May 6, 2010

The Group by Mary McCarthy

The Group by Mary McCarthy

The Group tells the story of seven women who graduate from Vassar College, New York, in 1933. The novel opens with Kay’s wedding – the first of them to get married – and closes nearly a decade later, after following these women through their twenties as they try to make a place for themselves in the world and to learn to deal with the strangeness and the disillusionment of “real life”.

The Group is a fascinating novel, both from a personal and from a sociological point of view. It’s also incredibly depressing, and the only thing that saves it from becoming too bleak is Mary McCarthy’s wit and dark humour. These seven young women are idealists: they somehow believe (possibly because they are taught to believe it) that the old rules won’t apply to them. Until, that is, one by one they have their hopes and ambitions thwarted by the world they live in. Their life stories aren’t all hopelessly bleak, but the prevalent feel of The Group is one of unhappiness, frustration, and disappointments large and small.

Though only one of the characters explicitly voices this sentiment, it’s easy to imagine that more than one of them feels that their education was a drawback rather than an advantage. This is because there simply wasn’t a place in the 1930’s world for them. These are intelligent, educated women, and yet they’re expected to feel contented with the same sort of exclusively domestic existence of their mothers and grandmothers. Their learning is thought of as a sort of parlour trick: they can entertain with their wit and conversation, but nothing about the old male-dominated social structure and power dynamics is expected to change.

Obviously McCarthy isn’t arguing against the education of women – she’s arguing against the long-lasting notion that serious intellectual endeavours are a man’s business, and that women belong solely in the domestic sphere. She’s also acknowledging the personal cost of the gap between what these women were taught and the roles that were actually available to them. Before the world was ready (an expression I actually dislike, as it implies the transformation happens magically and all by itself) for educated women, here they were—they were among the first, and they suffered the consequences of this lag.

The cost of education, however, is only one of the many themes The Group deals with. There’s so much more here: motherhood, birth control, the use of mental illness as a tool of dominance, attempts to triumph in male-dominated professional fields, family, love, the forcing of women into the role of caregivers, sexual freedom, and so on. I was very touched and infuriated by Kay’s story – Kay is a character whose anger at her husband’s unreasonable and unkind behaviour is reframed as “evidence” of a mental breakdown. Then there’s Priss, who’s forced to hear her baby cry for hours without being allowed to pick him up, all because her husband, a paediatrician, wants to try out a new feeding regime. And there’s Dottie, who discovers the joys of sexuality early in the book, and though she bravely faces the shame that surrounded contraception at the time, she’s put in an impossible emotional position and then punished for it.

But most upsetting of all was Libby’s story: Libby has a man she believes was about to propose to her attempt to rape her. The following passage, which comes after he decides not to when he finds out she’s a virgin, as this means it wouldn’t be “amusing” enough for him to carry on, absolutely horrified me. Never in my life have I so wanted to be able to jump into a book, sit down with a character, and assure her that this is not about anything she has done:
Libby had a little secret; she sometimes made love to herself, on the bath mat, after having her tub. She always felt awful afterward, sort of shaken and depleted and wondering what people would think if they could see her, especially when she took herself what she called ‘Over the top’. She stared at her pale face in the mirror, asking herself whether Nils could have guessed: was that what made him think she was experienced? They said it gave you circles under your eyes. ‘No.’ Perish the thought. Nobody could guess. And no one would ever guess the shaming, sickening, beastly thing that had happened, or failed to happen, this evening. Nils would not tell. Or would he?
I feel much as Jenny, who said The Group made her incredibly grateful to live in a time where we can have access to reliable information about sexuality and contraception with only a few clicks of a mouse, in the comfort and anonymity of our homes. But as grateful as I am, it saddens me that most of what we see in this novel is not at all confined to the past. For the most part, we no longer demonise masturbation (though this of course only applies to certain cultural contexts and parts of the world), so a young woman won’t be as likely to think that masturbating caused a man to sexually assault her—but she will be likely to think it was her clothes, or her drinking, or her being out at night; in short, her being a “bad” girl.

