Novels for Students

We Were the Mulvaneys

We Were the Mulvaneys
Joyce Carol Oates
1996

Introduction
Author Biography
Plot Summary
Characters
Themes
Style
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Criticism
Sources
Further Reading

Introduction

Although Joyce Carol Oates has been a fixture of American literature since her debut novel in 1964, her twenty-sixth novel We Were the Mulvaneys, published in 1996, was the first one to reach the top of the New York Times bestsellers list. The book tells the story of the Mulvaney family, a close-knit clan of social achievers who live in a rural community in upstate New York from the 1950s through the 1980s and how their peaceful existence is fractured when the daughter is molested after a high school dance. The aftermath of the event drives different family members into isolation, alcoholism, and a revenge scheme that includes kidnapping and murder. As with many of Oates's works, the sudden realization that violence can break out at any moment forces the characters to reconsider what they thought they knew about the world. Unlike many of her books, though, We Were the Mulvaneys has a life-affirming conclusion in which the characters finally make peace with the demons that have haunted them. Oates's eye for detail and understanding of the emotions of damaged and fragile human beings allow readers to follow six individuals on their separate paths while never losing sight of what makes each one of them a Mulvaney.

Author Biography

Joyce Carol Oates was born on June 16, 1938, in Lockport, a small town in rural western New York State, similar to the setting of many of her works, including We Were the Mulvaneys. Her father worked as a tool and die designer, and her mother was a homemaker. As a child, Oates spent much time on her grandparents' farm and attended a one-room schoolhouse. She completed her first novel at the age of fifteen, but it was not published.

Oates attended Syracuse University on a scholarship, graduating as valedictorian in 1960; as an undergraduate, she won the Mademoiselle magazine College Fiction Award for one of her short stories. She received her M.A. from the University of Wisconsin in 1961. After graduation, she and her husband, Raymond Joseph Smith (with whom Oates co-founded the Ontario Review in 1974) moved to Detroit. While she was teaching at the University of Detroit, one of her short stories was published in the annual Best American Short Stories anthology, reinforcing her commitment to writing. Her writing in her years in Detroit is characterized by a gritty urban vision best displayed in her novel them. From 1967 to 1978 she taught at the University of Windsor, in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.

Oates's first few novels, starting in the early 1960s, did not gain much public attention, although they did earn her critical praise. From the beginning of her career, she garnered accolades from her peers, winning National Endowment for the Arts grants in 1966 and 1968; a Guggenheim fellowship in 1967; nominations for the National Book Award in 1968 and 1969; and an actual National Book Award in 1970. From there, her list of publications becomes massive, with a list of awards to match, including nominations by the Pulitzer Prize committee, the American Theater Critics Association, and the Horror Writers of America. As of 2006, she was one of the most prolific writers living, having published over a hundred titles, including novels, short story collections, poetry collections, plays, collections of essays, children's books, and non-fiction studies. In addition to the massive body of works published under her own name, she has also published eight novels under the pseudonym Rosalind Smith.

Since 1978, Oates has taught at Princeton University, first as a visiting writer, then as a professor, and as of 2006 as the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor in the Humanities.

Plot Summary

I. Family Pictures

We Were the Mulvaneys begins in the voice of the youngest member of the family, Judd Mulvaney, who serves as narrator intermittently throughout the novel. He introduces readers to the Mulvaney family, which was socially prominent in their rural upstate New York community, where they lived from 1955 to 1980. The father, Michael Sr., ran a successful roofing company. The mother, Corinne, watched over the household, High Point Farm, which was busy with four children, pets, and farm animals, all while running a small antiques business out of one of the barns on the property. The Mulvaney children—Mike Jr., Patrick, Marianne, and Judd—were popular and successful in school. Mike Jr. was a football star, Marianne was a cheerleader, Patrick had top academic honors, and Judd, born considerably later, was the treasured youngest of the family.

The first few chapters of the novel establish the situation, with Judd explaining that he felt left out of the family's brightest moments, the events such as huge parties and visits from interesting friends, that helped define the Mulvaneys as one of the most popular families in the Chautauqua Valley.

The story begins in the chapter titled "Valentine's Day, 1976." Marianne, after attending the Valentine's Day dance in town at Mt. Ephraim High School, spends the night at a friend's house in town and phones the next day for a ride home. After Patrick drives into town for her and brings her back in a snowstorm, she goes to her room then takes a bath, not telling her family what happened after the dance: a senior boy, Zack Lundt, got her drunk and raped her.

