Friday, January 16, 2015

A 21st Century Vassar Girl's Take on "The Group"

1963 saw the release of the landmark feminist treatise The Feminist Mystique and as such it's a foundational year for second-wave American feminism, but the release that same year of the best-selling and highly controversial novel The Group, by the writer and intellectual Mary McCarthy was also a landmark event in American feminism. The book explicitly tackled taboo topics, most prominently birth control, in a coldly clinical tone that nonetheless proved extraordinarily relatable, even as it shocked readers of the time. Even in our self-consciously un-self-conscious cultural moment, the frankness of McCarthy's writing on sex, pregnancy, domestic violence, rape, masturbation, and motherhood remains strikingly bold. Her unsparing take-no-prisoners approach to these issues is even more subversive today, when American intellectuals strive to avoid at all costs offending, than it was in 1963.

More successful as a social document than as a novel, The Group suffers from a plague of problems with structure and characterization, and, despite its (mostly) progressive feminist politics, feels quite dated and a bit blinkered in its treatment of class and race. The girls hire "colored" maids and in one particularly uncomfortable scene a few of them imitate a maid's speech; there are also several instances of antisemitic terms, which I will not reproduce here, used in general conversation, though McCarthy, who can be quite brutal towards her characters, seems in some of these instances to be criticizing the snobbery and racism of her privileged characters. Political opinion is portrayed as a trap into which one can fall, particularly the educated, though McCarthy subtly favors Roosevelt's social policies, as well as Trotskyism and American intervention in the second World War. Though not strictly a satire, The Group has a razor sharp edge that leaves few without egg on their face.

The Group in question is a coterie of eight girls, Vassar class of '33, who shared the south tower of Main (the other dormitory that gets name-dropped is my own former dorm, Cushing, which rather thrilled me). The problematic structure of the novel picks up and drops each of the characters at crucial moments in their sexual, romantic, and professional lives (in that order of priorities). As such, the book feels fragmentary, more a survey of the life of Vassar alumnae in the 1930s than a sympathetic portrait of specific characters. At least partly this is due to the sheer number of characters. The eight girls in the group, as well as a ninth Vassar grad, a few parents, and a butler make for a rather dizzying array of perspectives and even at 400 pages the book lacks the space to accommodate so very many points of view. The more compelling characters, particularly Dottie and Lakey, get short shrift, while a few of the less compelling characters, particularly the butler Hatton, get far too much space.

My biggest disappointment in the novel was its treatment of Pokey, or Mary, Prothero. In a bizarre choice, it is her butler's perspective that we get, and he is a stereotypical stiff-upper-lipper and snob from England, who in a movie would best be played by Barnett Parker. Hatton is subjected to some of the cruelest jabs in the book, but his social snobbery isn't really deconstructed and the reader is left with a disagreeable sense that attaching importance to class (in the American context, largely defined by wealth) might be justified. We never get a glimpse of Pokey's thinking and, although we're told she's rather feather-brained, she defies her wealthy parents' belief that a girl shouldn't be educated, goes to Vassar and then to veterinary school, couldn't care less about her weight, and flies a plane. In other words, she sounds like a pretty smart cookie, absent-minded or not, and I would have loved a chance to get to know the least conventional of the Group.

Another character that remains in the shadows, though she does come to the fore in the final chapter, is Lakey, or Elinor, Eastlake. Lakey is another lost opportunity, the only one of the girls who is a lesbian and probably the most sincerely intellectual of the Group, given that for all but the first and last chapters she's studying art history at the Sorbonne. Despite how little access we have to Lakey's politics, principles, or inner thoughts, McCarthy manages to make her quite fascinating. I would have liked to have a more genuinely intellectual perspective, especially from a character who supposedly stays at Bernard Berenson's villa.

Many of the characters are built around the issues that McCarthy wants to examine and it is this utilitarian quality that flattens the characterization in so many instances. Priss Hartshorn is less of a character than a prism through which the reader is lectured on the pros and cons of breast-feeding versus bottle-feeding and, later on, the frustrations of toilet training. Similarly, Dottie Renfrew, despite being the most viscerally sympathetic and accessible character, functions primarily as a means of discussing contraception, particularly diaphragms (or "pessaries") and the pitfalls of premarital sex. Dottie features prominently in the first few chapters and her near total disappearance afterwards is yet one more disappointment. Kay Strong, an outspoken social climber whose alcoholic playwright husband beats her and then has her committed, is the most broadly melodramatic of the characters and the arc of her story provides a somewhat fractured overall narrative form, but I found her generally unconvincing, especially as her marriage devolves into an almost Victorian nightmare.

What surprised me the most about The Group is how little support McCarthy gives to women's education. Norine Schmittlapp, a liberated socialist who divorces her impotent husband to marry a Jewish man trying to pass as a WASP, claims that her Vassar education made her "crippled for life," while the multi-lingual but deeply naive Libby MacAusland's literary ambitions are rather sniffily derided as the poor efforts of an amateur. While the professional trials of the girls are clearly the result of a deeply sexist system - Libby is told to marry a publisher rather than pursue a career in publishing, while Polly Andrews is forced to sell her blood until a husband arrives on the scene - Vassar itself comes in for some hard knocks, and, while it's true that some people will never be or want to be intellectuals, the naivete, political vacuousness, and lassitude of the girls doesn't speak well for the institution that produced McCarthy herself. They may read George Eliot, Shakespeare, Frazer, and Freud, but they're not portrayed as capable of really understanding what they read. McCarthy spares none of her characters, but in so doing, it's hard to see her as anything but pitiless. She skewers a patriarchal system, but she leaves no survivors, and none of the characters ever manage to see what McCarthy herself sees - a patriarchal system that entraps even those that it exploits into favoring its continued survival.

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