The Company She Keeps (novel)

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The Company She Keeps is a semi-autobiographical novel by American writer Mary McCarthy. Published in 1942, it was her first book.

It is an unconventional work, tracing the journey of a highly-politicised young catholic college graduate through various stages of emotional development, in unusually frank and revealing detail. The story blends many themes that had clearly marked the author’s own life, such as patriarchy, feminism, rebellion and betrayal, as reflected in her later autobiography. The six episodes do not follow directly in sequence, and some had already appeared as magazine fiction. Critics noted that some of the characters are easily recognisable portraits from the contemporary New York literary scene.


Autobiographical elements[edit]

The Company She Keeps’ protagonist, Margaret Sargent, closely resembles McCarthy’s account of herself in her later autobiography Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. Many of the circumstances of Margaret’s, or Meg’s, life mirror McCarthy’s own young adulthood: A college graduate living in New York City; a young first marriage that ends in divorce; works reading manuscripts for a publisher and writes for a liberal magazine.[1]:29 Because McCarthy travelled in high prestigious literary circles, many of the characters are thinly veiled accounts of well-known intellectuals, such as Edmund Wilson and Philip Rahv. However, The Company She Keeps is by no means a purely autobiographical work; McCarthy confesses to reimagining or simply inventing episodes, and doesn’t always remember which parts of her stories are true and which are fictionalized.[1]:30 McCarthy has stated in interviews that the episode in “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt” really did happen, though she changed names and cities to retain a degree of anonymity.[1]:31

Prior publication[edit]

Several of the episodes in The Company She Keeps were originally published in other sources. “Cruel and Barbarous Treatment,” written in 1938 and published in The Southern Review in the spring of 1939, was one of her first works of fiction.[2]:99 McCarthy wrote the other five stories that eventually became The Company She Keeps over the course of the next three and a half years. “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt” was published in Partisan Review in the summer of 1941, “The Genial Host” was published in The Southern Review in the fall of 1941, and “Ghostly Father, I Confess” was published by Harper’s Bazaar in April 1942. The other two episodes, “Rogue’s Gallery” and “Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man,” did not appear in any publications prior to the release, in the spring of 1942, of The Company She Keeps.[2]:100


The Company She Keeps consists of six episodes featuring the same heroine, Meg Sargent. However, the stories do not easily cohere into a whole. The narrative voice switches between the second- and third-person, and the heroine’s name isn’t even mentioned until the second episode, and then only obliquely.[3]:111 McCarthy wrote each story as a stand-alone piece; however, the heroine and the underlying themes remained across the different settings and styles. McCarthy said that she began to think of these six stories as one unified story.[2]:99-100 McCarthy put the stories together to form one collection and was adamant about calling it a novel, but her own formal experimentation intentionally obscures the continuity between episodes.[3]:111


