Sunday, April 7, 2013

Modern Fiction: The Group by Mary McCarthy

In 1963, Mary McCarthy's novel based on the lives of eight women Vassar students in the class of 1933 caused a ripple of protest in some circles. The alumnae of Vassar even requested that her degree be rescinded. It seems the more extraordinary that a book depicting the social, political and sexual mores of the previous generation of women should cause a stir, when at the time of publication the Western world was on the brink of the 'sexual revolution' and the 'women's movement'.

Perhaps it was the sophisticated McCarthy's reputation for disguising only thinly the autobiographical details of her own life, and that of her friends, in her work that offended the sensibilities of these matrons.

Each of the novel's eight chapters describes the life and loves of a different member of the group and follows them up to ten years after graduation. It is an examination not only of the social and sexual politics of the time, but of the way in which individuals from different backgrounds deal with the challenges of massive social change.

The years between 1933 and 1945 offered plenty of those, including the Depression and the Second World War.

Frank, yes, talking openly about loss of virginity, contraception and orgasm, but The Group is also elegant, funny and witty and examines contemporaneous attitudes to marriage, careers and domestic duties as well as elite women's education.

Characters in the novel:

Kay Strong: Marries Harald Petersen, who is involved in theater management and stage directing. Kay calls him a "Yale man," even though he did only graduate work there; this mildly offends the analytical Lakey. Harald writes plays that aren’t produced and is frequently unemployed. Kay has “a ruthless hatred of poor people,” and is frustrated by their financial situation. She supports them by working at Macy’s and cares greatly about her material surroundings. Her husband has multiple extramarital affairs. Their fights and his drinking escalate; finally he hits her until she threatens him with a bread knife. The next morning, he commits her to a psychiatric hospital, where Polly is working as a nurse. Kay is later released from the hospital; she divorces Harald. Her death at the end of the book is mysterious; no one knows whether she fell from the window on the twentieth floor of the Vassar Club, while airplane spotting, or whether she jumped. Her friends reunite at the end of the novel at her funeral, where they shun Harald.

Mary Prothero, “Pokey”: The wealthiest of the Group. Described as a “fat, cheerful New York society girl,” “very rich and lazy.” Pokey says she made it through Vassar only with the help of Priss, a Phi Beta Kappa. Pokey's father gives her a plane so she is able to commute to Cornell Agricultural School; her mother, upon learning that Harald was arrested at a labor demonstration, is devastated that a "jailbird" once dined at the Prothero home. Pokey eventually marries. Her family has an earnest, eccentric, and observant butler named Hatton, who comes to Kay’s funeral.

Dottie Renfrew: From a Boston family, she aims to be a welfare worker after Vassar. She goes home from Kay's wedding with Dick Brown, a poor artist, and loses her virginity to him. He treats her in a brusque and condescending manner, refusing to kiss her and warning her not to fall in love with him. He tells her she can have an affair with him, and to get a pessary, or diaphragm. She is fitted for a diaphragm by a woman doctor at a Margaret Sanger clinic. Dick has not called her or returned her calls. She returns to Dick’s apartment, but he is gone. She waits for him for hours in Washington Square Park; eventually she hides the birth control kit under a bench and goes back to Boston. Dottie eventually marries Brook Latham from Arizona. Before the wedding, she admits to her perceptive mother that she has slept with Dick and is still in love with him. Her mother suggests she postpone the wedding and see Dick to explore her feelings, but Dottie refuses and marries Brook on schedule.

Elinor Eastlake, “Lakey”: From Lake Forest, Chicago. After Pokey, she is the wealthiest of the group; she is cool and aristocratic, a “dark beauty,” with pale skin, black hair, and large green eyes. She spends most of the book in Europe, where she goes to study art history and get a doctorate. At the end of the book, she returns to America, having fled the war in Europe. The Group assembles at the pier to greet her arrival, where they find Lakey accompanied by the Baroness, who, it transpires, is her lesbian lover. The group notes that the Baroness is not terribly bright; they are conflicted over Lakey’s sexual orientation.

