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Mary McCarthy

  • Waves of shame ran through her, like savage internal blushes.

  • Scratch a socialist and you find a snob.

  • In morals as in politics anarchy is not for the weak.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "Ghostly Father, I Confess," in Mary Louise Aswell, ed., It's a Woman's World ()
  • Proscription, martial law, the billeting of the rude troops, the tax collector, the unjust judge, anything at all, is sweeter than responsibility.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "Ghostly Father, I Confess," in Mary Louise Aswell, ed., It's a Woman's World ()
  • The dictator is also the scapegoat; in assuming absolute authority, he assumes absolute guilt; and the oppressed masses, groaning under the yoke, know themselves to be innocent as lambs, while they pray hypocritically for deliverance.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "Ghostly Father, I Confess," in Mary Louise Aswell, ed., It's a Woman's World ()
  • From what I have seen, I am driven to the conclusion that religion is only good for good people...

  • Morality did not keep well; it required stable conditions; it was costly; it was subject to variations, and the market for it was uncertain.

  • ... a doubt would suddenly dart out of her, like a mouse from its hole.

  • Like all such official types, he specialized in being his own antithesis: strong but understanding, boisterous but grave, pragmatic but speculative when need be. The necessity of encompassing such opposites had left him with a little wobble of uncertainty in the center of his personality ...

  • You mustn't force sex to do the work of love or love to do the work of sex — that's quite a thought, isn't it?

  • No stones are so trite as those of Venice, that is, precisely, so well worn. It has been part museum, part amusement park, living off the entrance fees of tourists, ever since the early eighteenth century, when its former sources of revenue ran dry. ... And there is no use pretending that the tourist Venice is not the real Venice, which is possible with other cities — Rome or Florence or Naples. The tourist Venice is Venice: the gondolas, the sunsets, the changing light, Florian's, Quadri's, Torcello, Harry's Bar, Murano, Burano, the pigeons, the glass beads, the vaporetto. Venice is a folding picture postcard of itself.

  • Venice, as a city, was a foundling, floating upon the waters like Moses in his basket among the bulrushes.

  • ... this is the spirit of the enchantment under which Venice lies, pearly and roseate, like the Sleeping Beauty, changeless throughout the centuries, arrested, while the concrete forest of the modern world grows up around her.

  • Venice is the world's unconscious: a miser's glittering hoard, guarded by a Beast whose eyes are made of white agate, and by a saint who is really a prince who has just slain a dragon.

  • The furniture and trappings in the apartment are all in a state of flux — here today, gone tomorrow. Nothing is anchored to its place, not even the coffee-pot, which floats off and returns, on the tide of the signora's marine nature.

  • Modern neurosis began with the discoveries of Copernicus. Science made man feel small by showing him that the earth was not the center of the universe.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "Tyranny of the Orgasm," On the Contrary ()
  • ... Congress — these, for the most part, illiterate hacks whose fancy vests are spotted with gravy, and whose speeches, hypocritical, unctuous, and slovenly, are spotted also with the gravy of political patronage ...

