(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The uniqueness of Mary McCarthy’s social chronicle The Group resides in the inherent irony of the very title of the novel. Unlike her earlier writing, fictional and nonfictional, this novel has no single character or voice through whom the intellectually severe voice of the author is heard. The main character is a composite of nine Vassar graduates of the by now famous class of 1933. Fragments of the author’s own attitudes and experiences appear in each of the nine classmates, more so in some than in others, perhaps. The composite voice, then, can be heard as the voice of Vassar College, as it is the ideas instilled in the group by their professors that form a bond among them. That bond marks them as Vassar girls and makes others self-consciously outsiders.

Among the nine graduates, minor groupings exist. The original group consists of Lakey, Helena, Dottie, Pokey, Libby, and Priss. Because eight girls are needed to occupy the South Tower of Main Hall, Polly and Kay are invited by Lakey to join them. Another classmate, but not a groupmate, Norine, provides a dissonant counterpoint to the elitism of the others, and as such she is part of the composite character.

Two other groups function importantly in the novel, one as sympathetic participant in the group’s elitism and the other as antagonist to the insiders. The families, especially the mothers, comprise the former; the husbands, lovers, friends, and assorted acquaintances (mostly male) constitute the latter.

The novel consists of fifteen untitled chapters, each a vividly detailed characterization of one of the women in her specific...

(The entire section is 668 words.)

The Group Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Mary McCarthy’s The Group traces eight Vassar students from 1933, the year of their graduation, to 1940, as each struggles to find her identity in society. It opens at the wedding of Kay Leiland Strong, one of the most vibrant and daring members of the group. At Vassar, the eight had shared a dorm and had been considered members of the student body’s elite. They were all attractive, intellectual, envied, and members of privileged, monied classes.

After graduation, each felt a need to distinguish herself, to attain an identity separate from college and from parents. They believed themselves, McCarthy tells the reader, a different breed. Each planned to work, in a time when the more common expectation for such women was marriage, and to contribute to society.

The story is told in the third person, using a variety of voices. Each character assumes the central role at some point during the novel, exposing her personal values and attitudes, many of which are conventional, even stereotypical. As a result, some critics describe the novel as full of clichés, yet McCarthy has brilliantly mimicked the problems and worries of the different characters, revealing flaws, excuses, self-delusions. The novel’s irony lies in the difference between the characters’ perceptions and desires and reality, which is clear to the reader.

For example, Dottie loses her virginity in an attempt to be modern and adult. She spends much of that...

(The entire section is 461 words.)

The Group Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Popular acclaim for The Group, McCarthy’s only best seller, has not been reflected by critical reaction. The novel has been lambasted as being written on the level of pulp romance fiction and as containing stock, barely distinguishable characterizations and a strategic lack of focus. On the other hand, many Vassar graduates have been incensed at the apparently realistic characters portrayed without empathy. Both groups have overlooked the penetrating satire through which McCarthy so often expresses her themes.

Three interrelated themes are presented through each chapter’s focus on one character at a time. The women, well educated and not devastatingly affected by the Depression, are ill prepared to cope with life in the real world. One crucial detriment, manifested repeatedly by the different characters, is that these aware women are incapable of putting their progressive philosophies into action. Instead, they become caught up in their own immediate needs or in surrounding circumstances.

Another recurrent McCarthy theme revolves around the inadequacies of living entirely for the present moment without a sense of history. Even as the women delight in Kay’s nontraditional wedding celebration, they are also discomfited by the absence of any member of Kay’s family and are superstitious about Kay’s behaviors that are traditionally considered unlucky. Without the emotional and the spiritual foundations of a family heritage, a stable self-identity is difficult to realize.

Although McCarthy extensively employs in this novel a technique she has termed ventriloquism (allowing the actions, the words, and the intonations of each character to evolve as unique to that character without the controlling intervention of the novelist’s voice), expression of her belief system was important enough to her that she set aside her writing of The Group for eighteen years to find the appropriate internal voice. In the early 1960’s, her development of Kay as a dynamic, rather than a static, character became the voice she had long sought.

Kay Leiland Strong Petersen, whose marriage opens the novel and whose death concludes the novel, is the unifying thread among the other characters’ stories. A shy, slightly overweight westerner upon her arrival at Vassar, Kay outwardly transforms herself into the stereotypical ambitious,...

(The entire section is 972 words.)