In McCarthy’s own words, The Group is a novel about the “history of the loss of faith in progress.” If the novel’s uniqueness resides in the close orchestration of nine women into one character, it is no less unique for the documentary tone by which the progressive ideas of the time are captured, especially as these contrast with the conservative backgrounds of wealth from which the women come.
The novel’s documentary flavor is heavy in long passages such as those describing a first sexual experience, the implanting of the diaphragm, and theories of breast-feeding. At other times, the McCarthy intellect asserts itself in lectures on the melancholia psychosis that afflicts Polly’s father and the political theories debated by two of Polly’s housemates: Schneider, a Trostskyite, and Scherbatyef, a Stalinist. Although McCarthy invests her characters with ideas, they are not all her ideas, nor is any one character her clear raisonneur. Rather, it is the Vassar education that provides the women with intellectual views which they do not necessarily understand fully but which they insist on applying to their lives.
The autobiographical nature of much of the novel created a sensation in 1963. McCarthy herself was the first of her group to be married. Like Kay she married a Harold (spelled in the novel with “a”) and also spent some time in psychiatric treatment. Like Lakey, she wore her hair in a black knot at the nape of her neck. Like Norine, she has expressed lack of faith in progress. Scholars have identified at least four of the group members as real-life graduates of 1933, as well as recognizable composites of other friends and acquaintances of McCarthy.