The Characters

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The insularity of the members of the group is established immediately when all gather in New York for the wedding of “Kay Leiland Strong, Vassar ’33, the first of her class to run around the table at the Class Day dinner,” to “Harald [spelled with an “a”] Petersen, Reed ’27, in the chapel of St. George’s Church, P. E., Karl F. Reiland, Rector.” The girls, most of whom have grown up in the Eighties or on Park Avenue, delight in discovering for the first time various sections of the city such as Murray Hill, MacDougal Alley, Patchin Place, and the Heights section of Brooklyn. As a group, they feel adventuresome, armed with their ideas fresh from Vassar’s campus. Kay, who has worked with Hallie Flanagan in dramatic production and has been changed by her course in animal behavior with “old Miss Washburn,” is beginning a merchandising career at Macy’s. All eight sisters are excited, yet disquieted, by some of the daringly unconventional aspects of her wedding.

In this first chapter, each groupmate is briefly introduced by her reactions to the unconventionalities. “Who would have thunk it?” “What perfect pets they look!” “Not too bad,” said another, “Except for the shoes.” In all of their excitement and their questioning, however, they “knew they had something to contribute to our emergent America” and were “not afraid of being radical either; they could see the good Roosevelt was doing, despite what Mother and Dad said.” Even the most “conservative of them, pushed to the wall, admitted that an honest socialist was entitled to a hearing. The worst fate, they utterly agreed, would be to become like Mother and Dad, stuffy and frightened.” As though to underscore this unconventionality, older persons, even Kay’s parents, were absent at the wedding.

Slowly Kay is removed from center stage in the novel into the role of simply one of the nine classmates. As their varied lives cross paths, McCarthy documents with heavy detail the “progress” of each. She is ruthlessly clinical, for example, as she describes the manner in which Dottie Renfrew, Bostonian par excellence, decides, two nights after Kay’s wedding, that the time for sexual initiation has arrived. After the event, described with near-scientific objectivity, Dottie is persuaded by her lover, Dick Brown, to arrange for a diaphragm. She does so, but, embarrassed and devastated by not being able to get in touch with him, she leaves her package under a bench in Washington Square and takes a train to Boston. McCarthy’s treatment of this scenario is a mixture of the clinical and the comic: Dottie’s thoughts during her initial sexual experience keep flitting affectionately to “Mother, Class of 1908,” who would probably understand though she might be startled “that there had been no thought of love on either side,” and the comedy is continued when Dottie consults Kay, as Dick has suggested, and both women visit the woman doctor together.

Soon Kay’s marriage is observed by the group to be failing, yet Kay refuses to recognize publicly what is so obvious to others—namely, Harald’s infidelity. Norine Blake and her politically active but sexually impotent husband attend a party given by Kay and Harald, and it is obvious that Norine satisfies her sexual needs with Harald. Norine eventually divorces Putnam Blake, marries a Jewish banker named Rosenberg (who has changed his name to Rogers), and has her own family. She is as concerned with “meanings” as another group member, Helena, is with “forms,” as the reader discovers from the latter’s visit to Norine regarding Norine’s affair with Harald.

Pokey, perhaps the wealthiest of the group,...

(This entire section contains 904 words.)

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marries into even greater wealth, settles in Princeton, and flies her plane to Cornell, where she enrolls in veterinary studies. She maintains elements of both her Vassar independence and her family tradition. Similarly, Priss Hartshorn, who marries a pediatrician and breast-feeds her baby, is not quite sure that she trusts her baby to her Republican husband.

Polly Andrews seems the most balanced of the group. After a serious affair with a married man, an editor who returns to wife and family, she marries Jim Ridgeley and continues working as a laboratory technician. It is she who visits and helps Kay in a mental hospital and who takes in her own recently liberated father when he decides it is time that he and his wife separate.

