Mary McCarthy: “The Company She Keeps”

Of all the works of literature read in regard to the social issues of the 1930s, Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps proves the most artistic. Her compilation of short stories calls attention to the conflicts of women in the era with both honesty and grace. McCarthy tackles prevailing issues of marriage, intellectualism, and the taboo of real sexual desire and promiscuity in a way that suggests, without ever confirming, a self-portrait of the author herself in the form of a young Bohemian named Margaret Sergeant. Each short story in McCarthy’s book explores a different theme of the female role in the 1930s from the perspective of a woman going against the grain of social norms.

The first short story, “Cruel and Barbarous Treatment”, presents the inner thoughts of Miss Sergeant contemplating divorce while having an affair. Marriage in the 1930s was typically delayed in life, and McCarthy details the conflicts of a marriage on the rocks while making a statement about the typical wife’s role. By Sergeant participating in an affair and bringing an end to her own wedded life, McCarthy seemingly opposes the role of the family woman as the sheltering device and sole determinant of keeping a household together. While the rise of home economics classes and sexual how-to books came about in the decade to encourage the stability of a marriage initiated by the wife, “Cruel and Barbarous Treatment” entails the other side of the story, making the instance of divorce more relevant and honest than society would probably want it to be portrayed.

Following “Cruel and Barbarous Treatment” comes “Rogue’s Gallery”, an equally substantial commentary on the social detriments of the 1930s. In this short story, Miss Sergeant serves as the stenographer to a crooked, illegitimate art dealer. The author recognizes the fact that her hiring was almost solely based on appearance by stating, “It puzzled me… that [Mr. Sheer] should so readily dismiss a professional he paid ten dollars a week to take on an amateur at eleven” (25). As the attractive woman under Sheer’s employment, Sergeant performed his dirty work, while coming to terms with her position as “the only one of his retinue who had an honest face” (44). McCarthy, in this story draws off the objectification of women, which appears to span across time as a continual problem women’s issues.

Story three, “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt”, explore the heroine’s desire and promiscuity within the confines of an isolated incident traveling cross-country on a train. Self-image and self-consciousness play leading roles in this account with McCarthy focusing primarily on inner thoughts and concerns in reference to other’s perception of the situation. Sergeant begins by describing a man in her view dressed with a “tasteful symphony of cool colors” who was “plainly Out of the Question” (81). McCarthy capitalizes “Out of the Question”, perhaps, to signify the frequency of Sergeant’s tendency to notice other men. Before the gentleman and Margaret interact for the first time, this idea of promiscuity comes to the surface as she predicts how the encounter will play out before the first word is spoken. McCarthy details the preemptive desire by letting the reader know that Sergeant “could foresee the political pronouncements, the pictures of the wife and children, and hand squeezed under the table” (83). By describing the situation in realistic terms, Sergeant’s familiarity with casual meetings and relations amongst random is revealed quite vividly. In the context of the mistress rather than the adulteress, McCarthy inserts another poignant commentary on the standard role of a wife that she obviously disagrees with. McCarthy’s statement comes out in the dialogue of the man in the Brooks Brothers shirt with, “A man doesn’t want his wife to understand him. That’s not her job. Her job is to have a nice house and nice kids and give good parties he can have his friends to” (98).

The overt artistry in McCarthy’s writing comes with continual references to the theatrical life throughout all the stories in the book. In “Cruel and Barbarous Treatment”, McCarthy proves this point by describing alluding to the theatre and story lines:

Terrified, she wondered whether she had not already prolonged the drama beyond its natural limits, whether the confession in the restaurant and the absolution in the Park had not rounded off the artistic whole, whether the sequel of divorce and remarriage would not, I fact, constitute an anticlimax.” (13)

During the defining moments of a marriage’s end, the author still includes beauty and comparison to the artistry of playwriting and the typical trajectory of a staged performance.

In “Rogue’s Gallery”, Sergeant’s position as the immoral Sheer’s underlie requires her to perform to save her boss’s shop. Though this story involves far fewer metaphors and analogies dealing with the theatrical life, McCarthy strategically places Sergeant in an art gallery so as to never lose the artistic theme in her compilation. Margaret serves as Sheer’s voluntary pawn to cover his mistakes and shortcomings as an illegitimate art dealer with secrets and lies deeply rooted in his business.

“The man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt” involves both theatrical allusions and fantastical scenarios far too obvious to ignore as pure artistry on the part of McCarthy. The author states at one point that Sergeant speaks to the gentleman “with a large, remote stare, as if he were an audience of several hundred people” (95). While Sergeant assesses her situation with men internally, she notes, “they could only respond by leaping at her- which, after all, was their readiness method of showing her that her impersonation had been convincing” (104). The heroine continues her train of thought in disgust of her own submission to men’s predatory advances by declaring, “art is to be admired, not acted on, and the public does not belong on the stage, nor the actors in the audience” (104).

Mary McCarthy and Margaret Sergeant may not physically be the same woman, but they both see the world in the same artistic and revolutionary way compared to the dominant ideology concerning “the woman’s place” in America. The social climate of the 1930s combined both typical females as the home-based matriarch and the opposing, free-spirited individuals as discovered in The Company She Keeps. The novel detailed above is saturated in artistry that compliments McCarthy’s talent as an independent woman and an influential author.

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