Form and Content

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The Group traces the lives of nine members of Vassar College’s class of 1933 (eight of whom compose “the group”), from Kay’s marriage shortly after their graduation until the day of her funeral. In a loosely woven narrative, Mary McCarthy documents the personal growth of each character and explores the ways in which their education had an effect upon their lives. Though McCarthy described The Group as illustrating the failure of America’s “faith in progress,” the novel should not be dismissed as mere satire. Far more than McCarthy’s other works of fiction, The Group displays sympathy for its central characters at the same time that it dissects their values. It is thus as a chronicle of the beliefs shared by a class of educated and privileged young women that The Group makes its greatest contribution.

The novel is arranged chronologically in fifteen chapters, each of which is centered upon an incident in the life of one of the group’s members. For this reason, the group itself rather than any individual serves as the novel’s protagonist. Kay and Harald’s wedding, for example, provides the author with an opportunity to demonstrate the personalities of all of her central characters. Kay herself appears adventurous and daring by inviting no parents to her wedding. Pokey displays her superficiality by speaking disdainfully of Harald’s shoes. Lakey’s angry reply to Pokey’s remark reveals the contempt that she has even for other members of the group. Dottie, the most devout and traditional of the central characters, becomes uneasy at the unconventional nature of the ceremony.

Only in the first and last chapters of the novel do most members of the group appear together. In the intervening chapters, McCarthy shifts from character to character, focusing upon representative events in their lives. Two days after Kay’s wedding, Dottie loses her virginity to Dick Brown, a young painter whom she had met at Kay’s reception. Although she had been extremely conservative while in college, Dottie had been intrigued by the prospect of an illicit affair and agreed to Dick’s suggestion that she be fitted for a diaphragm. One night, when Dick fails to meet her for a rendezvous, Dottie leaves the diaphragm under a park bench in Washington Square and returns to Boston.

The Group also explores the sexual awakening of its other major characters. Norine begins her affair with Harald when Putnam, her first husband, proves to be impotent. Libby fends off the advances of Nils Aslund, a Norwegian baron who manages a ski run. Polly has a lengthy affair with Gus LeRoy, Libby’s former boss. Lakey returns from Europe with a lesbian lover. The explicit sexuality of The Group helped to make it the most widely read of all McCarthy’s works, but it also suggests that The Group is largely a coming-of-age novel exploring the maturation of its group protagonist. The loss of virginity experienced by each of the book’s central characters parallels the loss of innocence that the group itself faces after leaving Vassar and confronting the disappointments of the real world.

When the group reconvenes seven years later for Kay’s funeral, each of them still possesses the traits delineated in the opening chapter. Yet each of them has also matured by having dealt in some way with a loss. Polly recovers from her affair with Gus and marries a young psychiatrist. Lakey has grown to accept her sexual identity. Norine emerges from an unsatisfying first marriage to a happy second relationship. Only Kay, the leader of the group and the first to marry, proves to be destroyed by the world that she encountered after college. McCarthy...

(This entire section contains 633 words.)

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intentionally leaves unanswered the question of whether Kay’s death was an accident or resulted from suicide.

Context

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As a social commentary, The Group documents in elaborate detail the minutiae that filled most women’s lives during the years between the two world wars. Enthusiastic plans for social work, agricultural school, and politics gradually give way to discussions of babies, toilet training, birth control, and dress patterns. To a certain extent, this is part of the characters’ process of growing up. The group learns to reconcile its ambitions and cultural interests with the more mundane aspects of domestic life. Nevertheless, the novel also suggests that the restrictions of the traditional roles assigned to women prove to be more daunting than the characters initially believed. By the end of the novel, Kay is dead, Lakey has abandoned all pretense at conformity, and the other characters have settled for being far more similar to their parents than they once had wished.

McCarthy’s depictions of male characters are generally unflattering. Harald is the one individual in the entire novel who shows no sign of maturity. Probably the most unappealing of all McCarthy’s characters, his last appearance in the novel occurs as he tries to find a ride to New York City, away from the cemetery where Kay is about to be buried. Gus LeRoy, Libby’s former boss and Polly’s lover, “was ordinary. That was what was the matter with him.” Mr. Andrews, one of the most engaging male characters in the work, is eccentric and probably insane. His continued spending after the family is impoverished by the stockmarket crash of 1929 nearly ruins Polly financially.