We still point fingers at mothers if anything at all goes wrong with a child’s development, so Priss’ story, in which she’s blamed for what she does and blamed for what she fails to do, is still absolutely relevant. We still send out conflicting messages about female sexuality, so I’m sure that many young women still wonder, like Dottie, if experiencing desire and pleasure means that there’s something wrong with them. And we still establish ties between a woman’s sexual behaviour and her worth as a human being; between virginity and “purity”; between sexual activity and “respectability”; ties which directly cause so many of the problems women have to face all over the world.

One of the storylines in The Group revolves around homosexuality - I don’t want to say too much about it, as it’s mostly revealed at the end of the novel, but I thought it was interesting that some characters’ inability to understand a same-sex relationship was directly linked to their inability to conceive of any relationship that wasn’t based on the gendered power dynamics they were used to. Thinking of this particular couple, they keep wondering which one of them is “the man”, which to them is the same as wondering who dominates and who is dominated. I can’t help but wonder how much, even today, this inability to see beyond traditional gender roles is related to the fact that homosexuality is still considering so threatening by so many.

A few memorable passages:
Slowly Kay pinned the camellias to her dress. She reminded herself that she was free to leave. It was her own choice that she was staying. Unlike the other patients, she had never for a minute been out of her mind. But as she advanced to the dining room, a terrible doubt possessed her. They were using psychology on her: it was not her own choice, and she was not free, and Harald was not sorry – the psychiatrist had coached him, that was all.

‘The trouble is my brains,’ said Norine. ‘I was formed intellectual by Lockwood and those other gals. Freddy doesn’t mind that I can think rings around him; he likes it. But I’m conscious of a yawning abyss. And he expects me to be a Hausfrau at the same time. A hostess, he calls it. I’ve got to dress well and set a good table.’
(…)
‘You really feel our education was a mistake?’ Priss asked anxiously. Sloan had often expressed the same view, but that was because it had given her ideas he disagreed with. ‘Oh, completely,’ said Norine. ‘I’ve been crippled for life.’
Other Opinions:
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Tales From the Reading Room

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38 comments:

  1. I should really stop reading your blog - Mount TBR seems to get a new addition every time you post. ;)

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  2. Great review, Ana!
    After reading their encounter, I'm glad and grateful to live in this century! :P

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  3. Susi: Noooo don't leave me :P

    Melody: I'm grateful too, for many, many reasons. But it worries me that so much of this is still so familiar :\

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  4. I agree with Susi, although the thought of not reading your blog didn't actually cross my mind.

    This makes for a very powerful read, I'm sure. Another add to the never ending wishlist.

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  5. hard to believe that i had a used copy of this in my hand not long ago and almost bought it for the wrong reasons (I helped Mary McCarthy's brother / actor Kevin McCarthy a few times at autograph shows) and knew I had never read her book but then remembered Kevin and I talking about Mary and that book and knew it was quite depressing... unfortunately I don't need help in that direction, so I put the book down and didn't buy it.. but it became a widely popular book back in the day when it was new for many of the same reasons you talk about here.

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  6. Well finally - a review that doesn't have me adding to my tbr pile... but only because I already bought it! ;-)

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  7. Yet again another great review! Boy, it is a good thing that the writing is excellent because I am afraid the topic would drag me down. I mean, I do think it is important to understand how far we have come, but these poor women.

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  8. Aaah, I really want to read this book. I actually thought this was a non-fiction, sociological study at the beginning until I realised it was a novel, but it's interesting to see from your review and others that although things have changed, some of the challenges we face are still there. Wonderful review as always!

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  9. Great review. I read this one five or six years ago and it's stuck with me since then. So much happens in the book that I remember feeling slightly overwhelmed at points but it is a wonderful read.

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  10. That passage is heartbreaking, and I agree that I'm glad I live now!!

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  11. Wow, this book sounds like it would give you a lot to think and talk about. It makes me think of my mother who became a nurse, because she said in the 1940's about the only options available for women were nursing and teaching.

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  12. Wow Nymeth. Wow. This book sounds amazing. I want it I want it I want it :) Incredible review, too. Thanks for bringing the book to my attention!

