by Killian Quigley
Published by Harcourt Brace, 1963 | 492 pages
Revisiting The Group, fifty years later Mary McCarthy’s under-acknowledged 1963 novel The Group takes place in Roosevelt’s New Deal America. All the cultural markers of the 1930s New York creative class are there. Psychoanalysis is a rite of passage and the college kids are versed in dialectical materialism. The US is rising gradually, hopefully, out of the Depression, but bristling with anxiety over Europe’s prolonged slide toward war. The Group follows eight Vassar graduates, class of ’33, through their post-college struggles with spouses, careers, children and politics. Though often labeled a satire, this masterpiece of feminist literature reads more like a dead sincere hybrid of contemporary sociology and epic tragedy.
The Group, hearkening back to the classic third-person omniscient novels of the 19th century, features an ensemble cast feeling out their post-college role in a larger society, far from the comfortable scaffolding of Vassar intellectual and social life. For Dottie, sexual liberation leads to heartbreak, and in a generational role reversal her mother nevertheless encourages her to explore an ill-advised romantic dalliance which threatens her impending marriage. Libby, an English major, suffers the workload of an entry-level publishing job only to be told, “publishing is a man’s business, unless you marry into it.” The most fully and subtly developed character here, Lakey, disappears to Europe, later returning to the US to flee the war with her girlfriend. Lakey’s friends (“the group”) aren’t fond of her lover; whether it’s because she’s a woman, or just because she’s a bore, they can’t decide. The Group’s protagonists’ movements through the novel show that societal shifts are no simple linear march of progress but rather leaps forward followed by lurches back, a halting, bewildering process.
When McCarthy first published The Group, second-wave feminism was blooming, spurred by Betty Freidan’s explosion of the cult of domesticity in The Feminine Mystique. The Pill would soon make the cover of Time Magazine. Despite this, The Group – which in its 1930s context covers one-night stands, infidelity, birth control, domesticity, domestic abuse, rape, mental illness, lesbianism, and breastfeeding – served as a sobering reminder to McCarthy’s mid-1960s peers of how far they still had to go. Each issue treated in the novel remained in a political process of negotiation; in thirty years, it seemed, nothing much had changed. For readers revisiting the book today, it serves as a similarly sobering reminder: fifty years later, we’re having the same arguments, the same public discussions. Then, as now, the personal was political.
For women, there is no “private” sphere. Arguments about breasts and uteri play out in mass media. McCarthy perceived this, makes it central to her drama. In one chapter, Priss Hartshorn, who works for the National Recovery Administration, struggles, at the insistence of her pediatrician spouse, to breastfeed in precise three-hour cycles, though her nurses and family urge her to use formula. Conventional wisdom has changed, but the pressure on women hasn’t. McCarthy also gives ample space to birth control. There’s a prolonged discussion of diaphragm etiquette: who pays? Where should we keep it? What does it mean if he asks you to get fitted for one?
The book’s physicality, even materiality, irked many early critics. In his infamous review, Norman Mailer mentioned the “communal odor” of the protagonists, “a cross between Ma Griffe and contraceptive jelly.” Mailer’s review was mostly an exercise in misogyny; even so, he did get one thing right when he intuited that Kay Strong serves as the “bellwether” for the whole group. It’s crucial that the book opens with Kay’s ominous marriage to theater director Harald Petersen and ends in her death. From her awkward vows to her bizarre demise, Kay’s descent is brutal, and telling. One evening, after an incident at home, Kay is admitted to a mental hospital by Harald and her close friend Norine, and it soon becomes clear they conspired to lock her away. When Kay dies, falling, perhaps jumping, from the 20th floor at the Vassar clubhouse, the American promise of fulfilled vocation, of being better off than the generation before us, crashes to the ground with her. By the end of the novel, Kay’s story, more than any other dramatic arc in the text, embodies the feminine situation of her time, McCarthy’s time, and our own.
In an interview with the Paris Review, McCarthy explained that The Group was “a novel about the idea of progress, really”: “You know, home economics, architecture, domestic technology, contraception, childbearing; the study of technology in the home, in the playpen, in the bed. It’s supposed to be the history of the loss of faith in progress, in the idea of progress.”
Progress is, allegedly, the overarching narrative of the 20th century. Yet, within The Group, the progression of history manifests instead as stasis and exclusion. Rather than forward advancement, it’s a history of repression, of the creeping terror that things are not getting better. The lives of women in the 1930s looked remarkably similar to the lives of women in the 1960s and still look remarkably similar to those of women today. In The Group’s final pages, it is 1940. The Depression is over and World War II is beginning. In many ways, the world was indeed changing. Yet in others, ways that still resonate powerfully today, McCarthy reminds us that nothing had changed at all.
Erin Becker is an English teacher in Santiago, Chile, a graduate of the English and Creative Writing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Her interests include the relationship between propaganda and literature, writers during wartime, and contemporary media discourse.