Therefore, members of the group face the double burden of limited opportunities and of men who make their lives all but unbearable. For this reason, nearly all the novel’s central characters fail in some way. Kay has a nervous breakdown and may well have taken her own life. Dottie abandons her career as a social worker and her dreams of romance, settling for bourgeois respectability in Arizona. Priss becomes a reluctant subject in the behaviorist experiments adopted by her husband. Only Lakey, who turns her back on men entirely, fulfills her dream of European travel and study of art history. The portrait that McCarthy paints is thus a highly pessimistic one.

The Group has always enjoyed more success with the public than with its critics. Some readers have been attracted to the novel for its detailed descriptions of sexual seduction. Others have seen parallels between their own lives and the incidents described in the novel. The work’s failure to characterize each of its nine central figures with equal clarity and its inability to suggest solutions to the problems that it addresses, however, have limited its impact upon women’s literature.

Literary Techniques

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The most striking quality in McCarthy's style is her way of making characters reveal themselves and comment on one another in interior monologues set in swiftly changing short scenes. As motivation and priorities are revealed, the characters act upon one another to bring extreme notions into balance either through exposure or by example. As the narrative structure reveals an almost neo-Thomist concern with moderation and the mean, this modern twist on the traditional morality play achieves ironic meaning.

Images and allusions contribute to the blend of modernism and classicism which makes The Group so appealing — Latin tags and the latest cocktails, principles, universals, and general ideas along with jazz singers. McCarthy's outrageous sweeping generalizations — "All the usual disorders of the repressed female brainworker," and "Like many teachers of English, he was not able to think very clearly" (in The Groves of Academe (1952), itself a Horatian setting) — are balanced with a glimpse of the unusual, unique side to the character. Her point of view is practically permissive. The good girls emerge intact (usually) and the bad girls are put in their place, albeit not overly strongly.

But perhaps the most singular quality in McCarthy's work is her tone and her perspective. Because of their comic quality tempered with terse, noncommittal description, many of her scenes are justly famous and truly hilarious — such as the well-known "fitting scene" in the contraception clinic, where the newly greased diaphragm flies right out of Dotty's hand. McCarthy's choice of detail, too, is concrete and instructive: From recipes for pate, and the proper way to clean a dishrag, to the truly tasteful funeral arrangements to match the unsettled wedding with which The Group began.

Social Concerns

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The Group addresses manners, social codes, and conventions both old and new among a group of Vassar students after their graduation in 1933 (McCarthy's college and year). Against the backdrop of the Depression, an array of urban lifestyles appears in settings from Boston to New York: the political crowd, the theater and art group, and the horsey society types.

Larger social changes are reflected in everyday culture as the friends meet adulthood and the Big Apple. In domestic life and contemporary manners, cocktails and progressive ideas are the norm, as well as casseroles rather than meat-and-potatoes, apartments rather than parlors. One does one's own cooking, and husbands even share shopping and chopping with their wives. Everyone is struggling professionally — as an actor or writer, in the professions or business. The darker side of the economic picture is not missing — unemployment, families newly fallen into the middle class with the stock market Crash, East Side walk-ups rather than country houses.

But it was change not in kitchen gadgets but in sexual mores which won the novel its early notoriety. Not only the subject matter — contraception, divorce, pre- and extra-marital intercourse, masturbation, even lesbianism — but also the attitude, was daring. The young women, although still "nice girls," are adventuresome and curious, have little regard for the traditional coupling of sex and "love," and are not romantic in a traditional way. The narrator, too, takes an unusual objective view, detached and descriptive, like clinical analysts Masters and Johnson themselves. However, characters who become too adventuresome get their comeuppance often enough, in the form of faux pas or embarrassment, and the virtues of modesty and moderation always hold firm.

Sexuality is perhaps a metaphor for an even more primary concern for the value of human relationships and interaction. Marriage and sexual politics are on the first line in the new wave of expectations. The marriage of Kay and Harald (as he insists upon spelling it), performed without any parents or "older people" present, is in this new mold, partners working together rather than traditional "separate spheres." Candor and openness are standards of behavior. In the shift from 1920s' frivolity and superficiality to a more earnest and searching 1930s meant for the women a search for "meaningful" relationships and personal fulfillment. For men it meant a quest for space and for freedom from traditional roles, commitments, and obligations. When Harald goes out to buy a pickle for Kay's recipe and stays away all night, McCarthy is showcasing his sense of detachment from the traditional role of loyal husband.

