Friday, July 24, 2015

On Re-reading "The Group," by Mary McCarthy

I just took a trip down memory lane, as I re-read (after more than perhaps 45 years) “The Group” (Harcourt, Brace and World, 1954), by Mary McCarthy. An offhand mention in another book I was reading sent me back to this novel that so reflected its time. It follows the eight members of “the group,” classmates and friends at Vassar College, class of 1933, in the years after they graduate. These privileged (although not all wealthy, especially during the Depression, when some families have lost much of their money) young women embark on life with great hopes. Some of them have some vague career aspirations, while others only want to do volunteer or some other undemanding work until they get married and have children. It is a time when educated young women have some career opportunities, but these are still quite limited by tradition and prejudices. Meanwhile, women who are not married by about age 26 are considered over the hill and unlikely to ever marry. Although the women live in different places, largely but not only grouped around New York and Boston, they keep in touch, and sometimes fly or take a train to help another member of the group as needed. They are very supportive of each other, although some are closer to each other than others, and there are certainly some tensions among them. Their lives interweave; we also get to know their boyfriends, husbands, parents, and other friends. When “The Group” was first published, readers and reviewers were fascinated by the depiction of these privileged young women in the exclusive circles of the Seven Sisters colleges and the blueblood families most of the women came from. However, the main topic of discussion was not their wealth or careers, but the book’s frank depiction of their sex lives in a time when at least educated women were starting to feel justified in having sex lives. These young women were ambivalent about having sex outside of marriage, and were both proud of themselves and secretive, worrying about what others would think. There are a few (but fewer than I remembered…the novel seemed far more risqué when it was published than it does now!) fairly explicit sex scenes. There is also a detailed scene of one of the characters, after her first sexual experience, going to a doctor and clinic to obtain birth control, a source of very mixed feelings for her; doing so makes her feel modern and free and in control of her own life, on the one hand, and rather ashamed on the other hand. McCarthy, in other words, captures the lives and milieus of a certain class of women in the United States at a certain time in history. Some of these concerns and ambiguities, both regarding careers and regarding sexuality, were still issues for women well into the seventies, and some continue at some level even now. So on the one hand “The Group” is very specific to its time; on the other hand its messages (not that it feels like a “message” type book) are still relevant regarding women's lives. I have to add that the novel is enjoyable to read, or as in my case, re-read. Because of McCarthy’s often satiric tone, the novel holds up well, despite a slight feeling of datedness. Think of it as a pointed, astute, observant social document that is also fun to read.
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