(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.)


(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.)