When smart women discuss Mary McCarthy’s The Group, the question of whether things have changed takes center stage. In her novel, McCarthy explores sex, contraception, fidelity, marriage, and financial independence through the lives of eight Vassar graduates (class of 1933); however, much of what the characters face in the novel are issues for women in the 21st century. In some ways, The Group seems dated. But, for the most part, McCarthy’s novel is relevant and continues to be an important book.
Consider the scene when Dottie is trying to decide what to do with her newly-acquired contraceptive device. Her lover, who has made it very clear that their relationship would be purely sexual, told her she could leave it at his apartment. However, she is unable to reach him and finds herself in a predicament: “…even if he got her message, he would never come tonight. There seemed to be only one thing left to do. Hoping she was unobserved, she slipped the contraceptive equipment under the bench she was sitting on and began to walk as swiftly as she could, without attracting attention.” While the issue of contraception is no longer so complex, the fact that her lover dictates the conditions remains true.
Interestingly, Mary McCarthy stated that The Group ruined her life. Yet it was a man (like the character Harald in the novel) who displays his narcissism and sexism while missing the entire point of the book. In his scathing essay (1963) Norman Mailer writes, “She is simply not a good enough woman to write a major novel; not yet; she has failed, she has failed from the center out, she failed out of vanity, the accumulated vanity of being over-praised through the years for too little and so being pleased with herself for too little…. she failed out of snobbery—if compassion for her characters is beginning to stir at last in this book, she can still not approve of anyone who is incapable of performing the small act exquisitely well; she failed by an act of the imagination; she is, when all is said, a bit of a duncey broad herself, there is something cockeyed in her vision and self-satisfied in her demands and this contributes to the failure of her style. The long unbroken paragraphs settle in like bricks. They are all too equal to one another—it is the wrong book in which to lose one’s place; there is even mild physical boredom in the act of reading as if one were watching a wall being stacked up rather than seeing the metamorphosis of a creature.”
Mailer’s review says more about him than about Mary McCarthy. While her novel is not perfect, it is well-written and important. It is a compelling read and an important reminder of where women were eighty years ago, and what remains to be conquered. The author had no way of knowing what power women would claim in the 21st century, yet the novel is prescient is many ways. We strongly recommend The Group and promise it will make for lively and significant discussion.
For questions on The Group, click here http://whatsmartwomenread.com/books/the-group/