Because her family revolves around the cheery demeanor generated by Corinne, Marianne keeps the news of the rape to herself. She blames herself, not the boy, for what has happened. In the middle of a weekday morning, another mother tells Corinne that she has seen Marianne going into the Catholic Church, although school is in session and the family is Protestant. Corinne goes to the church and gets Marianne. En route home, the car runs over something in the road that seems to be a small animal, and Marianne becomes hysterical. Corinne takes her to the family doctor, who examines her and explains that Marianne has been raped.

When Michael comes home and Corinne tells him the news, he races over to the Lundt's house, bursts in, and tries to strangle Zachary Lundt, but he is stopped by the police whom Corinne called as he raced out into the night. The news of his assault against the boy and his father, a friend of Michael's, spreads around town. When Marianne goes back to school in a few weeks, there are rumors and jokes whispered that imply she is promiscuous. Marianne, in a fragile mental state, refuses to testify against Zachary Lundt, and a lawyer advises the Mulvaneys that there is not much legal recourse.

Michael Mulvaney begins drinking heavily, which makes him miss work. He starts spending more time in the working-class bars that he used to frequent before his roofing business prospered and the Mulvaneys became socially prominent. Old friends avoid him and his family, which feeds his resentment. One night, an old acquaintance who runs a seedy inn and tavern where the Mulvaneys used to go when they were a young married couple calls: he tells Corinne that she has to come and get her husband, who has been hurt in a fight. Spending the night with him in one of the inn's rooms, Corinne realizes that her main commitment is to her husband.

Soon after, without any discussion with the rest of the family, the parents arrange to send Marianne away to live with a distant relative. They do this because Michael cannot bear the constant reminder of his powerlessness in the face of what happened to her.

II. "The Huntsman"

After Marianne leaves, the family slowly dissolves. Mike Jr. moves out of the house, living in town and working for Mulvaney Roofing. He drinks and hangs around with a wild crowd, arguing constantly with his father. After a car accident which he survives, but which does serious injury to his fiancée, who is riding with him, Mike Jr. joins the Marines and is seldom heard from throughout the rest of the novel.

Media Adaptations

  • We Were the Mulvaneys was available as of 2006 in an abridged form on audio cassette and CD, read by J. Todd Adam. It was released by HighBridge Audio in 2001.
  • The book was adapted to a movie by the Hallmark Network in 2002. Starring Blythe Danner and Beau Bridges, it was nominated for three Emmys (lead actress, lead actor, and music). As of 2006, the film was available on DVD from Hallmark Entertainment.
  • An excellent essay on this book written by Oates herself is available at the Oprah Book Club website http://www.oprah.com/obc/pastbooks/joyce_caroloates/obc_20010124_essay.jhtml (accessed April 26, 2006).

Patrick leaves home to attend Cornell University a few months after Marianne is sent away. Before leaving, he gives the valedictorian speech at graduation at Mt. Ephraim High School. Embittered because the boy who raped his sister is part of the school's popular group, Patrick arranges for noxious fumes to spray through the audience during the commencement ceremony, a plot so cleverly planned and orchestrated that no one even suspects him. At college, Patrick has no friends. He seldom comes home during breaks, and when he does, he leaves soon.

Even with Marianne gone, Michael continues to drink and act belligerent in public, driving his business into the ground. He hires lawyers to determine who he can sue for redress over his grievances, forcing him to take out thousands of dollars in loans to pay them.

Two years later, Marianne travels by bus to visit Patrick. It is 1978, and she has left the home of the distant cousin to attend Kilburn State College, where she attends class infrequently. She is a member of the Green Isle Co-Op, a community of coworkers who grow food and bake breads and sell their goods in local stores when they can. Patrick is astounded at how little she looks like the cheerleader she once was: her hair is chopped, and she is undernourished, and he mistakes her at first for a twelve-year-old boy.

Michael Sr. goes to the Mt. Ephraim Country Club one afternoon and notices a group of his former friends sitting together, laughing. Drunk, he pours a glass of beer on the head of a district judge, which leads to his arrest for assault and a newspaper article about the incident. The results are further erosion in Mulvaney Roofing and more attorney bills.

Feeling himself to be something of an outcast, Patrick goes to see a rock band on campus. He does not feel comfortable with the crowd, but while there he notes a boy that he mistakes at a distance for Zachary Lundt. Patrick gets the idea to kidnap Lundt and kill him. He contacts Judd, telling him to take one of the rifles from the house and meet him at a secret location in the woods near the family home, and he calls the Lundt house, pretending to be one of Zachary's old high school friends and finds out when he will be home for Easter break. One night, Patrick goes out to a bar where Zachary is with his friends and abducts him at gunpoint. He takes him deep into a nearby swamp, where Lundt falls under water and is about to drown before Patrick realizes that he does not want to kill his worst enemy. He reaches into the mud and saves Lundt's life and then leaves Lundt in the wilderness.

