Summary

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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 relationship to a situation, a job, a lover, or a husband. What develops in the course of each characterization is threefold: the distinctive physical, emotional, and intellectual nature of the “sister”; the strong Vassar presence in the influences of real-life professors, such as Hallie Flanagan, whose words and ideas remain with the women throughout; and the controversial nature of the times, as left-wing ideas swing adventurous minds from their conservatively Republican backgrounds to the liberally Democratic programs implemented by Franklin D. Roosevelt during the New Deal era. (In fact, Hallie Flanagan headed the Federal Theatre Project of the New Deal.) The Vassar bond not only brings the varied women together on the important occasions of their lives but also justifies the gap between their elitist, idealistic, and cloistered backgrounds and the economic and political realities of the world into which they have graduated. This world and their times are dominated by the economics of the Great Depression and the early events of World War II.

The Vassar bond is so strong that the characters remain at the end of the novel what they are at the beginning, only slightly the better or worse for having had their attitudes tried in the court of the world outside the ivied walls.

As in a musical composition, the motifs are introduced in the first chapter. Variations of these motifs are developed in chapters 2 through 14, and the coda of chapter 15 brings the women together once more for the funeral of the first woman of the group to die, just as in chapter 1 they are assembled for the first wedding. Both the wedding and the funeral are Kay’s. All except Norine are present for the wedding. All except Dottie arrive for the funeral. Between these two events (1933 and 1940), McCarthy orchestrates the discordant music of the privileged and adventuresome lives of women who have the intellectual and financial freedom to forge their brave new world. Their failure to do so is most clearly symbolized by Kay,...

(This entire section contains 668 words.)

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and their success in so doing is realized in the quiet way in which Polly, a hospital laboratory technician, arranges her own life satisfyingly. (Significantly, Polly is there when Kay experiences her life falling apart and needs help.) McCarthy’s own criticism of those successes and failures and of her friends and times finds its explicit expression, perhaps, in the cynicism of Norine, who, although a classmate, never becomes a groupmate.

Summary

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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 fateful evening in a fantasy conversation with her mother. Later on, the reader discovers that her mother is not only equally modern but also possibly wiser as well. Dottie soon settles for marriage to an older man in spite of her continued fascination for her first lover. She is afraid to find an identity on her own. In fact, in spite of the idealistic goals the group sets forth at Kay’s wedding, most settle for marriage and family. They find themselves trapped by the expectations of family and society. Priss eventually quits the job she loves to become a full-time mother. She and her son even become an experiment in child rearing for her husband, a pediatrician with theories.

The novel ends as the group gathers again, this time at Kay’s funeral. McCarthy makes it clear that it is not easy for a woman to find her identity in the society of this period, no matter how privileged and bright she may be. The Group received much advance publicity and went almost immediately to the top of the best-seller list. Its frank portrayals of sex and sexuality, virginity, and birth control contributed to its initial appeal. Women’s roles were changing, both in literature and society, and The Group provided an intriguing portrait of the problems relating to this emerging independence and sexuality.

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