  • Cruel and Barbarous Treatment. A young, unnamed woman is married, contemplating divorce, and having an affair. She casts her life as a drama between herself and her two lovers – the Husband and the Young Man. She doesn’t dislike this play, but finds it riddled with clichés and without depth. After a while, her affair loses some of its excitement and the protagonist decides that it is no longer enough to be a Woman With A Secret, so she goes through the necessary stages of revealing the affair and leaving her husband. She decides she won’t marry the Young Man and begins to fear a life of spinsterhood until she fully begins to embrace the glamor of being a Young Divorcee. Her husband lets her go, and eventually she tires of the Young Man’s tireless devotion. The story ends with no marriage and no affair, but the heroine refuses to fall into self-pity. She moves forward with her life alone.
  • Rogue's Gallery. Our heroine, who we now know is Margaret, or Meg, Sargent, works at a strange gallery run by a man named Mr. Sheer whose only profitable items are miniature portraits of dogs set into crystal cufflinks. Mr. Sheer loves Old World luxury items, and keeps his shop filled to the brim with new acquisitions. However, Meg soon finds out that the business is founded on nothing and that all of his items for sale are actually loaned to him on consignment. He lives his life from one flawed deal to another until he eventually vanishes with no forwarding address. Meg runs into him years later; he has achieved success working in someone else’s gallery. However, he is deeply unhappy and views Meg as his only true friend.
  • The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt. Meg is on a train heading to Reno to tell her family about her new fiancée – who is, of course, not the Young Man of the first story – when she meets an older man who is clearly interested in her. Deciding to play the role of the femme fatale, Meg enters his club car and gets drunk with him. Believing she has the upper hand as the object of desire and interest, she is mortified the next morning when she wakes to remember having humiliating sex with him. Meg’s bohemian lifestyle, represented by her underpants held together with a safety pin, all of a sudden seems pathetic and dirty instead of alluring. Meg leaves him in Reno. On her return trip, the man meets her in Cleveland, showering her with expensive gifts – but Meg can tell his interest in her is fading. Eventually, he leaves and never again contacts her.
  • The Genial Host. Meg goes to a party hosted by a dull man named Pflaumen. Pflaumen is a careful director; his apartment is filled with art intended only for guests to look at, and his parties are equally carefully constructed collections of fascinating people. Pflaumen uses his guests as interesting mouthpieces for his social gatherings; in return, he lets them meet interesting influential people and only asks that they allow him to be a part of their lives. This tends to backfire on him, however, as Pflaumen’s own dullness means that his guests often form connections without him. He tries to insert himself into Meg’s life by questioning her about her drinking. Meg dislikes him intensely, especially the way he reduces his guests to a single talking point or view, but is seduced by his lifestyle and his connections.
  • Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man. This episode moves away from Meg and is told from the perspective of Jim Barnett, a self-satisfied, Yale-educated Socialist. When he meets Meg, he finds her exciting but troubling; however, two months later he begins an affair with her. It fizzles out quickly and the two clash over Meg’s Trotskyism and intensity. When Meg gets fired over her views, Jim quietly resigns in protest and intends to write an important Marxist book; however, the story ends with him going to work for a popular conservative magazine that pays well.
  • Ghostly Father, I Confess.In the final story, Meg visits her analyst, Dr. James. All of her fragmented selves are present in this meeting, and Meg, ever the author, wants to impress him. Meg’s tyrannical husband has forced her to attend these sessions; Meg wants to divorce him but is unable to do so. Meg and Dr. James search her child for answers to her unhappiness; they discuss the death of her mother, her father’s shipment of her to live with her grim Aunt Clara, her mother’s Catholicism and her father’s Protestantism, and Meg’s eventual escape from her Aunt. Dr. James believes that her husband serves as a stand-in for both her tyrannical Aunt Clara and her indifferent father. Meg leaves the office and remembers a dream she had about kissing a Nazi. The story ends with a prayer: “If the flesh must be blind, let the spirit see. Preserve me in disunity.”[4]

Literary characteristics[edit]

While The Company She Keeps is not one of McCarthy’s better-known works, there is still scholarship to be found. Scholarship can be categorized into three main groups.

Reality vs. fiction[edit]

Scholars are fascinated by the autobiographical aspects of The Company She Keeps, and view the novel as a developmental stepping-stone on McCarthy’s journey towards discovering her identity as a writer. Nowhere does it say that the stories contained in the novel are meant to be chronological, but by assembling the pieces and publishing them as a unit, we are able to follow a thread from the first story to the last. Because McCarthy endows Meg with an author-like literary consciousness, painting her as a director or artist.[5]:96 Thus, readers can approach Meg’s fragmentation and search for an integrated self as a reflection of McCarthy’s own journey.[5]:97-98


McCarthy’s most famous work, the autobiography Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, brought to the public’s attention the role of Catholicism in her upbringing. Because of this, some scholars’ interest lies in analyzing McCarthy’s other works through the lens of Catholicism. Despite McCarthy’s avowed Atheism, her early experience with Catholicism shaped her writing and the way she was and continues to be perceived by her Catholic readership. Asceticism and a need for confession and self-understanding permeate her writing.[6]:102 In The Company She Keeps, this is evident in the final episode, as well as in the tendency to write thinly veiled accounts of her personal affairs. McCarthy was an important 20th century model of a female, Catholic, coming-of-age story.[6]:114

Other scholars note that this Catholic influence is specifically an Irish-Catholic influence, and that McCarthy approaches her work with an Irish-American literary sensibility. McCarthy broke out of the anti-intellectual, sexist Irish-Catholicism, but still struggled with the Church’s sexist and restrictive definition of women and Irish fatalism. She tends to romanticize suffering and penance.[7]:87-88 McCarthy and many of her heroines, like Meg, are trapped between the intellectual and bohemian life of New York in the 30’s and 40’s and the restrictive, traditional values and stereotypes of femininity found in the Catholic Church.[7]:90

