Published thirty years after the class of 1933 had been graduated from Vassar, the novel was timely in its objective and intellectually honest discussion of women’s issues and problems approached from a feminist point of view. The ideas were not as shocking in 1963 as they would have been to a reader of the 1930’s. What caught her 1960’s reading public by surprise was the descent to self-indulgent gossip, particularly in the views of members of the Vassar community who were able to identify specific persons and situations from real life. Indeed, in an appearance at Vassar College in the fall of 1985, McCarthy described The Group as her least favorite and most embarrassing book.
A versatile writer, McCarthy is a keen observer and intellectual analyst of the people she has known and of the nature of her times. As drama critic for Partisan Review and as a general essayist, she has cast a cold and critical eye on the theater, books, writers, and world events. Mary McCarthy’s Theatre Chronicles 1937-1962 (1963) is a collection of reviews, and The Company She Keeps (1942) is an edition of character studies reminiscent of a literary genre popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the latter volume, she develops generic characters who take on formulaic stature as she describes the physical qualities, the profession or position in life that each character holds, and the distinctive behavioral patterns of each.
From these essays it is a short step to the novels, which at times seem to consist of character essays unified by sociological backgrounds and events of a particular time or class. A Utopian colony of intellectuals inhabit The Oasis (1949), a philosophical tale. The Groves of Academe (1952) is about another group of intellectuals in a fictitious college, with evocations of Bard and Sarah Lawrence, colleges at which McCarthy had taught. In A Charmed Life (1955), New Leeds is yet another Utopian community (in New England). Social criticism, satire, and irony are dominant tones in her work.