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Analysis of Mary McCarthy’s Novels

Mary McCarthy’s (June 21, 1912 – October 25, 1989) 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 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.

BN-SY608_bkrvmc_JV_20170413154504Several factors of McCarthy’s work can be inferred from this structure. As an orphan and a Roman 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. Furthermore, McCarthy did not term The Oasis a “novel” but called it a conte philosophique (Philosophical fiction). Also, 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 in Horizon under the title A Source of Embarrassment and 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. Joe 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 Will Taub, in whom many readers recognized Philip Rahv, and Katy, who resembles Mary McCarthy, dreams of the dissolution of the community at the book’s end. With Joe 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, focused in Senator 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 of being a communist sympathizer—and, finally, it accounts for his retention. Mulcahy loses his chief faculty supporter when she discovers that he lied about his wife’s illness, but he gains another weapon through a visiting poet who recognizes him from Communist Party meetings. At the climax of the novel, the McCarthy scare is shown at its most evil: Protecting the college, the well-meaning president conducts an interview into Mulcahy’s past, which results in Mulcahy’s being charged with libel. The unstable Mulcahy triumphs and secures his position at Jocelyn—certain to continue bullying students and colleagues alike—and the president resigns.

A Charmed Life

In A Charmed Life, Martha Sinnott returns to a group of artistic people at New Leeds, a small New England village based on Wellfleet, Cape Cod, where she had lived with her former husband (much like McCarthy had lived at Wellfleet and returned with a second husband). Martha returns determined to be different from and independent of the New Leedsians who live a charmed life of many accidents, none of which kills them. Here, time, which signifies the mortal, is askew and awry, as indicated by the many problems with clocks and calendars. Part of Martha’s anxiety about her return to New Leeds is the possibility of meeting her former husband (based on Edmund Wilson) with his new wife and child and the fear that he will reestablish domination over her. When he seduces her and she later finds herself pregnant, she cannot remember the date well enough to determine whether her former or present husband is the father. Her moral decision to have an abortion because she cannot live a lie results in her death; returning from borrowing money for the abortion, she drives on the right side of the road, contrary to New Leeds custom, and meets another car head-on. The charmed life of New Leeds goes on, but Martha lives and dies an outsider.

McCarthy called this novel a fairy tale. Loosely analogous to “Sleeping Beauty,” Martha Sinnott pricks her hand at the beginning of the novel, lives in self-doubt on the fringes of the immortality of New Leeds (the timelessness of a century of sleep), and is awakened to the new existence of pregnancy and decision. The prince who wakens her with a kiss (the seduction), however, is an evil prince.

The Group

With a theme of the failure of modern progress, The Group was published in November, 1963. At that time, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1962) and other feminist writings had focused on the problems of women, and the public was responsive to works focused on the problems of the emancipated woman. Although the novel is set in the seven years from 1933 to 1940, the progressiveness of the eight cum nine young Vassar women seemed to be the progress that was engulfing women of the 1960’s. Like gleanings from an alumnae bulletin, the random appearances, different voices, and loose ends are not expected to be resolved. The undistinguished occupations of the group, also, confirm the alumnae magazine reports of most women graduates, but somehow more is expected of Vassar women. Not only the money but also increased competition for admission meant that, by 1963, most women could not get into Vassar College. For the general public, there is some comfort in the failure of the culturally advantaged.

The novel begins with the wedding of Kay Strong in 1933 and ends with her death seven years later at the age of twenty-nine. Of the eight members of the group who had lived in the same dormitory, plus one outsider, Kay seemed to be most forwardlooking and progressive. Like McCarthy, she comes from the West and, immediately upon graduation, she marries her lover of some time, a mostly unemployed playwright named Harald Petersen who resembles Harold Johnsrud. Part of McCarthy’s personality is dispersed among the other characters, especially Libby MacAusland, a woman of formidable intellect who writes book reviews and becomes a literary agent.

The elegant, beautiful, and wealthy Elinor Eastlake disappears into Europe and reemerges a lesbian prior to Kay’s death. Polly Andrews becomes attached to a married man who is obviously well adjusted except that he pays twenty-five dollars a week for psychiatric counseling. Working in a hospital, Polly becomes engaged to another man, a psychiatrist who has defected from the profession and thus augments the satiric attack on psychiatry. Helena Davison, in Cleveland, remains the stable rich girl, highly intelligent and analytic. Priss Hartshorn marries a pediatrician, and, attempting to breast-feed her son and train him by modern theories, provides the satire on this aspect of progressivism. Pokey Prothero, from a household organized and represented by an invaluable butler, plans to become a veterinarian.

Kay, during a fight with Harald, gets a black eye and finds herself committed to a mental hospital. Despite Harald’s admission that she does not belong there, she decides to stay for a rest and then disappears from the story until she reemerges after a divorce and a year in the West. Back East, ready to start a career again, she falls to her death while spotting planes from her window and becomes the first casualty of the war.

