Sunday, July 30, 2017

"Cruel and Barbarous Treatment" (1939)

Story by Mary McCarthy not available online.

Mary McCarthy published this story in 1939 and later included it, without the mysterious scare quotes used in the Robert Penn Warren collection, as one of the sections in her episodic first novel in 1942, The Company She Keeps. It was written in the early days of her marriage to the literary critic Edmund Wilson, from 1938 to 1945, her second marriage. It's an icy-cold story of divorce, told from the point of view of an unnamed wife, who is having an affair with a "Young Man" (my scare quotes). She describes the emotional progress of the affair, how it starts as a secret, and then becomes a secret to be kept only from her husband. She relishes each stage—the delicious secret itself, and then the delicious reveals. Eventually that includes telling her husband. She senses her marriage is headed for divorce, but also seems to believe it will then go on to a remarriage. She has no scruples about hurting her lover that way—after all, look at what he is doing to her husband. The description of these events continues, in long sentences and sprawling paragraphs. It is so granular at points that it feels like an insect being dismembered in slow motion. At the same time, the wife's behavior may be "cruel and barbarous" (not sure whose scare quotes those are). There's a familiar childish id down there controlling the action, which seems to be mere irrational acting out. The idea in her mind comes up more than once: divorce and then a remarriage. She is trying to win an epic power struggle more than remove her husband from her life. In fact, she's not happy when she sees her husband accepting her choice to keep and flaunt a lover, even judging her a little. Her bid for ultimate control has inadvertently liberated him. That wasn't supposed to be part of the plan. If the totality of the story is a little off-putting at least it's probably intended that way. I haven't read much McCarthy so I'm not sure how typical it is. It's hard to prepare for the level of rage. That's what's startling and ultimately so disturbing about it. This is a story told by a soul utterly consumed with rage. It'll get you by the throat if you let it.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

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