Mary McCarthy’s ‘The Group’

by Jess

I just this morning finished Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group, and while searching online for some commentary about what I consider to be a rather strangely abrupt ending (particularly for so long a novel), I came across the most bizarre book review I’ve ever read. It appeared in a 1963 issue of The New York Review of Books, written by Norman Mailer. Mailer, who is not a fan of what he calls the “lady-book,” picks up on a few issues with the story that bothered me as well, such as that Elinor Eastlake, arguably the most interesting character in the novel, disappears right after the opening scene and does not return until the end of the novel. Kay Petersen, the central figure around whom the novel turns, was terrifically boring to me–Mailer calls her “too horsey, and all-but-dyke.” And of course, at the outset, I had a terrible time telling the eight girls apart from one another. As Mailer puts it:

Her characters will come from one class and make no heroic journeys to other classes, they will not look to participate in the center of the history which is being made, and they will be the victim of no outsize passion. Nor will they be made sufficiently eccentric to separate clearly from one another. … These pissout characters with their cultivated banalities, their lack of variety or ambition, perversion, simple greed or depth of feeling, their indifference to the bedrock of a collective novel.

Mailer’s verdict is that the book suffers from lack of reach. He pronounces:

Mary’s vice is her terror of being ridiculous, and so she is in danger of ending up absurd, an old-maid collector of Manx cats, no tails and six toes, an anomaly of God. It even invades her vision. One called her cockeyed for a cause. There is an atrocious anachronism in the book. Her characters while engaged in the activities of the thirties have a consciousness whose style derives directly from the fifties. One has to keep reminding oneself that these events did not take place ten years ago, but thirty years ago, and this is unforgivable. It is like wrapping a tuning fork in velvet. Her little book so full of promise and quiver ends up soggy and damp. What rings true does not please the ear, what pleases is not quite true. So the book seems stuffed with cotton and catalogues as Podhoretz was quick to accuse.

While mildly amusing and somewhat confusing to read, Mailer’s review falls short of the mark for me. As Elizabeth Day points out in her Guardian review, “It was the women’s submissiveness that most enraged Norman Mailer, who claimed that McCarthy’s novel was fatally diminished by the fact that none of her characters has “the power or dedication to wish to force events”, while conspicuously missing the point that it was precisely this enforced passivity that McCarthy wished to highlight.” Day also notes that reviews like Mailer’s and angry letters from readers throughout the years following the publication of The Group were incredibly hurtful to McCarthy, who admitted in a 1989 interview that The Group had ruined her life. Day says, “Although The Group brought her a vastly larger audience, its publication resulted in McCarthy being rejected by both the Vassar classmates whose social poise she envied and the highbrow artistic friends whose intellect she admired.”

But the influence of The Group cannot be denied. Apparently, Candace Bushnell wrote Sex and the City as a modern-day version of The Group. Many other female writers have been inspired by McCarthy’s fearlessness in tackling sexuality, contraceptives, breastfeeding, and other women’s issues. McCarthy said herself in a 1961 interview in The Paris Review that the novel was about “the history of the loss of faith in progress [in the female sphere].” But then, Ginia Bellafonte asks, in a New York Times book club review, “Is McCarthy settled herself on what progress would really look like? I don’t know.”

As an aside, I was particularly interested in McCarthy’s characterization in that interview on what makes a “woman writer.” She says,

I mean, there’s a certain kind of woman writer who’s a capital W, capital W. Virginia Woolf certainly was one, and Katherine Mansfield was one, and Elizabeth Bowen is one. Katherine Anne Porter? Don’t think she really is—I mean, her writing is certainly very feminine, but I would say that there wasn’t this “WW” business in Katherine Anne Porter. Who else? There’s Eudora Welty, who’s certainly not a “Woman Writer.” Though she’s become one lately. … I think they become interested in décor. You notice the change in Elizabeth Bowen. Her early work is much more masculine. Her later work has much more drapery in it. Who else? Jane Austen was never a “woman writer,” I don’t think. The cult of Jane Austen pretends that she was, but I don’t think she was. George Eliotcertainly wasn’t, and George Eliot is the kind of woman writer I admire. I was going to write a piece at some point about this called “Sense and Sensibility,” dividing women writers into these two. I am for the ones who represent sense, and so was Jane Austen.

But getting back to The Group, McCarthy realizes a problem with it during the interview itself, one which we’ve already discussed here. She says, “But maybe that’s really part of the trouble I’m having with my novel [The Group]! These girls are all essentially comic figures, and it’s awfully hard to make anything happen to them. Maybe this is really the trouble!” I wonder what her feelings were on the issue after the novel was published, if she was satisfied with the way it turned out or if she felt it still had flaws in that area.

One point of Mailer’s that I agree with is his observation that The Group is a great sociological work. I really enjoyed reading about different aspects of life in society and opinions on female hysteria, breastfeeding, and motherhood back in the day. Some of it made me want to throw the book against the wall! Like this bit, about Priss, who has only just given birth to her son: “On her lips, which were dry, was a new shade of lipstick, by Tussy; her doctor had ordered her to put on lipstick and powder right in the middle of labor; he and Sloan [her husband] both thought it was important for a maternity patient to keep herself up the mark. … She would have been more comfortable in the short cotton hospital nightshirt that tied in the back, but the floor nurses every morning made her struggle into a satin-and-lace ‘nightie’ from her trousseau. Doctor’s orders, they said.” And of course, everyone who comes to visit her in the hospital smokes and drinks cocktails in the room!

Overall, once I got a better handle on the differences among the girls, I very much enjoyed reading the novel. I found I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, except Polly and Jim, though their story doesn’t come until well into the book. I thought I would have liked Lakey, but as I mentioned earlier, we don’t really get to know her at all. The rest of the girls were really just awful. Mostly, I’m just overcome with gratefulness that “the feminine sphere” has progressed light-years from where we see it in this novel! That sense of history, of knowing how far we’ve come–necessary though painful at times–was worth the read to me.