Feminist theory[edit]

Some scholars approach The Company She Keeps as an artifact, and examine it in the context of the feminist movements occurring during the book’s publishing. The novel falls between the first wave of liberal feminism and second wave feminism, and therefore contains elements of each movement – concern with diminished options for women in the workforce and sexual liberation from the first wave, and psychological implications of sexist stereotypes and the repressive character of psychiatry as an institution from the second wave.[8]:925 Feminist literature of the time sought to synthesize Marx and Freud and rework their sexist doctrines for contemporary feminism.[8]:925-926 McCarthy’s heady intellectualism doesn’t shy away from engaging in critique of these two giant figures. Her writing signals the beginning of a pushback against the Old Left by a younger generation of intellectuals, in part by taking a strong stance against Freudian psychiatry by aligning it with patriarchal subordination of female independence for fear that it would lead to madness.[8]:927

Other theorists analyze The Company She Keeps through more contemporary feminist frameworks, such as Judith Butler’s performativity. Butler’s theory argues that everyone performs identity types in a gendered world.[9]:305 Meg both depends on and fears typification. One of her defining characteristics is her ability to sort people into types, yet she is terrified of being “typed” by others.[9]:306-307 Simultaneously, Meg’s search for an integrated self throughout the collection of stories is a search for a neat type to fit into.[9]:307 By forcing her protagonist to search for yet never find a convenient type for herself, McCarthy uses Meg as a model of resistance against typification.[9]:308


The original New York Times review described The Company She Keeps as “strange and provocative” and “a most unusual novel… probably destined to create a minor furor.” The critic praises McCarthy for her original and exciting depiction of her heroine and the world in which she moves, but criticizes her for her viciousness, especially in her semi-transparent, often unflattering portrayals of actual literary figures. She closes by saying that the novel is as full of contradictions as its main character – that on one hand, it is clever and witty; on the other, it lacks maturity.[10]

Other contemporaries and publications had similar mixed views. Partisan Review originally published “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,” but found the sex scene so controversial and immature that they refused to publish “The Genial Host.”[2]:100 McCarthy’s husband Edmund Wilson, himself a prominent writer and critic, found the book ingenious, as did Vladimir Nabokov; however, most book reviewers were not as enthusiastic. Many cited McCarthy’s immaturity and sharpness, calling the book unlikeable and gossipy. Despite the mixed reception, The Company She Keeps sold 10,000 copies.[2]:102


  1. ^ a b c Hardy, Willene Schaefer. Mary McCarthy. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. Print.
  2. ^ a b c d e Gelderman, Carol. Mary McCarthy: A Life. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1989. Print.
  3. ^ a b Crowley, John W. “Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps.” Explicator, vol. 51, no. 2, pp. 111-115, MLA International Bibliography, doi:
  4. ^ McCarthy, Mary. The Company She Keeps. New York: Harcourt, 1942. Print.
  5. ^ a b Hewitt, Rosalie. “A ‘Home Address for the Self’: Mary McCarthy’s Autobiographical Journey.” The Journal of Narrative Technique, vol. 12, no. 2, 1982, pp. 95-104.
  6. ^ a b Campbell, Debra. “‘One of Ours?’: Catholic Readings of Mary McCarthy, 1942-1964.”U.S. Catholic Historian, vol. 20, no. 1, 2002, pp. 99-115,
  7. ^ a b Donohue, Stacy Lee. “Reluctant Radical: The Irish-Catholic Element.” Twenty-Four Ways of Looking at Mary McCarthy: The Writer and Her Work, Ed. Eve Stwertka and Margo Viscusi. Westport: Greenwood, 1996, pp. 87-97. Print.
  8. ^ a b c Farland, Maria. “Literary Feminisms.” The Cambridge History of the American Novel. Ed. Leonard Cassuto. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 925-940. Print.
  9. ^ a b c d Marsh, Kelly A. “‘All My Habits of Mind’: Performance and Identity in the Novels of Mary McCarthy.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 34, no. 3, 2002, pp. 303-3019.
  10. ^ Wharton, Edith H. Review of The Company She Keeps, by Mary McCarthy. New York Times, 24 May 1942.