Representing a culmination of the group philosophy and the disjointed voices of the earlier novels, The Group with its timely feminist content earned for McCarthy a great deal of money and many appearances on talk shows and in magazines. Some Vassar alumnae were recognizable in it, and the film version did not name the college. This novel established McCarthy as a popular writer, but she did not attempt to capitalize on it with a follow-up novel. Instead, eight years later, she brought out a novel of a different sort altogether.

Birds of America

Departing from the group structure, McCarthy’s next novel, Birds of America, begins in 1964 with Peter Levi’s return at the age of nineteen to Rocky Port, Maine, after an absence of five years. During his absence, his favorite horned owl died. With his divorced and remarried mother, Rosamund, he searches for a waterfall that they cannot find—the victim of a highway project. In their respective ways, the village and the mother cling to fashions of the past but rapidly succumb to modernity.

Peter goes to the Sorbonne for his junior year in college but finds his ideals of French culture in conflict with the realities. His friends are American; he has a painful Thanksgiving dinner at an American general’s home discussing vegetarianism and the war in Vietnam; he runs afoul of the French police while watching a demonstration; and he spends Christmas vacation in Rome where the masses of tourists interfere with his appreciation of the Sistine Chapel. Returned to Paris, he attempts in his Kantian way—“Behave as if thy maxim could be a universal law”—to help the street drunkards. Everywhere he goes, he tangles with human refuse, which is best revealed in a long letter home about the filth of Parisian toilets. Clinging to his preferences for nature, however, he grows vegetables and other plants in his apartment and joins a bird study group. At a zoo at the close of the novel, he is attacked by a swan while attempting to feed it from his hand. He wakens, later, in a hospital recovering from a reaction to a penicillin shot. At this point, philosopher Immanuel Kant speaks to him, saying that “nature is dead, my child.”

Peter (obviously modeled on Reuel Wilson) calls his father “babbo,” is familiar with Italy, speaks both French and Italian, and is an intellectual like his mother. This novel, much different from the other seven, is the only one with a clear and unmistakable protagonist. The group Peter satirizes are tourists as a group; but the group does not make up the novel’s characters.

Cannibals and Missionaries

The group of Cannibals and Missionaries, originally formed as a committee of six to fly by Air France to Iran to investigate reports of the Shah’s torturing of prisoners, expands, by the time the plane is hijacked to Holland, to twenty-four hostages and eight terrorists. Set during the administration of President Gerald Ford, the novel takes its title from the puzzle in which three cannibals and three missionaries must cross a river in a boat that will hold only two people, and if the cannibals outnumber the missionaries, they might eat the missionaries. In the novel, however, there is no clear indication as to which group represents the cannibals and which the missionaries.

In one passage of explication, McCarthy points out that the terrorists’ demands accomplish nothing but the reabsorption into the dominant society of whatever they demanded; prisoners released, for example, are eventually returned to prison. Confined in a Dutch farmhouse, hostages learn of their terrorists’ demands from television: $1.25 million, Holland’s withdrawal from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the breaking of relations with Israel, and the release of “class war” prisoners from Dutch jails. Like the other groups in McCarthy’s fiction, the members of this group are pulled together in a common cause; even though divided between hostages and terrorists, the hostages willingly aid the terrorists in some efforts and feel triumphant in the successful completion of a task, such as hiding the helicopter that brought them to the farmhouse. At the novel’s conclusion, however, all but four are killed, one of whom claims that she has not been changed by the experience.

The European settings of the last two novels reflect McCarthy’s travel experiences and utilize her interest in art. In Cannibals and Missionaries, McCarthy returned to her early interest in communism and to the group structure with separate narrative voices.

Although The Groves of Academe is still highly esteemed as an example of the academic novel, and The Group is read by students of popular fiction and women’s issues, McCarthy’s novels considered by themselves do not make up a lasting body of work. Rather, they derive their lasting significance from their place in the life and work of an exemplary woman of letters. Grace Eckley

Major Works
Long fiction • The Oasis, 1949; The Groves of Academe, 1952; A Charmed Life, 1955; The Group, 1963; Birds of America, 1971; Cannibals and Missionaries, 1979.
Short fiction: The Company She Keeps, 1942; Cast a Cold Eye, 1950; The Hounds of Summer, and Other Stories, 1981.
Nonfiction: Sights and Spectacles, 1937-1956, 1956; Venice Observed, 1956; Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, 1957; The Stones of Florence, 1959; On the Contrary: Articles of Belief, 1961; Mary McCarthy’s Theatre Chronicles, 1937-1962, 1963; Vietnam, 1967; Hanoi, 1968; The Writing on the Wall, and Other Literary Essays, 1970; Medina, 1972; The Mask of State, 1974; The Seventeenth Degree, 1974; Ideas and the Novel, 1980; Occasional Prose, 1985; How I Grew, 1987; Intellectual Memoirs: New York, 1936-1938, 1992; Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arrendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949-1975, 1995 (Carol Brightman, editor); A Bolt from the Blue, and Other Essays, 2002 (A. O. Scott, editor).
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

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Categories: American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature

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