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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Group

Mary McCarthy's The Group is an interesting book to read. One of the side-effects of reading older satires is that as our understanding of the world changes, so does our reaction to what is being satired. In some cases, it does not affect our interpretation of the book too much. I can read Pride and Prejudice without getting caught up in how unfair life and law was to women of that era, because Austen herself felt that way and made it clear in her writings. Other satires become dated very quickly, and we may end up disagreeing with the viewpoint that is doing the satirizing, and I really wish I could come up with an example right now but I can't (it'll come to me in the middle of the night, I'm sure).

McCarthy's book draws heavily on her time at Vassar and the years following to create a vignettes of seven women who graduate in 1933 and settle into their lives (well, six, really -- the seventh spends most of the book in Europe and functions more as a blank canvas on which the others project their insecurities). The women are, for the most part, overly confident and self-assured in the way only recent college graduates can be. They are filled with theories -- on politics, society, entertaining, marriage, raising children, living lives -- and are absolutely convinced their ways are the best ways. These theories, after all, come from the most current research and philosophies of the best colleges. The satire is driven by watching these women fail, succeed, change course, make mistakes, and generally muddle through life and love the same way all women do, regardless of the latest theories.

But there is a second level to the satire (and a shallower one), which is apparent to anyone reading the book now. Most of the theories the women cling to are just plain wrong. No, canned vegetables are not healthier and better tasting than fresh. Babies need to be nursed more often than every four hours, because breast milk is thinner than formula. Stalin did not really have the interests of the proletariat at heart. The humor in the book came not just from reading about these women who were so convinced they understood the world better than their parents (I hope I was never that arrogant), but also from seeing how much the world has changed since then, how much more we know now about certain things. Which caused me to wonder how much we think we know will seem hopelessly misguided or outdated or wrong 70 years from now.

McCarthy published the book in 1963, so it is highly likely she intended this dual level of satire; certainly enough had changed by then to make many of the notions the women held seem quaint. But I can't be fully sure how McCarthy expected us to react because so much has changed again. This is true of any novel, really -- novels are a product of their times, and we of ours, and our environment will will affect how we understand a book, no matter how we might think otherwise.

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