Mary McCarthy at the work
Polly Andrews: Her family suffers financial losses due to the Depression. She is pretty, with “almost flaxen hair,” “milk-white skin” and “big blue eyes.” She lives in a building where most of her neighbors are socialists, and she works as a technician in a local hospital. She has an affair with Gus LeRoy, a married publisher, who is going through psychoanalysis at the request of his wife. Polly doesn’t understand why he needs analysis, and after reading Freud, she decides that she herself needs analysis. Gus eventually leaves Polly and goes back to his wife. Polly’s father, who has just gotten divorced from Polly’s mother and suffers from bipolar disorder, comes to live with Polly. Her father converts to Trotskyism. In the manic phase of his disorder, he overspends their budget, forcing Polly to sell her blood at the hospital. Polly marries Dr. Jim Ridgeley, a psychiatrist, who offers her financial and moral support.

Priss Hartshorn: An idealistic believer in the FDR program, she marries Dr. Sloan Crockett, a pediatrician. She has a job with the National Recovery Administration. She gives birth to Stephen, whom she has difficulty breast-feeding and potty-training. Under the hospital regimen, she sleeps apart from her son, whom she hears crying most of the nights. Her husband wishes her to feed Stephen her breast milk rather than formula, a somewhat radical notion at the time. Priss, pressured at the hospital to allow them to bottle feed the baby, also feels pressured by her husband, thinking, “Sloan…was enamored of his own theories, which he wanted to enforce, like Prohibition, regardless of the human factor.”

Helena Davison: “A short, sandy haired girl with an appealing snub nose,” Helena was “regarded as the droll member of the group,” because of her sense of humor. Her mother has her “tutored in every conceivable subject,” including athletics, musical instruments, outdoor activities and crafts. Despite her Vassar education, she gets a job as a teacher at an experimental school in Cleveland, Ohio, teaching “finger-painting.” She catches Kay’s husband kissing another woman, Norine, a Vassar girl who was involved in left politics and not in The Group. She decides not to tell Kay, but agrees to go to Norine’s house to talk. Norine’s husband is impotent and Norine has had several affairs. Norine asks Helena how she should fix her life, and Helena makes several suggestions, including scrubbing the floor, painting the sitting room a different color, and buying “some real food.”

Libby MacAusland: A “tall, pretty blonde,” who majored in English and is determined to break into the New York publishing industry. Gus LeRoy, the publisher, hires her to read book manuscripts. For five dollars apiece, she reads the manuscripts and writes a summary and opinion. Libby can read Italian, so Gus gives her an Italian manuscript to summarize. However, the book is mostly in a dialect which she can't understand and she writes an inaccurate report. Gus fires her, telling her that “Publishing’s a man’s business…. Marry a publisher, Miss MacAusland, and be his hostess.” He later gets her a job as a literary agent’s assistant. A Norwegian baron and ski jumper, Nils Aslund, tries to seduce her by reading Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love." Libby tries to fend him off by quoting Sir Walter Raleigh's "The Shepherdess Replies." Nils replies by ripping her clothes off and attempting to rape her; he desists when she tells him she is a virgin.

Norine Schmittlapp: She is Vassar '33, but not a member of The Group. Talking to Helena, she says, “You people were the aesthetes. We were the politicals.” Norine is interested in psychoanalysis, socialism, and anthropology. She has a dog named Nietzsche. While married to Putnam Blake, she has an affair with Harald, Kay’s husband. Norine’s husband, Put, suffers from impotency; according to Norine, he is only aroused by “fallen women.” Norine helps Harald put Kay in the psychiatric ward by convincing Kay that she needs a rest. She spreads the rumor that Kay was mentally disturbed, saying to Priss, “A lot of basic things were the matter. Sex. Competitiveness with men. An underlying Lesbian drive that was too firmly repressed. Thwarted social strivings.” Norine later divorces Put, and marries Freddy Rogers, a wealthy banker who has suffered from anti-Jewish discrimination. She has a son, Ichabod. Priss is horrified by her choice of name and her careless manner of raising Ichabod. Norine tells Priss that her husband expects her to be a dutiful housewife, but Norine says “Our Vassar education made it tough for me to accept my womanly role.” Norine believes that because of her education, she is “crippled for life.”

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