"Myn owene woman, wel at ese" : feminist facts in the fiction of Mary McCarthy

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Hewitt, Avis Grey
Trimmer, Joseph F.
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Thesis (Ph. D.)
Department of English
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This study examines Mary McCarthy's three major female-protagonist works of fiction--The Company She Keeps (1942), A Charmed Life (1955), and The Group (1963)--in terms of the author's attitude towards femaleness. It confronts Elizabeth Janeway's assessment in Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing (1979) that McCarthy's works need not be reviewed in a survey essay on "Women's Literature" because they are "essentially masculine even if not conventionally so" (345). The thesis is that McCarthy's fiction receives a pattern of criticism faulting its lack of imagination and its inability to create "living" characters precisely because she maintained a high degree of self-censorship and control over parts of her awareness that were not male-identified. She was not free to imagine in areas that might unleash the horrors beneath what Norman Mailer has called "the thin juiceless crust" upon which McCarthy's "nice girls" live their lives.Each novel finds the protagonist at a different stage of modern womanhood and using a variety of male-identified responses. Meg Sargent of Company is a young New York sophisticate dealing with divorce, employment, travel, social life, political activism, casual sexual encounters, and the resolution of childhood trauma through psychoanalysis. Martha Sinnott of Charmed is a married woman returning with her second husband to the bohemian artists' community of her first husband in order to resolve the conflict of literary mentorship and patriarchal dominance that had marked the old relationship. In The Group Kay Strong and eight other Vassar Class of '33 females serve as literary embodiments of the social ailment that Betty Friedan cited in her 1963 polemic, The Feminine Mystique.McCarthy's three autobiographies--Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957), How I Grew (1985), and Intellectual Memoirs (1992)--illuminate many reasons for and consequences of her male-identified approach to living and writing. Social context for such a fate stems in part from having come of age in the 1930s, being a member of what Elaine Showalter refers to as "The Other Lost Generation." McCarthy's texts provide literary illustration of a common response to patriarchy.