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  13. Nymeth, brilliant review. It's been years since I read The Group but your words bring back my strong reactions. It's publication in 1963 caused quite a stir.
    When I read it in college all I could think about was my Mother's generation. I think McCarthy was very accurate in her presentation of women of that social class during that particular time.

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  14. Great minds think alike! I just got a copy of this book, and have been excited to read it. But now reading your review, I'm even MORE excited to read it! I love books that talk about higher education, and of course those that focus on women, are even better!

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  15. That last paragraph gave me chills and actually made me teary. Absolutely heartbreaking stuff. Great review and thoughts as always. I don't know if I'm up to reading this anytime soon, but I'm glad to know I can count on you to always make me think.

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  16. How sad that these women found themselves unable to use the talents they had gained through education. I found this review incredibly interesting and thought that all of your quotes were interesting as well. I think I could learn a lot from this book, and it might possibly make a really good book club pick. Thanks for introducing me to this very intriguing book, Nymeth! I am going to try to grab a copy this week! Wonderful review!

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  17. How I wish I was reading your review and discovering the book for the first time!

    I chose it for my book group recently and they all loved it too; the issues are as pertinent now as they were in the sixties, when it was published, and the thirties, when it was set.

    I'm so glad that the reading temptation from your blog is reciprocal and that this made a perfect book choice for your challenge.

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  18. Oh, I sometimes want to reach through and hug characters in books I read, too. Sometimes they just seem so lonely.

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  19. This is one of those times I am really grateful for book blogs. I can get a taste of a book (like those ice cream samples on teeny tiny spoons) that I will probably never read--which sounds awful, but, your and Jenny's reviews together probably saved me some miserable hours. I will look for a more cheerful book about the miseries of educated women in the 1930's and 40's. Huh? What did I just say?

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  20. I really want to read this even though I know it will make my blood boil in some cases. Some of these stories remind me of a few scenes in the movie, Mona Lisa Smile.

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  21. Libby's story is so sad! I want to read this book now. I shall have to add it to my list. I am glad too that I didn't live during this time.

    BTW, finished The Onion Girl and absolutely loved it!

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  22. I love Trapunto's ice cream sample analogy! And I like what you say about the characters' perception of homosexuality and the gender roles. Excellent point, and I didn't think of that at all.

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  23. Oh wow, this is a book that I've got to read! It sounds like many important issues are adressed.

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  24. Another book that deals with important issues. Great review Nymeth.

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  25. This does sound really depressing, but really good at the same time! Thank you for the review!

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  26. What an intriguing book! It sounds like a page turner despite the sadness. Thanks for the review.

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  27. You´re making my day, you know. Two post in a row about books that I´ve actually read already, quite a change :)

    I´ve read this one last year and I remember being especially outraged at the treatment of Priss (the putting on make up after giving birth and the whole nursing fiasco). I can so relate to your feelings of wanting to jump into the story and help these women.

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  28. This is a really great, indepth review. I saw a magazine article on The Group earlier this year and was sort of interested, but after reading this I think I will order a copy.

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  29. Excellent review. Yes, I can see how depressing the book might seem to some people. I never really saw it that way. Perhaps because I read it at a time when the modern women's movement was strong and active and in the news. The book helps us see how far we come and how far we have to go. And those points are as relevant today as they were in the 60s when the book was written.

    Young women may be grateful to have been born when they were, but I hope that the contrasts between The Group and their own lives doesn't make them complacent. Women aren't there yet. Life-long single women and women who chose not to have children are still not really considered normal. They are still looked at with shades of pity and/or sadness. There are still people (men and women) who think that women are ruined when they are "too educated."

    I hope people of all generations take the time to read The Group. There is so much there, so much to discuss.

    Sorry for ranting.

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  30. Iris: I'm relieved to hear it :P

    DesLily: Yes, I imagine that this was even more revolutionary back in the 60's! Even now it covers many themes that aren't often talked about. That's so neat that you knew her brother! And I'm sorry you've been down, Pat :( I completely understand not wanting to read something that will make you sad.

