Themes and Meanings

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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.


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Against this background of changing mores McCarthy posits her themes — the eternal standards of right and reason, straightforwardness, good heartedness, and natural responses in a world increasingly uncertain and affected. These are not to be confused with mere undisciplined indulgence, as those who try too assiduously to be natural and "open," such as Norine Blake, whose affair with Harald parallels the breakup of his marriage, and whose left politics and then Margaret Mead-type naturalism is untempered with regard for the dignity and feelings of others. Helena Davison, McCarthy's spokesperson, delivering a little lecture when Norine comes for advice about her affair with Harald, stands up for traditional virtues of courtesy and gentleness. Correct form should be preserved to save face and feelings, even when impulse is arrayed against it.

At the other extreme are those who, too repressed, prudish, or polite, are overly willing to be intimidated and ruled by others, throwbacks to a standard of gentility and conventionality which the positive side of new roles is rendering passé. One young woman's physician husband bullies her into being a "experiment" in his breast feeding crusade, preventing her from going to her crying baby, whose "schedule" he is trying to adjust. In all of these characters, the touchstone of conduct lies in identity, defining and maintaining a sense of the self which does not impose on others and does not render one inflexible, unable to respond to change and necessity. Characters who maintain this core are rewarded with serenity and certainty, while those who fail to preserve or never had it are at risk. The Group, however, is far more than a cautionary tale of the dangers of overstepping one's limits. Instead, it defines new limits or new territory which is now within limits.

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