The Group by Mary McCarthy – A Reappraisal at the Guardian

The Guardian UK has a nice appraisal of Mary McCarthy’s The Group. It is a book I had long heard of but could never really understand what the attraction was. It was an artifact of another time—I still remember her obituary in the NY Times and even then she seemed so distant. I tried reading Memories of a Catholic Girlhood but did not get far. I had always thought The Group was the story about the lives of some privileged Vassar grads, which didn’t seem to interesting since I didn’t go to Vassar. However, Elizabeth Day has written an intriguing article about the book that has made me curious. Although, she did make a few comparisons to Sex and the City and having seen the show that is either unfair or a bad omen. Hopefully, it is the former. At worst, it could be a Revolutionary Road or a Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, which still make it an interesting piece of mid century Americana.

Although McCarthy repeatedly distanced herself from the idea of being a “feminist” writer (she once described feminism as a cocktail of “self-pity, shrillness and greed”), her insistence on seeing women as they truly were, rather than how society wanted them to be, was in its own way revolutionary. The Group was published at a time of considerable flux in America. It was the year that Kennedy was assassinated, a time when the myth of the contented domesticity of previous generations was beginning to be challenged. A few months before it came out, Betty Friedan had published The  Feminine Mystique, a sociological study that brought to light the lack of fulfilment in women’s lives based on the results of a questionnaire sent to 200 of her university contemporaries. Friedan called it “the problem with no name”: the nagging dissatisfaction that lay at the heart of many women’s experience despite a gloss of financial security.

McCarthy’s novel was set in 1933, but it dealt with precisely the same issues that Friedan had identified. In The Group, the female characters set out to make their own way in Roosevelt’s New Deal America, only to discover that they are just as economically and emotionally dependent on men as their mothers were. They believe in romantic love even though it costs them their independence and their idealistic, liberal politics come to nothing when the novel ends with the outbreak of the Second World War.