company She Keeps, short stories that are pulled into book form and revolve around a central theme—the quest—and parallel the structure of her novels. Also, McCarthy did not term The Oasis a “novel” but called it a conte philosophique, and several chapters of her novels were published individually as short stories before being incorporated in the novels. The effect of this technique raises the question of whether she pushed the boundaries of the traditional novel outward or merely retreated to its earliest phases of development. She lamented the loss of a “sense of character” in modern novels, saying it began to fade with D. H. Lawrence. She admired Leo Tolstoy, Gustave Flaubert, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and “all the Elizabethans.”

The dominant quality of McCarthy’s work is satire, and much of it is achieved by exaggeration and generalization. The dominant organization is the pairing of a separate character with each chapter, infused with an occasional chorus of viewpoints. McCarthy compared the technique to ventriloquism: The author throws her voice into various characters who speak for her. The long paragraphs of explication or character analysis tend to minimize plot; the concentration is on the psychological effects of what are frequently trivial incidents—as in The Oasis, when a couple illegally picking berries on the group’s farm destroys the group.

The themes of McCarthy’s novels generally concern the social failures of a group—of utopian communities in The Oasis, of progressive education in The Groves of Academe, or of cultural progress in The Group. The interest in group attitudes can be best observed in the political content of McCarthy’s novels, many of which feature a person who had some affiliation with the Communist Party and defected or failed to become a member. Her work also shows a persistent aversion to the efforts of Senator Joseph McCarthy to eradicate communists in the United States.

The Oasis

McCarthy’s first novel, The Oasis, was published serially in Horizon magazine as A Source of Embarrassment. The work puts into practice the theories of Arthur Koestler about “oases,” small libertarian groups that would try, as McCarthy said, “to change the world on a small scale.” Set at Pawlet, Vermont, at an abandoned hotel on an isolated mountain in 1946 or 1947, the novel brings together a group of about fifty people of varying backgrounds and motives. The characters seek to revive the concept of utopian communities and welcome defectors from Europe. Their efforts, however, remain confined to the daily problems of food gathering and management and fall short of the larger goals.

First, the group fails to agree on its purpose. The purists aspire to a millennium but the realists seek only a vacation or a retreat from atomic warfare. They disagree, also, about who should be permitted to join the group, and some oppose the admission of businessman Joe Lockman. Next, they find that intellect, good intentions, and the simple life without electricity do not bring about moral reform: Personal relationships and property ownership intrude. Lockman leaves oil in the kitchen stove that singes the eyebrows of Katy Norell, and then, as a prank, he frightens Will Taub by pointing a gun at him. Later, when intruders pick their wild strawberries (the stolen fruit in their Eden), Katy is highly offended at the theft of her property, and Joe is indignant about the other colonists’ attempts to drive away the berry pickers until he realizes that it was his property, the gun, they used in the assault.

The first to defect from the community is Taub, in whom many readers recognized Philip Rahv, and Katy, who resembles McCarthy, dreams of the dissolution of the community at the book’s end. With Lockman cast in the role of the outsider, with little plot and with incident minimized, and with much explication of philosophical theory and discussion of ideals and goals, the book sets the style for McCarthy’s other novels.

The Groves of Academe

Suspense is greatly improved in McCarthy’s next novel, The Groves of Academe, set in a small Pennsylvania college called Jocelyn and resembling Bard College. Directing its satire at progressive education, this novel pits the progressive against the classical, satirizes the small college in general, and exposes the evils of McCarthyism, focusing on Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities. The group here is the English Department faculty, from which Professor Henry Mulcahy finds himself dismissed. He rallies the faculty to his support, although he is a poor academician and deserves dismissal, and gains it through an appeal for sympathy for his wife and children. McCarthyism brought him to the position—the president hired him because he had been unjustly accused...

(The entire section is 2741 words.)