The most successful careerist of the group is the cool, dispassionate, and ambitious Libby MacAusland, who becomes a literary agent and marries a novelist. The most disquieting unconventional sister, however, is Elinor Eastlake, nicknamed Lakey, who has been living in Europe. Because of the events of World War II, she returns to New York, accompanied by her lesbian lover, a German baroness. Their arrival is another occasion for the group to meet. The account of this particular reunion is cleverly inserted between Kay’s funeral service at the church (the same Episcopal church in which she was married) and the cemetery rites.

Both Lakey’s arrival and Kay’s death, although separated in time, are related to war events. Following her divorce, Kay lives at the Vassar Club and is active in the effort to stop Adolf Hitler before he reaches American shores. As part of that effort, she has been seen leaning out the windows to spot enemy aircraft. One day she leans too far and falls to her death.


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Kay, because she begins the narrative with her marriage and ends it with her death, serves as a focal point to unite all the characters in The Group, whose reactions to and relationships with Kay reveal their own priorities. Both a type and an individual — every-woman — Kay is clever but without common sense, attractive but not impossibly beautiful. Somewhat of an outsider, she is the girl-next-door, full of small-town prospects, who gets the advantages of an Ivy League education, goes off to conquer the Big Apple, and pins her hopes to a young man's fortunes. Although an "outsider" from the Midwest, Kay has adopted the standards of "modernity" and trendiness with a goodhearted curiosity and brightness, a combination of the naive romantic and the more worldly cosmopolitan. Her husband Harald (who shares McCarthy's first husband's name and profession), although brilliant and articulate, is moody and egocentric, delighting in manipulation and deception. As their marriage gradually disintegrates, abuse both physical and emotional appears, until Harald has Kay wrongfully committed. At her funeral in the final scene (Kay falls out of a window in the Vassar Club trying to get a glimpse of a fighter plane on the eve of World War II), Harald receives his due from Lakey, whose aesthetic sensibilities (she has been in Italy studying art) and lesbianism afford her a detached stance from which to judge.

For all their advantages and self-assurance, women such as Kay, with their enthusiasm and candor, are curiously vulnerable, open to exploitation from the self-serving or the openly neurotic, whose calculation they do not comprehend. Others, because they are more firmly grounded in selfhood, more "at home" in their environment, are able to maintain their equilibrium through failed love affairs and that particularly modern encounter, the "one night stand." Dotty Renfrew, whose "defloration" in Chapter Two was perhaps responsible for the book's notoriety, maintains her selfhood despite her encounter. Dotty, who appears Boston proper but discovers the awesome sexual responsiveness read of in Masters and Johnson, is of course a stock type. Dotty, however, stands up for selfhood and dignity when, after going to a birth control clinic upon her would-be lover's command, abandons her paraphernalia under a bench and returns to a more protected, dignified self. Polly Andrews, whose family has lost its money and whose clinically manic-depressive father comes to live with her, marries a nice young doctor even after her disappointing affair with a spineless editor. Both Polly and Dotty have the combination of good sense and good heart which makes for survival.

On the other hand, some characters are too insular or too egocentric to profit from their encounters or to escape their solipsism. Pokey Prothero, the dumb horsey type, who wants to be a veterinarian, never escapes the mindless society rut. Norine Schmittlap Blake, whose name reflects McCarthy's way with labels, goes from left activism (McCarthy's own Trotskyists) to a kind of Margaret Mead earth-mother syndrome. But perhaps most harshly dealt with of all is Libby McAusland, the literary one, whose blend of annoying mannerisms ("red open mouth, continuously gabbling"), self-centeredness, and conceit render her the only one of the group not to share its essentially positive qualities.

The spokeswomen for McCarthy's standards are primarily Helena Davison, whose sprightly androgynous quality and perverse self-containment makes her removed from the passionate turmoil around her, and, at the end of the novel, Lakey, whose distance, being a lesbian and art critic from Chicago, allows her to stand up for form, ruling principles, and a lack of sentimentality.

The women of The Group are just enough removed in terms of time and social class to make them seem quaint, distanced. They are upper class, "high hat," yet with middle-class values, just the kind of people about whom readers feel interest and a slight superiority. On the other hand, the deft portrayal of right and wrong ways to act provides a benchmark for a mobile society looking for traditional manners, if not traditional mores.