Miss Macintosh, My Darling Summary
by Marguerite Young

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Miss Macintosh, My Darling Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In Miss Macintosh, My Darling, the first and only novel by Marguerite Young, a young woman embarks on a dreamlike voyage through time and memory in search of her darling childhood nursemaid, Miss Macintosh from What Cheer, Iowa, who has disappeared into the ocean, never to be seen again. Finding herself adrift on a sea of delusion and fantasy, the young woman fervently searches for reality only to discover herself drowning in illusion.

The narrator, Vera Cartwheel, has been reared in a baroque New England seaside house. Her mother, Catherine, an opium addict, is confined to her bed and a world of imaginary visitors when Vera is a small child. In her mother’s “horizontal” existence, every object, from chandeliers to medicine bottles, is endowed with life and becomes a welcomed guest along with such notables as Alexander Pope, Lady Mary Montagu, and Lord Byron. Catherine’s only real visitor is Joaquin Spitzer, her lawyer, who is also the twin brother of Peron, her dead lover who committed suicide years before. Having known Catherine in earlier years, Mr. Spitzer silently endures unrequited love, patiently sitting in the shadows of her room waiting for Catherine’s rare moments of coherence.

Miss Macintosh, hired by Mr. Spitzer as a nursemaid when Vera is seven, is a no-nonsense governess and appears to be the only rational person in Vera’s life. She is sensible and common, forthright and normal, and for seven years, she is both nursemaid and teacher. On the night of her fourteenth birthday, Vera enters her nursemaid’s room only to discover that Miss Macintosh’s reality is far stranger than her mother’s opium-induced dream; she is in fact bald, hairless since birth. A surreal scene ensues in which the nursemaid’s true identity manifests itself to Vera. “Where her head should be, there was another moon, cold and dented and shining, seeming to float upon the waves of corrugated darkness. . . .” Standing naked before the child, red wig tossed aside, she is exposed as a fat old spinster with only one breast. It is a surprising metamorphosis and a hideous nightmare for Vera.

During the following month, Vera’s love for Miss MacIntosh grows as she learns the truth of her tormented childhood and her broken engagement to Mr. Titus Bonebreaker, a street preacher from Chicago who, upon the eve of their wedding, finds her deformities so grotesque and repulsive that he decides to flee into the night. Vera’s discovery of love and death coincide when, for no apparent reason. Miss MacIntosh walks into the ocean, leaving scattered on the beach her wig, false breast, eyeglasses, and broken umbrella.

Years later, Vera discovers herself traveling backward in time on a dilapidated old bus with a whiskey guzzling, long-haired bus driver as they head to the Midwest in search of the reality of Miss MacIntosh. As the barren landscape of her soul passes by, she contemplates her fellow passengers, a pregnant girl and her young husband who are acting out fantasies of their own. In a small cafe in Wabash Valley, Vera meets Esther Longtree, a cross-eyed waitress who, having murdered her first-born infant, is cursed with the idea that she is permanently pregnant. After enduring horrifyingly real labors, she delivers imaginary stillborn babies only to find herself pregnant once again. In a rundown hotel, Vera encounters Weed, a Christian hangman who hangs his victims with dignity while at the same time taking pride in carrying out their sentences in a painless manner, and Dr. Justice O’Leary who delivers imaginary women of imaginary babies. She continues to walk a tightrope between sanity and illusion until she meets a stone-deaf man with whom she falls in love, conceives a child, and looks forward to a new life.

Meanwhile, back in New England, Catherine Cartwheel’s shadowy existence in her hallucinogenic, bed-ridden environment comes to an end when she weans herself from opium. Ironically, when she awakens to confront the reality she...

(The entire section is 1,071 words.)