U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Novel of Banalities?: Part 5 of “The Group” Read

What were Adam Verver’s views on the great Free Trade debate, on woman suffrage, on child labour? We do not know. It is almost as if James wanted to protect his cherished creations from our knowledge of the banalities they would utter if he once let us overhear them speak freely.—“Ideas and the Novel: Henry James and Some Others

One of the riskiest choices Mary McCarthy makes in The Group is the amount of time she devotes to letting us overhear some pretty dogeared banalities whenever her characters speak freely. This is especially true of probably the least sympathetic character in the book, Norine. Upon running into Priss in Central Park in Chapter 14, Norine pours forth her views on marriage, child-rearing, anthropology, Judaism, New York society, and much else in a torrent of vapid condescension.

“You still believe in progress,” she said kindly. “I’d forgotten there were people who did. It’s your substitute for religion. Your tribal totem is the yardstick. But we’ve transcended all that. No first-rate mind can accept the concept of progress any more.”

“No first-rate mind can accept…” is the home of third-rate minds and secondhand ideas—“the canned goods of intellectuals,” as Saul Bellow called them, or idées reçues to use Flaubert’s term.

But as I just demonstrated, the notion of the secondhand idea is itself an idée reçue: we get our ideas of what is a cliché or a platitude and what is not from other people. Throughout The Group, McCarthy is unafraid of putting unoriginality in the mouths of her characters whenever they talk about politics or literature or philosophy, and I think that is because, unlike Flaubert or Bellow, she is interested primarily in the circulation of ideas rather than in their inception and refinement. I think this is actually a bolder path, one that few writers could pull off as well: even when the conversation was dull in the novel, I was still fascinated by the way McCarthy threw people at one another.

Yet, fun as that is, I was still left with a sense of hollowness: this is a novel of ideas in which none of the women really come up with an original position or shattering realization in the course of the novel. Where there are really vivid ideas, McCarthy places in the text by implication or juxtaposition: they don’t come directly out of conversations or interior monologues. In an otherwise incoherent and generally catty review of The Group, Norman Mailer argues that “She has eight well-to-do young ladies moving through the thirties on the very outer fringe of events, and none of them has an inner passion large enough to take over the book and make it run away.” It is probably clear to everyone but Mailer that this modesty or even feebleness of the novel’s intellectual affairs was intentional, that it was the point of the book even, that McCarthy had deliberately diverted all of her characters from careers or marriages in which intellectual development was required or encouraged. They are not all domineered, but they are all starved for genuine ideas.

Yet the point this all leads to is not a simple critique of patriarchy. McCarthy’s own stated intentions for the novel—appearing in a 1962 Paris Review interview—reveal that Norine’s little lecture on progress is not just a cliché; it’s the theme of the novel.

It’s called The Group, and it’s about eight Vassar girls. It starts with the inauguration of Roosevelt, and—well, at first it was going to carry them up to the present time, but then I decided to stop at the inauguration of Eisenhower. It was conceived as a kind of mock-chronicle novel. It’s a novel about the idea of progress, really. The idea of progress seen in the female sphere, the feminine sphere. You know, home economics, architecture, domestic technology, contraception, childbearing; the study of technology in the home, in the playpen, in the bed. It’s supposed to be the history of the loss of faith in progress, in the idea of progress, during that twenty-year period.

Here it is not a transhistorical suppression of the free and full development of women’s intelligence that McCarthy is trying to illuminate, but a rather historically specific, local moment of intellectual restructuring that has particular and particularly morbid effects on educated women: the undermining and excision of the faith in progress and its replacement with something else to be determined. The novel is not just about young women taking up careers, but also about the career of an idea during a certain era among a certain set—its path from unquestioned assumption to trivial dismissal.

Yet if that is so, and I think it is so, I cannot parse the last few pages of the novel, those about Lakey. I won’t give away what I guess would be spoilers if you’re behind and want to catch up, but I do want to flag how completely incongruous that passage is with the rest of the novel. I don’t know what relationship it is supposed to have with anything that has come before, thematically speaking.

But I’ll leave you to comment about that if you wish. It’s been fun reading The Group, and I hope, even if I seem nonplussed now at the end, that it has been evident how much of value I find in this novel.

Finally, I encourage you to read that Paris Review interview linked above—it’s got some great anecdotes from McCarthy’s life, and it is a pleasure to listen to McCarthy talk.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Andy,

    I concur with your instinct to try to talk about the concluding chapters of the novel without too many spoilers.

    These last three chapters were a daunting read.

    Chapter 13 was horrifying. I didn’t know what “gaslighting” meant or referred to until this past summer, when I was finally inspired to look it up. Ye gods. Haven’t watched the eponymous movie yet — but of all the possible narrative scenarios one might encounter in a work of fiction, that basic set-up is the absolute worst. What makes gaslighting scenarios awful, of course, is that they are about removing the protagonist’s confidence in the one tool she has available to escape a perilous situation: her mind, her ability to make critical distinctions. (Lakey, by contrast, is the embodiment of critical judgment, clarity of thinking. Jim Ridgely seems to me to be her doppelgänger. How heartbreaking the line: “[Kay] had forgotten how it felt to have a champion.”)

    In a way, chapter 14 is even more horrifying than chapter 13. Norine — spectacularly gauche, raunchy, bestial Norine — names the nightmare:

    “The trouble is– The trouble is–” She dropped her voice and looked around her. “Christ, I can say it to you. You probably have the same problem.” Priss swallowed nervously; she feared Norine was going to talk about sex, which was still Priss’s bête noire. “The trouble is my brains,” said Norine. “I was formed as an intellectual by Lockwood and those other gals. Freddy doesn’t mind that I can think rings around him; he likes it. But I’m conscious of a yawning abyss….”

    And this naming of the problem that has no name, of course, comes at that moment when the novel reaches the very nadir of banality: these women, Vassar ’33, are sitting on a park bench discussing toilet training and bottle feeding. The chapter shows us the absolute worst of the chamber of horrors: Polly’s once-promising mental universe has shrunk to the compass of a toddler’s bowel movements. Four years in college for this? No wonder progress begins to look like a mirage.

    But it seems to me that McCarthy is not about verisimilitude as an aesthetic end. She is about striking a blow against banality. I have not decided yet whether the symmetry of the novel’s beginning and ending scenes present us with the ultimate banality to be critiqued, or if the bookended ceremonies — highlighting Lakey’s swift, sure, keen judgment, her taste — are meant to point to a way out of the death-spiral (!) of domesticated narratives of progress.

    I do think it matters aesthetically that, while McCarthy narrates the novel from within each of the characters, Lakey’s is the voice she ends with. Lakey’s is the company she keeps.

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