Always a Part of the Group

THE GROUP by Mary McCarthy

I truly loved reading Mary McCarthy’s best known work, THE GROUP.  THE GROUP follows the lives of eight Vassar graduates, class of ’33, as they encounter adulthood.  The women, while divergent in personality, are essentially upper middle class women with one similar stain: they all wish to live a modern life, different from the lives of their mothers and fathers.  The novel, however, centers around Kay Strong, the vibrant leader of the group and is artfully bookended with Kay’s wedding and funeral seven years later.

At Kay’s wedding, a mere week after the girls’ Vassar graduation, we meet Kay, Dottie, Helena, Pokey, Lakey, Polly and Priss, “the group.”  The wedding is symbolic Kay in that it strives to be modern, though the obvious force of this is emphasized: Kay’s parents are not present and the newlyweds are headed home later that night, not for a honeymoon.  In fact, the group’s anxiety about the event is only truly quelled when Lakey brings out a bag of rice to toss at the couple as they enter the train station for Coney Island.

One of McCarthy’s strongest authorial traits is her ability to seamlessly transition into a different character’s consciousness.  Soon after the wedding the narrative shifts to Dottie, the oldest of the group, a girl whose adolescence was plagued by illness.  This attribute of Dottie’s exemplifies one of her most prevalent personality traits: her desperate need for security.  Through Dottie, McCarthy argues that a “child of the depression,” like Dottie and the group, while excited by and primed for modernity, is conscious of the world’s dangers and desires security.  The focus of Dottie’s narrative is her affair with Dick Brown, the mysterious artist friend of of Harald Petersen, the groom.  The sexual encounter is tastefully explicit, but revealing of the character’s reserved but open views on sex.  After the encounter, Dottie fears the unknown status of the relationship and eventually chooses another man to pursue as her husband, a man who is older and more set in his ways.

Another of McCarthy’s standout characters is Libby MacAusland, a “group” member whose post-collegiate career choice is publishing.  Through Libby, McCarthy argues that the modern woman “between the wars” is ambitious, but still subject to the naivete of youth.  While pursuing her career in publishing, Libby is coaxed to move down a different avenue: author representation as opposed to publishing itself.  Libby forgoes her chosen field and successfully pursues this avenue, but also naively subjects herself to a potential rape with a man she thought would propose instead.  The juxtaposition of Libby’s logical ambition with her childish attraction to Nils exemplifies two predominant traits of McCarthy’s modern woman.

Some of McCarthy’s strongest social commentary is revealed via Priss Hartshorn, a conventional woman with a successful marriage whose greatest concern is her child.  In Priss’s narrative a social argument takes place, whether to embrace “progress” and bottle-feed a child or to accept and embody nature through breast feeding.  This debate, one that is still discussed today, is well fleshed and as interesting to read in 2010 as it was in 1954.

THE GROUP is not only a great pleasure to read, but a wonderful representation of the post-Depression woman.  Through McCarthy’s group, one feels a true understanding and appreciation of the mindset of the time.  I truly loved to read this book and hope to find another like it soon.

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