Review: The Group, Mary McCarthy

Verdict: Upsetting.

I’d never heard of The Group before Claire of Paperback Reader posted about it on her blog earlier this year, but I was immediately intrigued by her description of it (and not just because the phrase seminal feminist text is delightfully absurd).  The Group follows a group of eight 1933 Vassar graduates, with each chapter focusing on one of the girls and a major event in her life: Dottie’s first experience of sex, Priss attempting to breast-feed her first son, Libby’s struggles with her career in literature, Polly’s involvement with a married man.  It’s very frank and upfront about these things, and was apparently very shocking when it was first published in 1963.

These are women with Advantages and Education and, in many cases, women who come from money.  They are proud, in the first chapter, to be seeking employment after college rather than depending on their parents or potential husbands.  They are politically aware and consider themselves independent.  Yet still their lives head in the direction of the domestic, and – here’s why it’s scary! – they seem to exercise less and less control over their own lives.

I was annoyed that the characters weren’t acting like grown-ups – but that’s the whole idea.  They are helpless because they are living in a culture that infantilizes women.  I had to stop reading for a while when Priss’s husband is telling her to breast-feed, and the hospital is telling her to give the baby a bottle, and she doesn’t know what to do.  It’s upsetting, I suppose, because she is completely at the mercy of other people, in the hospital after giving birth, and because everyone (the nurses, the doctors, and her husband) treats her like a child, and she duly acts like a child.

Sidebar: Norman Mailer wrote a crabby review of this book when it came out.  He said the characters were boring because they lacked determination and drive (see above re:  whole idea), and he was upset that the men in Mary McCarthy’s books were all jerks; he said, “[Dick is] still another in the endless gallery of Mary McCarthy’s feverish, loud-talking, drunken, neurotic, crippled, and jargon-compensated louts”.  Aw, gosh, Norman Mailer, are you struggling to find relatable, well-developed characters of your own sex in a book by a member of the opposite sex?  I CAN ONLY IMAGINE HOW AWFUL THAT MUST BE FOR YOU.  But don’t worry, the solution is simple: just abandon Mary McCarthy and return to one of your stated favorite books, The Sun Also Rises.  With that one, at least, you need not fear encountering an endless gallery of feverish, loud-talking, drunken, neurotic, crippled lou – wait a second.

Sidebar to the sidebar: I get Norman Mailer and Normal Rockwell confused. I doubt that either of them would appreciate this.

Mary McCarthy is writing a self-aware – and occasionally, I’m afraid, self-conscious; and perhaps just a tiny bit self-righteous – satire about women of a certain class at a certain time in America’s history.  It’s all about characters and moments, so it doesn’t have an overarching plot, but then, it isn’t meant to.  It’s a snapshot.  It’s a hell of a scary snapshot.

Y’all, I bought an adorable black flapper dress on Saturday, and yesterday I wore it, and my little black cloche hat, and some high-heeled black shoes, and told everyone I should have been born in the twenties.  I would just like to go on record as saying, I could not be more glad that I was not born in the twenties.

Truly, I have never ever read a book that made me fonder of my time period than The Group.  I am thankful for so many things: gains in the field of mental health, and ready access to birth control, and the beautiful, wondrous internet that lets me research things privately that I might be nervous to ask about.  We have far to go, but what a long way we have come.  What gains are you thankful for?

Other reviews:

Paperback Reader
Tales from the Reading Room
Verity’s Virago Venture

Did I miss yours?  Let me know!

  • From your review, I don’t know if I am dying to read this or trying desperately to avoid it! It sounds like a very TRUE depiction of women’s lives in the past, which is quite depressing.

    Interesting when one compares it to the Jean Webster Vassar experience, that seemed so perfect and lovely.

    • What was scary to me was how liberated they thought they were, at the beginning, before finding themselves all sort of trapped. One gets committed to a mental institution against her will after an argument with her husband – scary! And the comparison with Jean Webster is very interesting. I’d never have thought of that; I didn’t even remember that’s where Judy went. Huh.

  • I want to read this and yet I feel that I might want to time-travel and scold the hell out of the women in the story! Such an eloquent review of a book that is sure to disturb women of our times.