    JoAnn: I look forward to hearing what you think!

    Sandy: I know :\ But yes, the writing is excellent, and there were even some funny passages (albeit in a dark way).

    Chasingbawa: It's depressing, but also a little depressing. Ah well... at least a lot DID change - especially on the job front.

    Claire: I completely understand feeling overwhelmed at times. A friend I was talking to recently told me she wasn't crazy about it because she felt there were too many characters for it to be possible to become truly invested in any of them. I can see her point, and I'd gladly have read a whole novel focused on each of the main characters, but at the same time I loved how together all these women's stories formed a biggers picture.

    Amanda: Better now than then - and hopefully it'll keep on getting better.

    Kathy: It's funny, that's something I often read about in Victorian novels. It saddens me that it took more than half a century for it to begin to change.

    Amy: Thank you! I hope you'll enjoy it when you get to it.

    Gavin: As I was telling DesLily, I can only imagine how it was received at the time!

    Steph: I look forward to your thoughts on it! I hope you'll find it as interesting as I did.

    Amy: Thank you so much for the kind words! The characters' obsession with who was "the man" really gave me pause.

    Zibilee: Yes, I think it'd be an excellent book club pick! So much to talk about. And thank you for the kind words :)

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  31. Claire: Yes, I completely agree about it still being extremely pertinent. And I can't thank you enough for all the excellent recommendations I get from you :) The temptation is definitely reciprocal!

    Aarti: They really do :\

    Trapunto: lol - I completely understand, as that's one of the things I love about book blogs too. I also very much understand wanting to avoid the misery!

    Kathleen: It's been too long since I've watched that film, but yes, I remember that some of the characters had some difficult choices to make. It's so unfair that women were put in that position.

    Vivienne: I can't wait to hear your thoughts on The Onion Girl! I'm glad it worked for you as an introduction to Newford. Sadly my feeling that I was missing out on the characters' backstories got in the way of my enjoyment of it. But I thought it was an amazing book in many ways.

    Jenny: It's weird, because of course that not all gay and lesbian relationships will necessarily be egalitarian - but it's like people can't dissociate the roles of dominant and dominated partner from gender AT ALL. And that's where so many of our troubles begin :\

    Emidy and Violet: And it's more than just an "issue book" too - it's a very gripping read. I hope you both enjoy it if you decide to pick it up.

    Elise: I guess the plus side of it being so depressing is that it's also eye-opening. And many of us don't need to have our eyes opened about this stuff, but much of the world does.

    Trisha: Yes, it was!

    Bina: Priss' story really upset me too. So many of them did...

    Dominique: Thank you! I hope you find it as rewarding as I did.

    Beth: Don't apologise! You know I'm with you. I can imagine how it was less depressing back then, when feminism had so much momentum, but right now I feel that most people believe that the work is done and we should all go home (Example. And yes, he's a clueless little boy, but I've seen girls and women say the same :\). And then I read a book like this, and SO much is still recognizable today. That's what depressed me so much.

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  32. Oh wow, I don't know how I missed this one! Looks like this book makes the reader thankful for a lot of things. Thanks for bringing this to my attention!

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  33. here's another one I'd love to reread now. I thought it was great at 16 or 17, but I have forgotten almost everything about it.
    I liked the parallels you made about then and now. How in some ways things haven't changed much, and we still have a long way to go.
    But it's also sort of comforting to notice that even though some things haven't changed, some others definitely have and we should be happy about it.

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  34. I heard of this book before and it does interest me. Thanks for your wonderful review, as always!

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  35. This would probably make me miserable and sad but it sounds like it was well written at least!

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  36. I so love the cover of this book, and now that I read your review, I had to wish list it. thanks as always

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  37. This sounds wonderful. As I was reading your review I had to remind myself that it is fiction. Yet, how sad that there are still so many inequalities. Great review, Nymeth!

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  38. Yes, another great review Nymeth! All the things you mention are reasons for why I thought I'd like this book, I just couldn't get into it... Maybe I'll try again one day!

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.