III. "The Pilgrim"

Marianne works hard at the Green Isle Co-Op, waiting for the day when her mother will call her up and say that her father wants her to return home to High Point Farm. She is loved and respected by her co-workers, but she avoids closeness. She cries when she is by herself. When the director's assistant leaves, the director discovers that Marianne has the drive and intelligence to be second in charge; he increases her responsibilities. Like most of the young women at the co-op, Marianne has a crush on Abelove, the director, and is honored to work closely with him.

When news of her grandmother's death reaches her, Marianne resolves to go to the funeral and to renew her connection to her family. A shy boy from the co-op named Hewie Miner offers to drive her across the state to the town where Corinne was raised. After traveling several hours, though, Marianne finds that she does not have it in herself to enter the chapel: she watches from outside and sees her mother and Judd, but neither of her other brothers or her father. On the way home, she has Hewie drive through Mt. Ephraim, past the Mulvaney Roofing building, through the streets she knew as a child, and past High Point Farm, realizing how removed she is now from it all.

After her day-long journey, Abelove approaches Marianne and asks if she and Hewie are in love. She assures him that they are not, and he then offers her an even higher position in the Green Isle Co-op: associate director. As he is explaining how much everyone at the co-op loves her, Abelove confesses that he is in love with her, too. Marianne leaves, telling him that she wants to think about what he has said: that night, she packs her things and leaves the Green Isle Co-op, her home and life's obsession for several years, without saying goodbye to anyone.

IV. Hard Reckoning

In the spring of 1980, Judd finishes junior year of high school in a new town: the dwindling Mulvaney Roofing business and mounting legal bills have forced the family to sell High Point Farm and move to nearby Marsina. Michael Sr. has been consistently drunk and angry, spending time away from home, so that selling the house and finding a new house have fallen to Corinne. Michael's vague attempts to restart the roofing business in the new town fail. The family hears from Mike Jr., Patrick, and Marianne intermittently.

Marianne ends up in Spartansburg, as the companion of an older, wheelchair-bound writer, Penelope Hagström. Miss Hagström respects Penelope's intelligence and trusts her with her household business.

One night, when he arrives home late and drunk, Michael is rough with Corinne, and Judd intervenes against his father. The next day, Judd moves out and finds his own apartment.

The roofing business goes bankrupt, and all of the family's remaining assets, including the new house, are sold. With the dissolution of the house, Michael and Corinne go in different directions. He lives in a series of smaller apartments and then rented rooms, taking jobs that he cannot keep because he drinks, is unable to work on roofs or do heavy labor, and is too belligerent to take orders from men who once would have been his employees.

In 1988, Corinne finally contacts Marianne, who is twenty-nine years old, to tell her that her father is dying and has called for her. Marianne had left Miss Hagström several years earlier when the older woman offered to increase her responsibilities. She had moved to a small town, rented a room, and taken a job in a grocery store. But one day, when her cat Muffin, the one reminder of life at High Point Farm, fell ill, she had rushed him to a local animal hospital, run by Dr. Whittaker West, a veterinarian whose dedication had earned his hospital and animal shelter an excellent nationwide reputation. Soon Marianne had moved into the huge mansion that houses the shelter and had become West's assistant. When the time came to euthanize Muffin, Dr. West, while consoling Marianne, admitted that he was in love with her.

In Rochester, where Michael Mulvaney has been taken, Judd and Corinne insist that he has called Marianne's name, but he does not seem to recognize her or anyone around him. To her ear, he seems to have spoken his older sister's name, Marian. He dies, and Mike Jr. returns to join the family in scattering his father's ashes on a hill above High Point Farm.

Epilogue. Reunion: Fourth of July 1993

The Mulvaneys are all invited to a Fourth of July reunion at a farm that Corinne and her friend Sable Mills have bought and turned into an antique shop. The business is prospering, and the farm, though not as grand as the one at High Point Farm, is expansive enough for the two women, and it is adjoined by a creek that ran past the old family property, about eighteen miles away. Judd is the editor of a small newspaper, the Chautauqua Falls Journal. Marianne is married to Whit West, and they have a young son. Mike Jr., who is now a civil engineer in Wilmington, Delaware, has a wife and two children, and they are expecting another. Patrick, who has not been back to the area since the night he abducted Zachary Lundt, has traveled from California by motorcycle with his girlfriend, showing an entirely different personality than the bookish introvert that he was when he left. In all, twenty-seven people have gathered at the home of Corinne Mulvaney, giving her children time to reacquaint themselves with each other and get to know their extended family and their mother's friends.

