Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Psychoanalysis in literature is old hat, but there were days when it was new. Returning to Mary McCarthy to see which neuroses still ring true.

Margaret Sargent, the heroine of Mary McCarthy’s novel-in-vignettes The Company She Keeps, is an unhappy woman—though the reasons depend on the vignette. In ‘Cruel and Barbarous Treatment,’ it’s because she’s having an affair and wants to position herself so that when the news breaks, she will emerge the gay divorcee. In ‘The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,’ it’s because she doesn’t know whether to adore or pity the man she met and slept with on a cross-country train. In ‘The Genial Host,’ it’s because she is becoming un-enamored with the dandy host who’s always inviting her to dinner parties full of intellectuals and, Margaret hastens to add, possible lovers.

Margaret is, to say the least, a bit shallow. And there are likely more than a few readers who, after the appallingly antiseptic tone of ‘Cruel and Barbarous Treatment,’ have given up on the book completely. As The Company She Keeps proceeds, though, it becomes apparent that Margaret is not altogether lacking in moral conflict—as she prepares to go to bed with Mr. Breen, the Brooks Brothers shirt-wearer, she tells herself, ‘This…is going to be the only real act of charity I have ever performed in my life; it will be the only time I have ever given anything when it honestly hurts me to do so.’ She is torn, and though we might not respect her for her decision we come to empathize with her plight.

To the contemporary reader Margaret’s problems seem so, well, obvious. She chases men, then dumps them when they get too close. She seeks a father figure, yet rebels when he is not exactly what she wants, even though she can’t figure out exactly what that is. As this unfolds we know, without being told, that somewhere in her not-so-distant past is a powerful but flawed father, a man who always tried to do right but, because he failed or simply because he tried one too many times, has scarred her deeply. (And we know this without the benefit of the original edition’s back-flap crib note, which says that ‘psychologically, she has come to a dead end and can only act and reenact the childhood trauma of estrangement.’) Margaret is all too recognizable—the stock character from a thousand straight-to-paperback novels, from whole seasons of Sex in the City.

The last vignette, ‘Ghostly Father, I Confess,’ bears out our suspicions. On a psychoanalyst’s couch, Margaret grudgingly unfurls her psychological secrets, to herself and to us. It is exactly as we suspected: Her mother died when she was young. She was raised by her father, who wavered between aloofness and smothering love. And in her mother’s stead was her stern, Catholic aunt, who further impeded Margaret’s emotional development. To readers at the time, though, this was a stunning turn of events—critic and novelist Malcolm Cowley, reviewing the book for The New Republic, wrote, ‘Now the pieces are fitted together, and the picture that emerges is a little different from anything we had been expecting.’ But we, with our well-worn copies of Freud and thousands of hours logged on the analyst’s couch, were expecting it all along. For all its insight and wit, the book seems quaint in its reliance on Freudian analysis, outdated and out-of-sync.

Nevertheless, and for precisely this reason, The Company She Keeps is an important novel. Published in 1942 but written over the course of the 1930s, the book is contemporaneous with the emergence of psychoanalysis as an American cultural phenomenon; what had been brewing in Vienna and making its way through the offices of European and American therapists was finally bleeding into our cultural consciousness. Indeed, The Company She Keeps straddles two great eras in literature: that of the psychological novel, and that of the psychiatric novel. Many of the great novels of the nineteenth century are great because they contain amazingly detailed accounts of their characters’ motivations, emotions, fears—think of Madame Bovary, or Anna Karenina. But the characters themselves are not particularly aware of these insights. Which is not to say that there have never been characters aware of their own psychologies—in fact, the greatest, most realistic characters have long been those who realize, at least to some extent, the inner workings that make them succeed or fail. But beginning with McCarthy’s generation, characters, like their real-life counterparts, began to engage in a specific kind of self-awareness. They began to internalize the clinical, to see themselves always on the couch, to use the psychiatrist’s terminology in everyday life—an aspect of modern, western society highlighted so well by Michel Foucault. We have always had oedipal complexes—only in the last 75 years, however, have we come to identify them in ourselves.

Today’s novels, in contrast, wholly embrace the psychiatric. Their characters are fully versed in psychoanalysis and psychopharmacology, in pop movements like self-help and group therapy, in words like ‘twelve-step program.’ Even more, they play with them—think of the tennis students in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, who take a cocktail of mood-altering drugs to enhance their performance, or his recovering addicts in their halfway house, who know all too well the intersection between mind and chemical. Perhaps the scene ne plus ultra of the psychiatric novel comes a third of the way into Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, when Chip, the jilted, out-of-work professor, literally makes love to his couch—embraces, at the end of a day filled with family, financial, and romantic problems, his own neuroses. Indeed, the neurotic—a character doomed to psychological self-awareness—is our age’s contribution to the canon of stock literary characters.

The Company She Keeps, then, can—and should—be read as a literary roadmap of a culture’s movement from the mere psychological to the psychiatric. Margaret may appear shallow, the stereotyped heroine, but that is because she is McCarthy’s cipher for all the psychologically traumatized heroines of the past. Margaret is familiar and yet, at least to readers at the time, inscrutable. She is a sympathetic character, and readers want to know what’s wrong with her—but McCarthy’s not telling. It is only in the end, with her therapist, that it all emerges. McCarthy is not just analyzing Margaret—she is providing a framework for understanding literature’s great heroines, and at the same time the possibility for writing the psychiatric novel.

And yet McCarthy also presages the shortcomings of psychiatric literature, and of psychiatry writ large. Christopher Isherwood criticized the book for attempting to define the core of Margaret’s being; he wrote: ‘The search for what Miss McCarthy calls ‘the ordinary indispensable self’ is as futile as the ‘search’ for one’s own reflection in a mirror.’ But things are not as easy as Isherwood believes—Margaret is not happy with what she finds. She is frustrated because of the totality with which her analyst resolves her issues and she is afraid of the neutered, unproblematic self she will emerge with: ‘What Frederick [her new husband, who had sent her to therapy] had not foreseen was that the good would vanish with the bad.’ By the end of the novel, as she shuffles out of Dr. James’s office, Margaret has become an antecedent to all the memoirists writing of the bland, post-Prozac life.

McCarthy was hardly the only author to incorporate psychoanalysis into her storylines—to Henry Miller, sessions with a psychoanalyst are often the gauntlet through which his characters run in order to reach sexual freedom. But whereas for Miller psychoanalysis was an unquestionable good, McCarthy is more circumspect—we see in Margaret’s mix of temerity and cold acceptance of the couch’s curative potential a much richer range of personal and cultural reactions. And, as McCarthy predicts, the role of psychiatry in literature has not proven to be an entirely good thing; novelists are not clinical therapists, and the tendency to fetishize a few of the more lurid items in the DSM IV is bound to drastically limit the range of human emotions that cover the writer’s palette. And it is important we recognize that cynical familiarity with our own psychological inner workings is neither inevitable nor permanent, but is rather the product of an age and a society that prioritize control and order. To keep this perspective, we would do well to understand our culture’s movement from mere psychology toward comprehensive self-analysis—which is what, in no small part, The Company She Keeps provides.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen