The Group by Mary McCarthy

The Group
…their education had impressed on them the unwisdom of making large judgments from one’s own narrow little segment of experiences.

The Group follows eight graduates of Vassar College’s class of 1933 as they step out into the world after completing their university education. In 1930s New York City (during Roosevelt’s New Deal) “the group” of friends are looking for jobs, for love, and a general place in society (or to maintain that place). Each of their stories is unique and vivid with some women receiving more page time than others. In fact each chapter is devoted to one of the women and we are able to see how each life affects the others. It seems that each chapter unveils a major event in each character’s life-an event that they would possibly wish to remain unknown to the outside world. Dottie Renfrow meets a man who makes it clear he just wants sex and suggests that she be fitted for a cervical cap. Knowing all this she still talks herself into believing that he loves her and is beyond mortified to make her doctor’s appointment. Libby struggles to land a position as a book reviewer and after several practice edits finds herself being let go and must decide if she should say something to defend herself. Kay has married Harold as the book opens-she’s trying to learn how to cook, please her moody husband, and hold a job. Lakey travels abroad most of the novel and returns with more than suveniers. Polly works at the hospital laboratory administering metabolic tests to patients. And there’s Priss who has just had a baby and is trying breastfeeding amid all of the advice and warnings of the hospital staff and her husband. I’m missing somebody but that’s okay.

The common thread among the group (beyond their education) is that they refuse to be like their mothers and fathers meaning that they want to be forward thinking and not stuffy. They truly think they are liberal and for the most part they are headed in that direction. They encounter issues of navigating taboos around sex, relationships or marriage, motherhood, politics and the workplace. Their fight to remain independent and the way they handle these taboos all seem to be credited to their superb education and social standing. What becomes quickly apparent is that McCarthy means to discuss these pressing issues amongst women while also showing that their model education, ideal background and the society in which they live are at times the causes of their conservatism, blunders and occasional dismay. It is beyond interesting to watch as each young woman enters into the world with hopes to work and become independent of their parents, to make decisions, and live the best life. What is depressing is that they never seem to realize this dream- they more and more frequently refuse to make choices for themselves, to speak up and take hold of their lives and their bodies. This is exactly the point (well, I’m not McCarthy but I think it’s the point)-these women aren’t getting any New Deal perks, they don’t have the space to do such things amongst all the moral obligations society puts upon women (even with the education and background). McCarthy provides a well thought out satire of society, this group of elite women, and women like them. She shows that women’s rights are indeed beginning to surface but have far to go. She is extremely blunt and witty and her book was of course controversial at the time. For the time that this novel was published the topics of birth control, sex before marriage, mothering, breastfeeding, homosexuality, and women’s mental health must have been startling (because it is still a cause for commotion and debate today).

The issues that McCarthy addressed are of course relevant to every woman then and are relevant today. But I did find myself wondering about other women while reading this book. Considering the times, these women were extremely privileged and I couldn’t help but wonder about the concerns and day-to-day problems of women of other social classes and races. They would have had to cope with these same things as well as being poor, non-white, or immigrant. These are indeed brave women for questioning and in some occasions acting against the norm, against society’s place for women.

    She started to get up then, till it dawned on her that she was just tamely accepting her dismissal without having heard one adequate reason

    It was unnatural, she said to herself forlornly. Accidentally, she had put her finger on the truth, like accidentally hitting a scab. She was doing “the most natural thing in the world,” suckling her young, and for some peculiar reason it was completely unnatural, strained, and false, like a posed photograph. Everyone in the hospital knew this, her mother knew it, her visitors knew it; that was why they were all talking about her nursing and pretending that it was exciting, when it was not, except as a thing to talk about. In reality, what she had been doing was horrid, and right now, in the nursery, a baby’s voice was rising to tell her so-the voice, in fact, that she she had been refusing to listen to, though she had heard it for at least a week. It was making a natural request, in this day and age; it was asking for a bottle.

    …she had never for a minute been out of her mind. But as she advanced to the dining room, a terrible doubt possessed her. They were using psychology on her: it was not her own choice, and she was not free…

The Group has been recently republished by Virago and is my 4th selection for the Women Unbound challenge. Even though the women do appear to be bound in many ways, I think having the desire to move forward in this respect is commendable. The movement had to start somewhere.


3 responses to “The Group by Mary McCarthy

  • Mrs.B

    I’ve got this on my To be read pile and I have to read it for the Women Unbound Challenge too. It does sound like the perfect choice for it. Great review!

  • Claire (Paperback_Reader)

    I’m glad you enjoyed the book; I discussed it with my book group last week (over cocktails!) and we are all thankful of the choices that we now but enjoyed the novel for its insight and themes.

  • LeaningSun

    Mrs. B, I hope you’ll like it. Of course I’ll be excited to see what you think of it

    Claire, Yes, we should all be thankful for the women that have come before us. It’s nice too when a book’s topics are still relevant years later, for a new generation of women.

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