Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The central message of The Groves of Academe lies in the revelation of how far college faculties deviate from the truth when it serves their purposes. Mary McCarthy takes her title from a line from Horace, “to search for truth in the groves of Academus,” but her characters not only abandon truth for personal ends but also are engaged in a profession that seems intent on compromising it even as an ideal.

Jocelyn is portrayed as a model of the “progressive” college where as much care is taken of students’ emotions as of their intellect. The student who first hears of Mulcahy’s problem, Sheila McKay, illustrates a group with little interest in learning but great devotion to faculty gossip. Except for a few scholarship students admitted to keep some pretense of academic quality, most of the students owe their admissions to their parents’ bank accounts.

If the students are neither eager nor particularly able to learn, a certain cynicism on the part of the faculty becomes inevitable. They are shown collectively as a group who would rather be elsewhere, preferably Europe or New York. If the learning at Jocelyn has no great significance, the faculty readily define it not in terms of ideas but in the minute structuring of project formats and reading periods. Form overcomes substance.

As ideas may be judged by their form, people may be by their appearances. A form of shabby international chic pervades the campus, and a character’s credibility can be undermined by too close an association with, for example, Mulcahy’s messy children or Maynard Hoar’s contrastingly fussy household. Truth depends on its packaging.