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "America the Beautiful: The Humanist in the Bathtub" (1947), On the Contrary ()
  • The consumer today is the victim of the manufacturer who launches on him a regiment of products for which he must make room in his soul.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "America the Beautiful: The Humanist in the Bathtub" (1947), On the Contrary ()
  • The strongest argument for the un-materialistic character of American life is that we tolerate conditions that are, from a materialistic point of view, intolerable.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "America the Beautiful: The Humanist in the Bathtub" (1947), On the Contrary ()
  • We are a nation of twenty million bathrooms, with a humanist in every tub.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "America the Beautiful: The Humanist in the Bathtub" (1947), On the Contrary ()
  • The American character looks always as if it had just had a rather bad haircut, which gives it, in our eyes at any rate, a greater humanity than the European, which even among its beggars has an all too professional air.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "America the Beautiful: The Humanist in the Bathtub" (1947), On the Contrary ()
  • Who are the advertising men kidding, besides the European tourist? Between the tired, sad, gentle faces of the subway riders and the grinning Holy Families of the Ad-Mass, there exists no possibility of even a wishful identification.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "America the Beautiful: The Humanist in the Bathtub" (1947), On the Contrary ()
  • ... life for the European is a career; for the American, it is a hazard.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "America the Beautiful: The Humanist in the Bathtub" (1947), On the Contrary ()
  • ... the happy ending is our national belief.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "America the Beautiful: The Humanist in the Bathtub" (1947), On the Contrary ()
  • Liberty, as it is conceived by current opinion, has nothing inherent about it; it is a sort of gift or trust bestowed on the individual by the state pending good behavior.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "The Contagion of Ideas" (1952), On the Contrary ()
  • Once the state is looked upon as the source of rights, rather than their bound protector, freedom becomes conditional on the pleasure of the state.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "The Contagion of Ideas" (1952), On the Contrary ()
  • People with bad consciences always fear the judgment of children.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "The Contagion of Ideas" (1952), On the Contrary ()
  • ... it came to me, as we sat there, glumly ordering lunch, that for extremely stupid people anti-Semitism was a form of intellectuality, the sole form of intellectuality of which they were capable. It represented, in a rudimentary way, the ability to make categories, to generalize.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "Artists in Uniform" (1953), On the Contrary ()
  • Every age has a keyhole to which its eye is pasted.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "My Confession" (1953), On the Contrary ()
  • Is it really so difficult to tell a good action from a bad one? I think one usually knows right away or a moment afterward, in a horrid flash of regret.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "My Confession" (1953), On the Contrary ()
  • An unrectified case of injustice has a terrible way of lingering, restlessly, in the social atmosphere like an unfinished equation.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "My Confession" (1953), On the Contrary ()
  • Any sizeable Portuguese town looks like a superstitious bride's finery — something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "Letter from Portugal" (1955), On the Contrary ()
  • There are no new truths, but only truths that have not been recognized by those who have perceived them without noticing. A truth is something that everyone can be shown to know and to have known, as people say, all along.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "The Vita Activa" (1958), On the Contrary ()
  • ... the labor of keeping house is labor in its most naked state, for labor is toil that never finishes, toil that has to be begun again the moment it is completed, toil that is destroyed and consumed by the life process.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "The Vita Activa" (1958), On the Contrary ()
  • ... bureaucracy, the rule of no one, has become the modern form of despotism.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "The Vita Activa" (1958), On the Contrary ()
  • The erotic element always present in fashion, the kiss of loving labor on the body, is now overtly expressed by language. Belts hug or clasp; necklines plunge; jerseys bind. The word exciting tingles everywhere.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "Up the Ladder From Charm to Vogue" (1950), On the Contrary ()
  • The theater is the only branch of art much cared for by people of wealth; like canasta, it does away with the bother of talk after dinner.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "Up the Ladder From Charm to Vogue" (1950), On the Contrary ()
  • In any work that is truly creative, I believe, the writer cannot be omniscient in advance about the effects that he proposes to produce. The suspense of a novel is not only in the reader, but in the novelist himself, who is intensely curious too about what will happen to the hero.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "Settling the Colonel's Hash" (1954), On the Contrary ()
  • The passion for fact in a raw state is a peculiarity of the novelist.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "The Fact in Fiction," On the Contrary ()
  • It is impossible, except for theologians, to conceive of a world-wide scandal or a universe-wide scandal; the proof of this is the way people have settled down to living with nuclear fission, radiation poisoning, hydrogen bombs, satellites, and space rockets.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "The Fact in Fiction," On the Contrary ()
  • ... love of truth, ordinary common truth recognizable to everyone, is the ruling passion of the novel.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "The Fact in Fiction," On the Contrary ()
  • ... in science, all facts, no matter how trivial or banal, enjoy democratic equality.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "The Fact in Fiction," On the Contrary ()
  • In violence, we forget who we are ...