Characters

Abelove

Abelove is the charismatic leader of the Green Isle Co-op. His background is a mystery: no one even knows his true first name, which is described as "something odd and awkward like 'Charlesworth.'" He is a peaceful man who talks about helping the poor, extolling Christian principles while at the same time worrying about expanding the financial range of the co-op. All of the women at the co-op, including Marianne, are secretly in love with Abelove.

Patrick is suspicious of Abelove. Corinne banters with him throughout a meal, but she turns abruptly against Abelove when he comments on Marianne's personality.

After Marianne has risen in rank to become his valuable assistant, and rumors have spread through the co-op that she might be involved with Hewie Miner, Abelove confesses to Marianne that he is in love with her and wants to marry her. Though it is her desire, she sneaks away that night, unable to cope with such potential happiness.

Birk

Birk, once one of Abelove's students at Kilburn College, serves as assistant director at the Green Isle Co-Op when Marianne is there. He disappears without a trace one day, leaving behind all of his belongings.

Button

See Marianne Mulvaney

Della Rae Duncan

A mentally challenged girl from the poor area of Mt. Ephraim, Della Rae is molested by a group of boys from the football team.

Miss Penelope Hagström

On the road by herself, Marianne is taken into the home of Miss Hagström, an elderly, crippled poet. Famous nationally for her writing, Miss Hagström is known in her own town of Spartansburg as an unfortunate woman who was abandoned by her fiancée years ago and has been weakened over the decades by multiple sclerosis. She is a sharp wit and is usually kind to Marianne, seeing in her the intelligence and capability which Marianne does not see in herself. At times, though, Miss Hagström can be bitter and sarcastic.

When Miss Hagström offers to elevate Marianne's position, to make her the associate director of the Hagström Foundation for the Arts in addition to being her personal assistant, Marianne finds the increased involvement uncomfortable and leaves her one night without saying goodbye to Miss Hagström.

Miss Ethel Hausmann

When it is decided that Marianne cannot stay at High Point Farm with her family, she is sent to live in Salamanca with Ethel Hausmann, a relative on Corinne's side. Miss Hausmann is not familiar to the family. She is in her early fifties and has never had children of her own; she has worked for a podiatrist for thirty years, silently in love with him.

Haw Hawley

When they were first married, Corinne and Michael Mulvaney spent their time with a rowdy crowd at the Wolf's Head Inn, owned by "Haw" Hawley. Corinne looks down on him as a drunk, but he is polite and helpful the night that he calls her to the inn to help Michael, who has been injured in a fight.

Zachary Lundt

Zachary Lundt is the boy who rapes Marianne Mulvaney. He is a senior, the same age as Patrick and a year older than Marianne, when she catches his eye at the Valentine's dance, and he offers to drive her home when her date has to leave early. In his car, he gives Marianne liquor and tells her he has a confused life and he feels comfortable talking with her about serious philosophical matters. He tells her that she brings out the best in him. After a while, though, he becomes angry and rapes her.

Because Zach is a popular member of the football team, what he has done does not reflect badly on him. The other students at Mt. Ephraim High support him, turning against the Mulvaneys, spreading rumors that Marianne was his willing sexual partner.

Years later, when Zach is away at the state university at Binghamton studying business administration, he comes home for spring break and is abducted outside a bar by Patrick Mulvaney. Taken at gunpoint to a nearby bog, Zach denies knowing what Patrick is talking about regarding the girl he raped, and he begs shamelessly to have his life spared.

Sable Mills

Sable shares a house with Corinne in 1993, the time at which the book ends. It is an arrangement that provides both women with financial security and companionship. The two met after running into each other repeatedly at antique auctions and with their shared interest have opened an antique store, Alder Antiques, on the farm they share.

Sable is ten years younger than Corinne and attended the same high school. She has been married and divorced three times and has children and grandchildren. While Corinne is a natural home-maker, Sable is a natural businessperson, making their partnership well-rounded and fulfilling.

Hewie Miner

Hewie Miner is the worker at the Green Isle Co-op who agrees to drive Marianne across the state to her grandmother's funeral. He is shy but kind and on suspension from college for having loaned his lab notes to another student. Hewie hardly talks over the course of the thirteen-hour trip. When they return to the co-op, Hewie tells her that he would be glad to do anything for her because he is in love with her. Rumors circulate that Marianne and Hewie are romantically linked, spurring Abelove to confess his own love for Marianne. …