Popular acclaim for The Group, McCarthy’s only best seller, has not been reflected by critical reaction. The novel has been lambasted as being written on the level of pulp romance fiction and as containing stock, barely distinguishable characterizations and a strategic lack of focus. On the other hand, many Vassar graduates have been incensed at the apparently realistic characters portrayed without empathy. Both groups have overlooked the penetrating satire through which McCarthy so often expresses her themes.
Three interrelated themes are presented through each chapter’s focus on one character at a time. The women, well educated and not devastatingly affected by the Depression, are ill prepared to cope with life in the real world. One crucial detriment, manifested repeatedly by the different characters, is that these aware women are incapable of putting their progressive philosophies into action. Instead, they become caught up in their own immediate needs or in surrounding circumstances.
Another recurrent McCarthy theme revolves around the inadequacies of living entirely for the present moment without a sense of history. Even as the women delight in Kay’s nontraditional wedding celebration, they are also discomfited by the absence of any member of Kay’s family and are superstitious about Kay’s behaviors that are traditionally considered unlucky. Without the emotional and the spiritual foundations of a family heritage, a stable self-identity is difficult to realize.
Although McCarthy extensively employs in this novel a technique she has termed ventriloquism (allowing the actions, the words, and the intonations of each character to evolve as unique to that character without the controlling intervention of the novelist’s voice), expression of her belief system was important enough to her that she set aside her writing of The Group for eighteen years to find the appropriate internal voice. In the early 1960’s, her development of Kay as a dynamic, rather than a static, character became the voice she had long sought.
Kay Leiland Strong Petersen, whose marriage opens the novel and whose death concludes the novel, is the unifying thread among the other characters’ stories. A shy, slightly overweight westerner upon her arrival at Vassar, Kay outwardly transforms herself into the stereotypical ambitious,...
(The entire section is 972 words.)