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "Characters in Fiction," On the Contrary ()
  • Making love, we are all more alike than we are when we are talking or acting.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "Characters in Fiction," On the Contrary ()
  • Sex annihilates identity, and the space given to sex in contemporary novels is an avowal of the absence of character.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "Characters in Fiction," On the Contrary ()
  • The comic element is the incorrigible element in every human being; the capacity to learn, from experience or instruction, is what is forbidden to all comic creations and to what is comic in you and me.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "Characters in Fiction," On the Contrary ()
  • As subjects, we all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are the hero of our own story. We cannot believe that it is finished, that we are 'finished,' even though we may say so; we expect another chapter, another installment, tomorrow or next week.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "Characters in Fiction," On the Contrary ()
  • If someone tells you he is going to make 'a realistic decision,' you immediately understand that he has resolved to do something bad.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "The American Realist Playwrights," On the Contrary ()
  • A politician or political thinker who calls himself a political realist is usually boasting that he sees politics, so to speak, in the raw; he is generally a proclaimed cynic and pessimist who makes it his business to look behind words and fine speeches for the motive. This motive is always low.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "The American Realist Playwrights," On the Contrary ()
  • All dramatic realism is somewhat sadistic; an audience is persuaded to watch something that makes it uncomfortable and from which no relief is offered — no laughter, no tears, no purgation.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "The American Realist Playwrights," On the Contrary ()
  • What I really do is take real plums and put them in an imaginary cake ... If you're interested in the cake, you get rather annoyed with people saying what species the real plum was.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • in Elisabeth Niebuhr, "The Art of Fiction XXVII," The Paris Review ()
  • The desire to believe the best of people is a prerequisite for intercourse with strangers; suspicion is reserved for friends.

  • ... she had the brusque, brutal air of a person detailed to cut Gordian knots.

  • ... most people did not care to be taught what they did not already know; it made them feel ignorant.

  • Maybe any action becomes cowardly once you stop to reason about it.

  • Whenever in history, equality appeared on the agenda, it was exported somewhere else, like an undesirable.

  • If you want to be your own master ... always be surprised by evil; never anticipate it.

  • It really takes a hero to live any kind of spiritual life without religious belief.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • in The Observer ()
  • For both writer and reader, the novel is a lonely, physically inactive affair. Only the imagination races.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • in Joan Kufrin, Uncommon Women ()
  • Our language, once homely and colloquial, seeks to aggrandize our meanest activities with polysyllabic terms or it retreats from frankness into a stammering verbosity.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "Language and Politics" (1973), Occasional Prose ()
  • Illiteracy at the poverty level (mainly a matter of bad grammar) does not alarm me nearly as much as the illiteracy of the well-to-do.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "Language and Politics" (1973), Occasional Prose ()
  • The breakdown of our language, evident in the misuse, i.e., the misunderstanding of nouns and adjectives, is most grave, though perhaps not so conspicuous, in the handling of prepositions, those modest little connectives that hold the parts of a phrase or a sentence together. They are the joints of any language, what make it, literally, articulate.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "Language and Politics" (1973), Occasional Prose ()
  • The fact is that gardening, more than most of our other activities except sometimes love-making, confronts us with the inexplicable.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "The Rake's Progress" (1981), Occasional Prose ()
  • Yet friendship, I believe, is essential to intellectuals. It is probably the growth hormone the mind requires as it begins its activity of producing and exchanging ideas. You can date the evolving life of a mind, like the age of a tree, by the rings of friendship formed by the expanding central trunk. In the course of my history, not love or marriage so much as friendship has promoted growth.

  • A good deal of education consists in un-learning — the breaking of bad habits as with a tennis serve.

  • Laughter is the great antidote for self-pity, maybe a specific for the malady, yet probably it does tend to dry one's feelings out a little, as if by exposing them to a vigorous wind ...

  • [On Lillian Hellman:] Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • televised interview with Dick Cavett (1980), in Carol Gelderman, Conversations With Mary McCarthy ()
  • As soon as you become a writer, you lose contact with ordinary experience or tend to. ... the worst fate of a writer is to become a writer.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • 1966, in Carol Gelderman, Conversations With Mary McCarthy ()
  • On the wall of our life together hung a gun waiting to be fired in the final act.

  • The present can try to bury the past, an operation that is most atrocious when it is most successful.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "Inventions of I. Compton-Burnett," in Carol Brightman, Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World ()
  • The relation between life and literature — a final antimony — is one of mutual plagiarism.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "Inventions of I. Compton-Burnett," in Carol Brightman, Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World ()
  • My occupational hazard is that I can't help plagiarizing from real life.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • 1979, in Carol Brightman, Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World ()
  • ... it's easier to forgive your enemies than to forgive your friends.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • 1964, in Carol Brightman, Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World ()
  • The return to a favorite novel is generally tied up with changes in oneself that must be counted as improvements, but have the feel of losses. It is like going back to a favorite house, country, person; nothing is where it belongs, including one's heart.

    • Mary McCarthy,
    • "On Re-Reading a Favorite Book," A Bolt From the Blue and Other Essays ()

Mary McCarthy, U.S. writer, critic, educator

(1912 - 1989)

Full name: Mary Therese McCarthy.