    • Scold the hell out of society in the story! It is very frustrating to read as far as that goes, but the details make it incredibly vivid.

  • Thanks for the link – such a fantastic read and insight.

    • Thanks! I’m glad I got the chance to read it – definitely a great book for Women Unbound.

  • Interesting review, Jenny! I think I’d find this useful from a social history perspective – it’s amazing to think how far we’ve come.

    • And how far we have to go! It is really interesting from that perspective. McCarthy does a great job conveying the sense of being trapped without implying that all the women necessarily feel trapped themselves.

  • Did you like it?!

    It is such a horrifying glimpse into the time period; the quandary and confusing that Priss faced in regards to breast-feeding had my heart in my throat. I love that time period for its elegance but don’t envy the women their lack of choices. I loved that they were on the cusp of social change and were forging out their own experiences and yet they were still so tragically hindered.

    • I did! But I don’t know if I’ll be able to read it again, because I found it terribly upsetting. The chapter with Priss was by far the most upsetting to me, though I suppose nominally there were other parts that were worse. Brrrr.

  • Also, I meant “seminal” in its original and groundbreaking sense but it is quite the absurdity in its etymological context!

    • *giggles* I know, I wasn’t making fun of you! I have been known to say “seminal feminist work” myself about Betty Friedan. 🙂

  • Schatzi

    Oh dang, this is one of those that I’ve been meaning to read for years. I read an excerpt of it years ago, and thought it fascinating. It’ll probably get me all worked up, like when I read The Stepford Wives and accused my then-boyfriend of wanting to replace me with an automaton.

    Also:
    Aw, gosh, Norman Mailer, are you struggling to find relatable, well-developed characters of your own sex in a book by a member of the opposite sex? I CAN ONLY IMAGINE HOW AWFUL THAT MUST BE FOR YOU.

    hahahahahahaha! ah-hahahaha ha ha!

    • *cracks up* Automaton is a funny word. Plus? Yes, it would totally get you worked up. All scary.

  • Mumsy

    Not sure I could bear to read this, as it would shed some very dreary light on my own mother’s experience – the college degree in business that only qualified her for a secretarial position, the unsuccessful attempt to breastfeed her first child, the whole self-dismissal of her high intelligence and skills.

    But I loved the Norman Mailer sidebar. Can he spell I – R -O – N – Y?

    • I just read your comment and was all, “Not Norman Mailer! He’s the one that painted the wholesome pictures.”

      Nope.

  • Eva

    Hmm…like Aarti, I can’t decide know if I want to read this one, or if it’d just make me so boiling angry/depressed that it’d be better to avoid.

    I’m pretty much grateful for having been born when I was, except on my pissy days, I’d love to be born 100 years *later*, when hopefully women will actually be approaching equal status! lol

    • Don’t you wish you had a time machine? I’ve been fretting a lot over (cause, yeah, this is ABSOLUTELY the most important thing :P) the dearth of women writers in television – wonder how that’ll be in 100 years. And, you know, how the whole “rape culture” thing is going.

  • The New York Review of Books also panned it…another male reviewer. I read this last fall and tried to write about it, but I felt like I could almost devote an entire blog to it. What I thought was most interesting is that so many of these issues still exist for women, although they are more subtle, and that almost makes things worse. Look at the headlines on any women’s magazine, and you’ll see it: how to make that man love you, how to make him commit, how to make him change, what to do if you make more money than your boyfriend/husband. And although we might find it appalling that a school like Vassar was not much more than a finishing school for these women, just think how many women today go through college (and even grad school) and end up at home. Have we really changed that much?

    • Well, it’s not so much the “end up at home” thing – which is a decision a grown-up can make – as it is the infantilizing of the women in this book, and the way they end up without any choices, completely under the power of their husbands, doctors, etc. But yeah, as far as healthy media messages, we still have a long looooooong way to go.

  • I’m also very very glad to have been born when I was (though, like Eva said, later would be great too. If we haven’t completely destroyed the planet by then, that is). I’m grateful for all the things you mentioned, plus for access to education, democracy in my country, the right to vote, and being able to decide whether or not I want children.

