Thursday, 18 July 2019

Mary McCarthy's The group

Prepared by Sylvia

Mary MacCarthy’s The group  was a controversial novel published in 1963. It was on the American best seller list for almost 2 years according to Wikipedia. Our ‘group’ of 9 older women (older than the characters, that is) mostly enjoyed it and were pleased to either read it again or for the first time.


Mary McCarthy (1912-89) was a Vassar girl who graduated in 1933. She wrote more than 20 books and The group was her fifth. It tells the story of 8 girls who have just graduated from Vassar College in 1933 and are all excited to start their adult lives. It begins with Kay and Harald’s wedding which they all attend. Each girl is discussed for a short period of her life (mostly dealing with their sex lives and their hopes and opportunities) before moving onto another girl. It ends with Kay’s tragic death and her funeral, which the other seven also attend, as does her profligate ex-husband. These girls are dealing with the middle-class problems of their generation – unfaithful men, work, babies, parents. Many of these issues have hardly improved, we felt.

As is our practice, we started with our …

First impressions

  • Read it when I was 13 or 14 and didn’t understand it, but now I do
  • Loved it
  • Characters so precisely done 
  • Some difficult prose and unusual words – needed a dictionary  
  • Loved the stories coming together with the beginning wedding and closing funeral providing the structure
  • Loved the precise grammar
  • Loved the episodic nature of the book showing lives of the women
  • Very modern in style
  • Didn’t expect it to be so witty, even evident in the tragic scenes such as when Kay was being committed to a mental institution by her husband
  • Loved the humour
  • Didn’t mind that there wasn’t a plot – Kay was the linking character throughout the stories
  • Has wonderful characters such as Mrs Davison, and Polly’s father
  • Marvellous novel, thought it would be salacious but it was satiric 
  • A bit tedious but I really liked a few of the characters such as Lakey
  • Some men miss the point in women’s novels, such as Norman Mailer’s criticism of Mary McCarthy

Mary McCarthy’s memoirs are good reads too: Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, How I Grew, and Intellectual Memoirs .


The eight women in the group are Kay, Polly, Dottie, Lakey (Elinor), Libby, Pokey (Mary), Priss and Helena. They are based on McCarthy’s own classmates and she claims that she ‘suffered’ for the rest of her life for ‘using’ them. 

These girls were romantic but also naïve.

‘… they had something to contribute to our emergent America …they could see the good that Roosevelt was doing despite what Mother and Dad said;’ (loc 241 in Kindle).

They strove for a path for themselves but sometimes we only see them through their partner’s eyes.

Harald (Kay's husband): an awful character so we loved that he was put in his place at Kay’s funeral. We felt he deserved it. 

Kay: didn’t have talent but she liked to be superior and couldn’t let go. She believed in Harald and thought that he would have a stellar career in theatre. ‘She loved Harald’s risus sardonicus, as Helena Davison’s mother called it.’ (1192 Kindle)

Libby: we felt sorry for Libby when she had an awkward interview with a publisher.  She couldn’t take the hint that she couldn’t write well enough. She was a gossip, and unkind about her friends, such as Dottie, and was also cruel about the lovely Polly. A cold person. We felt she was the shallowest character. However, we were also distressed for her when she was assaulted by a boyfriend. 

Dottie: her deflowering sex scene in chapter 2 caused most of the book's controversy in the 1960s, but was much less shocking when reading it today. McCarthy handles the scene with humour and wit.  

Polly: we all liked Polly best. She is described "a sympathetic soul". We weren't impressed by Polly’s mother offloading her sick and elderly husband onto her daughter, and just sending an occasional box of eggs. 

Lakey: develops confidence in her years in Europe and ‘the group’ also grow to accept her and her evident sexual divergence from them.

Priss: rears a child according to the theories being developed by her paediatrician husband Sloan who uses her as an experiment. We all remembered the horrendous, rigid, methods suggested – only picking up a baby at a set time.

Norine: a Vassar 33 girl too, who is not a part of the group but is friendly with some of them. She is a counterpoint for some of the other characters, such as Kay, and Priss, who discovers their child-rearing practices are diametrically opposed.

We also discussed Helena Davison’s family, particularly Mrs Davison and the butler Hatton who would read the newspaper so he could give the news to Mrs Davison. It reminded one member of passages in Jane Austen.

We discussed how their Vassar education encouraged them to think but society did not allow them to operate as intelligent people. There were a couple of scholarship girls but most of them didn’t have to make a living, so they did volunteer work. Some characters felt that they were ruined by the college education, with Norine saying "our Vassar education made it tough for me to accept my womanly role". We noted how, in Australia at least, women were often not allowed to work once they were married.  

Were the girls as different from their parents as they had hoped when they left Vassar in 1933? They varied in their politics, some being more Democrat and some more Republican.

The American poet Robert Lowell thought that these Vassar girls were ‘pastoral girls’ and ‘cloistered’. He wrote to Mary McCarthy that 

“we were dependable little machines made to mow the lawn, then suddenly turned out to clear wilderness”. Leave it to the poet to know an elegy when he sees it. Flowers of the culture, these young women, but shot from a gun.’ (Vanity Fair review, 2013)  

Some felt that the main "group" in the book was Polly’s "group" – one of her communities - and that the eight were only the Vassar group when it suited them? Was there a lot of contact outside of the wedding and the funeral? It wasn't completely clear.

Some of the characters exist to be counterpoint to others, like Norine, who isn’t part of the group. This shows how people are multi-faceted.

McCarthy deals with universal themes – jobs, love, marriage - so that although it's an old book now, it doesn't appear dated.

Similarities with other novels

A comparison was made with Edith Wharton who wrote about young women living in New York in the late nineteenth-early twentieth century. Her young women, like McCarthy's, were striving for satisfying lives but were constricted.

Another member saw a similarity with Frank Moorhouse’s Grand days - the idealism of the Roosevelt days versus the idealism of the creation of the League of Nations.

Other comments

We noted the smoking scenes – even in hospital! So much change in half a century!

One member particularly liked the ‘bagging’ of the Freudian analysis done on Kay. McCarthy was also admitted to hospital by her partner, Edmund Wilson, in a similar way to Kay’s admission. 

Mary McCarthy had a tough childhood living with her grandparents. She developed a close relationship with her female Latin teacher. Mary was an intensely bright girl and tried relentlessly to do well. She was inspired by her teacher to compete and became very driven. (This is shown by her amazing output of novels and of literary criticism). She made money from her novel The Group, and in fact made more money than Norman Mailer, her fierce critic.

In one review McCarthy was praised as an acute novelist, like Doris Lessing, but others criticised the book for not having a plot and attempting too much. 

One reader also commented that the author reminded her of the Australian academic Jill Kerr Conway who worked at Smith College in mid 20th century and wrote the revealing memoir Road from Coorain.

It was recommended that we watch the Mary McCarthy program, Vassar Girl 1933-74 on YouTube.

Present: 9 members