We love to reconcile things. Self-destructive tendencies. Our parents’ prejudices. Personal hypocrisies. Your dad never said ‘I love you’? Then he must have loved you in his own way. To square something away mentally is considered a good thing. We err on the side of delusion for the sake of sanity. The Group by Mary McCarthy and The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe, however do not. They are unflinchingly honest as they detail the lives of young women embarking on careers in Manhattan in the ’30s and ’50s respectively.
In The Best of Everything, Caroline Bender observes her friends’ romantic missteps and tries to talk them out of bad decisions. She can tell if a man is kindhearted or predatory. She knows that marriage does not equate to happiness. She works at a publishing firm in a pool of secretaries where engagement showers precede resignations weekly. Caroline enjoys her work and rises quickly. She would like to have a career and she feels ambivalent about marriage, but she acknowledges her subservience to propriety:
…as always she could hear and see everything at two levels, the one that told her how silly it was and the one that told her to become affected and upset. She was only twenty-two, she had been out of college only two years, and she knew she was going to get married someday, just as she had known ever since she was a little girl that she was eventually going to go to college and that she was going to work for a while afterward at an interesting job. These were things that happened to girls like herself, they were the things one did. But underneath, where lay the things she always had to admit to herself, Caroline knew she had lied to Mary Agnes because one always lied to such people if one intended to survive. But she couldn’t lie to herself. She was worried about getting married. She knew it was ridiculous, but she was worried. She wondered whether every girl felt the same way she did, or whether it was a personal foolishness.
The two levels that Jaffe describes present a central feminine dilemma: can Caroline trust herself to know how she feels? One level is the rational voice she uses when marriage-bound Mary Agnes asks Caroline if she is worried about being single. Mary Agnes is the irritating, urgent, fear monger and Caroline brushes her off casually by answering that she is unconcerned. But Caroline’s second level cannot deny that there is something of a lie in her simple assertion of calmness. The acknowledgment of two levels in direct contradiction with one another is key in Jaffe’s successful portrayal of Caroline. If Caroline tried to meld the two voices or pick one over the other, the richness of her interiority would suffer. Instead, Caroline understands that there is no simple answer to her attitude toward marriage.
The overwhelming sense of doom is the very thing that makes The Group and The Best of Everything believable. The hopeful notes and the small triumphs cannot sustain the characters. They are forced to face the reality that the closest thing to happiness is uncertainty — when one kind of pain is substituted for a yet to be discovered pain.
In the opening scene of The Group, Harold Petersen and Kay Strong wed in an unconventional ceremony. Kay’s Vassar friends are slightly amused, slightly wary, mostly supportive. They had not expected for Kay to get married first and did not believe her when she told them Harold proposed. They feel shame at having doubted their friend and admit that envy may have contributed to their doubt. Kay has “achieved” marriage where they have not. Neither Jaffe nor McCarthy sugarcoat the fact that a woman’s career is a distraction until an appropriate husband presents himself. The wedding is the highpoint of Kay and Harold’s relationship. It quickly deteriorates and Kay suffers terribly while Harold suffers guilt alone.
Following an argument, Harold commits Kay to a mental hospital, knowing she will be trapped there until he releases her. The next day he returns to the hospital, apologizes, and offers to let her return home. Kay, a writer, convinces herself to stay another night to gather information for an article. As Harold leaves, Kay realizes she has done exactly what Harold wanted her to do. Kay’s moment of realization is chilling. She suffers a breakdown and remains in the mental hospital for a long time before being sent back to her parents. The Group ends with the Vassar classmates reassembled for Kay’s funeral. Kay’s death is almost certainly suicide.
Kay’s bleak end demonstrates that marriage is only an accomplishment insofar as it ends the tragedy of singledom. Jaffe and McCarthy do not proffer the illusion of choice or freedom. They recognize that for their heroines there is no such thing as winning because the game is fixed against them from the outset.
Caroline Bender dates selectively, guards her heart, yet is undone by an ex-fiancé despite all of her precautions. The Best of Everything ends with Caroline jetting off to Las Vegas on a whim with a male acquaintance following an unsuccessful attempt to get back together with her ex. There’s no reason to think that Caroline will be happy with this new man or that the impromptu decision was anything but reckless — but moving onto the next thing is Caroline’s best option. Her agency is limited and her choices are limited. Whatever options are presented to her will be tethered to some man who may or may not marry her.
Caroline accepts her plight even though she will never understand how her ex-fiancé could have left her for another woman (whom he ends up being miserable with). She does not try to reconcile the irreconcilable. The foolishness of trying to do so is Harold Petersen’s fate. Harold knows what he has done — he has exercised his masculine freedoms and effectively ended Kay’s life. But he cannot reconcile his actions with his image of himself and insists on blaming someone else. He lashes out at Lakey — the “ice queen” and leader of the titular group of Vassar girls. Lakey recently revealed she is a lesbian and Harold uses this information to appease his own conscience. He decides that Lakey ruined Kay and all of the group back in college and their unhappy lives can be attributed to Lakey’s depraved influence. Lakey does not contradict his ravings.
For all of the misery that plays out, The Group and The Best of Everything do not feel defeatist. They feel survivalist. McCarthy and Jaffe traverse sinister, cynical, and eerie territory frequently. Caroline and Lakey teach us that the only way to carry on is to keep moving. Their friends who become hung up on one man or on the idea of marriage stagnate and wither. Caroline and Lakey’s relative freedom is a freedom from self-delusion.