    • Oh, God, the right to vote. I love voting. I love it. I am always excited when it’s an election day. When I was a freshman, my friend’s roommate said she didn’t vote, and I was all But voting is amazing! And our foremothers fought for the right! Feminism WOOOOO! and she said, I swear to God, “Feminism is bullshit.” She said that she didn’t know why people still considered themselves “feminists” in this day and age, when there was no more rights to fight for. It made me want to really really gnaw my own hand off to get free. (Um, but instead of that, I just left.)

      • wow. I mean, um. W O W. Feminism is bullshit? oh. my.

        I love your enthusiasm in this comment, tho. WOOOOOOO!

      • I know! What a crazy!

  • I love your tone in this review! When I teach a class called “Relationships and Dialogues” that the students call “Sex in Lit” I talk to them about the difference birth control has made in womens’ lives. Mine is the first generation to have access to really reliable birth control, I tell them. I could decide if and when to have children. Never before in history was this possible the way it is now.

    • I always wonder how much other people in this present generation of college students appreciates that whole reliable birth control thing. Because I think it’s great, but when I was at university, I know a lot of people took it so much for granted.

  • I really enjoyed The Group, and funnily enough have been revisiting it just recently by reading Partisans, a book about the group of intellectuals and friends who ruled the roost in American letters at that time – McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, et al. The nasty review by Mailer was thought to be the strategy of Hardwick at her bitchiest, but this story turns out to be an urban legend, and quite how Mailer got hold of it to review, no one knows. But I’m not sure I quite agree with the procedure of putting incompatible books and reviewers together. It’s only fun by way of someone’s expense and I cheered to see you hoist Mailer so neatly on his own petard. 🙂

    • Partisans sounds great – I am honestly not that up on American letters at that time (oh dear), so I’d love to give it a try, and learn new things.

      I don’t mind so much a bad review of The Group, because of course people have different tastes, but I found Mailer’s tone incredibly condescending, and I couldn’t help feeling there was an undercurrent of “Look at me! Don’t look at her! Look at me! Here I am, and I write manly books about manly things! Look at me instead!” Hrmph.

  • I haven’t read (or even heard of this book) before, but I’m sure the women and their situations would frustrate me too. I was raised in an ultra-conservative family and was taught that feminism was evil because it was a proponent of abortion. I noticed that my female relatives never complained about the other rights that feminism brought their way. Once I was in college a learned more of the history of what women have gone through (and are still fighting against, especially in other countries) I shifted my impressions of feminism. It sure is nice to have the freedoms and rights that we have today.

    • I grew up with feminism – my parents are both fairly liberal – but somehow this book was like a punch in the gut of the scary reality of its time. How much things have changed.

  • I love this post and all the comments.

  • OK, I’m back – getting a little braver and ashamed of my short no-reaction comments here. I think this book would upset me terribly because it would hit a nerve. and that is why I’m attracted to it, as well. So I *might* put it on my list… I expect that Feminism would think little of my choices and my lack of ambitions. and yet here I am hosting the challenge! Aren’t interesting lives often a set of contradictions? that’s my cop out.

    • *hug* Feminism doesn’t get to judge your choices and ambitions! Feminism (I think) is not about choosing from a feminist-approved list of choices, but about women having the freedom to do what we want with our lives.

      It’s a very upsetting book – I would say, read it, but don’t do it on a day when you’re feeling down.

  • mee

    Upsetting as it might be, it intrigued me even more after I read your review! I just need to make sure to be in the right mindset before I read it 🙂

    • Yeah, I think it’s a weekendy sort of book, rather than something you’d want to read in bed after a long day.

  • I keep reading people rave about this. I got it from the library, realised i had started reading it before many years ago, and within a chapter or two realised why I abandoned it last time. Reading your review I am left kind of glad i didn’t waste any more time on it.
    each to their own i suppose
    thanks for sharing
    martine

    • Sorry you didn’t enjoy it! I liked it in a lot of ways, but it was so upsetting I don’t know if I could read it again.

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