On Sunday’s episode of Mad Men, there is a brief but telling shot of Betty Draper reading Mary McCarthy’s The Group. Betty is seen reading the book in the bath tub. Presumably her children have gone to bed and she is waiting for her husband, the series antihero-hero Don Draper, to return home. This 10-second scene is bookended by a scene of Don in the midst of yet another affair. Talk about subtext.
The Group was published in 1963, the year this season of Mad Men is set. The novel follows the lives of eight Vassar graduates (class of ’33) until the onset of World War II in 1940. The group—Kay, Pokey, Helena, Lakey, Dottie, Polly, Priss and Libby—are first introduced at Kay’s wedding to a New York theater critic and they reunite at her funeral seven years later. McCarthy presents liberal and sometimes conservative views on topics ranging from contraception to social work. This provides an excellent portrayal of the decade.
It is fitting to me that Betty Draper, a trapped suburban housewife and herself a graduate a Seven Sister college (Bryn Mawr) would be drawn this novel. It reflects her relationship to the world as a high society woman, disconnected from reality. It is never revealed in the book whether Kay’s death is accidental or suicide; she dies a woman destroyed by her failed marriage and ruined social standing.
I can’t help but read this as yet another ominous sign for the finale Mad Men‘s third season, which has already been hinted will occur simultaneously with President Kennedy’s assassination. If anything, it provides a deep insight into Betty Draper’s deteriorating state in the wake of her discovery of her husband’s secrets.