Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Group traces the lives of nine members of Vassar College’s class of 1933 (eight of whom compose “the group”), from Kay’s marriage shortly after their graduation until the day of her funeral. In a loosely woven narrative, Mary McCarthy documents the personal growth of each character and explores the ways in which their education had an effect upon their lives. Though McCarthy described The Group as illustrating the failure of America’s “faith in progress,” the novel should not be dismissed as mere satire. Far more than McCarthy’s other works of fiction, The Group displays sympathy for its central characters at the same time that it dissects their values. It is thus as a chronicle of the beliefs shared by a class of educated and privileged young women that The Group makes its greatest contribution.

The novel is arranged chronologically in fifteen chapters, each of which is centered upon an incident in the life of one of the group’s members. For this reason, the group itself rather than any individual serves as the novel’s protagonist. Kay and Harald’s wedding, for example, provides the author with an opportunity to demonstrate the personalities of all of her central characters. Kay herself appears adventurous and daring by inviting no parents to her wedding. Pokey displays her superficiality by speaking disdainfully of Harald’s shoes. Lakey’s angry reply to Pokey’s remark reveals the contempt that she has even for other members of the group. Dottie, the most devout and...

(The entire section is 633 words.)

The Group Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

As a social commentary, The Group documents in elaborate detail the minutiae that filled most women’s lives during the years between the two world wars. Enthusiastic plans for social work, agricultural school, and politics gradually give way to discussions of babies, toilet training, birth control, and dress patterns. To a certain extent, this is part of the characters’ process of growing up. The group learns to reconcile its ambitions and cultural interests with the more mundane aspects of domestic life. Nevertheless, the novel also suggests that the restrictions of the traditional roles assigned to women prove to be more daunting than the characters initially believed. By the end of the novel, Kay is dead, Lakey has abandoned all pretense at conformity, and the other characters have settled for being far more similar to their parents than they once had wished.

McCarthy’s depictions of male characters are generally unflattering. Harald is the one individual in the entire novel who shows no sign of maturity. Probably the most unappealing of all McCarthy’s characters, his last appearance in the novel occurs as he tries to find a ride to New York City, away from the cemetery where Kay is about to be buried. Gus LeRoy, Libby’s former boss and Polly’s lover, “was ordinary. That was what was the matter with him.” Mr. Andrews, one of the most engaging male characters in the work, is eccentric and probably insane. His continued spending...

(The entire section is 449 words.)

The Group Literary Techniques

The most striking quality in McCarthy's style is her way of making characters reveal themselves and comment on one another in interior...

(The entire section is 278 words.)

The Group Social Concerns

The Group addresses manners, social codes, and conventions both old and new among a group of Vassar students after their graduation in...

(The entire section is 590 words.)

The Group Literary Precedents

In popular literature, McCarthy is in the tradition of courtesy books and the novel of manners such as those by Austen and, in another sense,...

(The entire section is 142 words.)

The Group Adaptations

Sidney Lumet, known for his sensitive films about domestic life, filmed The Group in 1966. The movie, although moderately successful,...

(The entire section is 51 words.)

The Group Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Auchincloss, Louis. “Mary McCarthy.” In Pioneers and Caretakers. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965. Auchincloss criticizes The Group as an entertaining but disappointing book. He does not regard the central characters as sufficiently interesting or distinct from any other group of young adults.

Auchincloss, Louis. Pioneers and Caretakers: A Study of Nine American Novelists. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1961. Auchincloss regards McCarthy the novelist as a caretaker of American culture. Covers McCarthy’s transition from novellas (“a perfect medium for [her]”) to longer works such as...

(The entire section is 484 words.)