Relations between generations change as well, as the young women move away from parental norms and conventions, only to rediscover, in some cases, a new relationship with their parents as individuals rather than as representatives for social standards. Similarly, friendships among the women themselves provide continuity and a sense of bonding, no matter how vexed they might become with one another. The value of personal relationships comes in some ways to replace convention as a means of fulfillment and emotional gratification.

In all this, the idea of identity, maintaining one's selfhood and one's sense of perspective among shifting values, not rejecting change, but seeing how it fits, is the primary value. Although most of the characters in The Group negotiate these demands successfully, the darker side of their journey appears as, with the years, they encounter dimmed hopes and expectations, even isolation and loss; and, in the case of Kay, with whose marriage the novel opens, turning points include divorce, nervous breakdown, and finally death under suspicious circumstances.

Literary Precedents

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In popular literature, McCarthy is in the tradition of courtesy books and the novel of manners such as those by Austen and, in another sense, Richardson and Fielding. Domestic affairs had been a staple for popular literature, and especially for the novel, since its beginnings. The tradition became particularly American when, in such works as East Lynne, the tale of the young girl gone wrong in the big city became a staple of popular literature. Emily Dickinson and Edith Wharton, on the other hand, demonstrate the value and difficulty of striking out against traditional standards.

McCarthy has, however, set precedents of her own, since The Group has become a password for what is trendy and daring. One of Philip Roth's heroines openly invokes McCarthy as an authority on contraception, and the young girl-big city motif appears in the novels of Rona Jaffe.

Adaptations

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Sidney Lumet, known for his sensitive films about domestic life, filmed The Group in 1966. The movie, although moderately successful, received scathing reviews. Its descendants, however, appear in films and novels about not the 1930s, but the 1960s such as John Sayles's Secaucus Seven and The Big Chill, where classmates again reunite.

Bibliography

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Auchincloss, Louis. “Mary McCarthy.” In Pioneers and Caretakers. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965. Auchincloss criticizes The Group as an entertaining but disappointing book. He does not regard the central characters as sufficiently interesting or distinct from any other group of young adults.

Auchincloss, Louis. Pioneers and Caretakers: A Study of Nine American Novelists. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1961. Auchincloss regards McCarthy the novelist as a caretaker of American culture. Covers McCarthy’s transition from novellas (“a perfect medium for [her]”) to longer works such as The Oasis. Considers The Groves of Academe the apex of her satirical art. A valuable guide to McCarthy.

Brightman, Carol. Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1992. Supplements but does not supersede Carol W. Gelderman’s earlier biography. Like Gelderman, Brightman was able to interview her subject, and her book reflects not only inside knowledge but (as its subtitle suggests) also a strong grasp of the period in which McCarthy published. Includes a biographical glossary and notes.

Gelderman, Carol W. Mary McCarthy: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Probably the most thorough study available on McCarthy and a must for scholars of her work as well as fans of good biography. Essentially a biography, but includes much valuable criticism of her novels and extracts from her letters and other writings. The material is arranged chronologically and is well organized. No bibliography, but includes extensive notes.

Grumbach, Doris. The Company She Kept. New York: Coward, McCann, 1967. A full-length study of McCarthy with special emphasis on her Catholic upbringing. In a personal and accessible style, Grumbach skillfully interweaves biography with criticism of McCarthy’s novels, stressing her profoundly feminine approach. Follows McCarthy’s development as a writer, including her involvement with the Partisan Review circle in the late 1930’s, her time in Europe, the elusiveness of critical acclaim for her work, and the popular success of The Group.

Hardy, Willene. Mary McCarthy. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981.

McKenzie, Barbara. Mary McCarthy. New York: Twayne, 1967. In this biographical and literary analysis, McKenzie interprets The Group as a social satire. Kay is presented as the one character who develops sufficiently to face her own failure.

Mailer, Norman. “The Case Against McCarthy.” In Cannibals and Christians. New York: Dial Press, 1966. Mailer criticizes McCarthy for “not reaching far enough” in The Group. He sees the novel’s main characters as largely identical and as anachronistic in their espousal of 1950’s values during the 1930’s.

Stock, Irvin. Mary McCarthy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1968. A pamphlet that offers accessible, readable criticism with insight into McCarthy’s motives as a writer. Takes the point of view that McCarthy’s work is loyal to the life that she lived—that the mind’s accomplishments are worth little in the face of life’s difficulties. Includes discussion of McCarthy’s nonfiction as well as her novels, in particular her controversial piece Vietnam. Selected bibliography.

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