Analysis

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The Group documents, in a nearly journalistic fashion, the development of its nine central characters during their first years after college. The members of the group indulge in considerable experimentation, both political and sexual, throughout this entire period. Reacting against the conservative values of their parents, one character after another becomes attracted to left-wing causes. Several individuals are fascinated with Joseph Stalin’s trials of other Bolshevik leaders from 1936 to 1938. Sympathies with trade unionists, socialists, Trotskyites, and Stalinists emerge, only to be set aside later for more conventional values. Characters in the novel thus appear to be trying on political causes like garments, attempting to find one that fits the person each has become.

Sexual experimentation is another means by which members of the group seek to find their identities. A number of the novel’s major characters have affairs. Others go through successive marriages looking for the right partner. In the end, most of the characters’ sexual roles are as ephemeral as their political affiliations. They experiment sexually because this gives them one more opportunity to rebel against the values of their parents and to discover something of their own identities.

The amount of detail that McCarthy has devoted to the group’s political and sexual adventures serves two purposes. First, it reinforces the novel’s role as a social commentary. Dottie’s loss of virginity and her visit to an early birth control clinic are described in elaborate detail. In a similar way, the views of the Stalinists and the Trotskyites are explored at some length. This amount of detail helps the reader to enter into the minds of McCarthy’s characters and to share the experiences of their social class. Second, the author’s analytical style parallels the approach to life that her characters absorbed during their college education at Vassar. Members of the group have learned to distance their emotions from a situation, to gather relevant details, and to make judgments based upon the best information available. McCarthy’s journalistic style thus applies this same approach to a study of her central characters.

Of special concern to the author are the ways in which this type of education either prepared or failed to prepare the group for the world awaiting it after graduation. Throughout the novel, there are repeated references to individual teachers and courses taken by the group at Vassar. Two of these instructors, “old Miss Washburn” and Hallie Flanagan, stand in opposition to each other. Miss Washburn, who taught a course in animal behavior, represents the rational side of the group’s education. She is a teacher who had “left her brain to Science in her will,” and she is frequently cited as a model of the modern analytical approach. Miss Flanagan, an influential instructor of dramatic production, represents the emotional aspect of the students’ experience at Vassar. She fostered their ability to deal with their own emotions and cultivated their aesthetic sense. Appropriately, it is Kay, who has difficulty reconciling these two sides of her character, who was influenced most strongly by both of these teachers. Her fatal fall (or jump) occurs, appropriately, from the twentieth floor of the Vassar Club, suggesting the destructive role that her education has played in her life.

McCarthy was distressed to find her work greeted by acclaim from the public but condescension from the critics and anger from Vassar alumnae, who believed that both they and their school had been parodied in the novel. Largely because of this reaction, McCarthy regarded The Group as the least successful of her mature works.

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Critical Context