We Were the Mulvaneys
We Were the MulvaneysIntroduction
Joyce Carol Oates
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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, 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.
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.
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 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 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 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.
Corinne is the mother of the Mulvaney family and its spiritual center. She is highly spirited with a zest for life. At first, her enthusiasm infects her children, driving them to be successful in school. After Marianne has been raped, though, Corinne alienates her children by making the decision to stand by her husband, so that when he finds it too painful to live with Marianne, she agrees to send her daughter away to live with a distant relative. She tries to remain positive during the turmoil that tears her family apart, but her cheerfulness is just seen as self-delusion.
Corinne is a devout churchgoer. A formative episode from her childhood occurred when she and her mother were in a car accident in a blizzard when she was seven: they walked through the snow and became lost, and probably would have frozen if their way were not lit by a swarm of fireflies. Improbable as everyone else finds the story, Corinne looks back on the incident as a sign from God.
After Marianne is raped on Valentine's Day in 1976, Corinne finds herself able to talk to a therapist and a few friends about what happened, though she is not able to use the word, "rape." She tries to be supportive but is defensive about her husband and agrees to send Marianne away for his sake. Corinne talks with Marianne infrequently. As Michael sinks deeper and deeper into alcoholism, she takes control of family matters, including the most painful to her, the sale of High Point Farm. Still, she loses her husband.
In the end, Corinne is happy, living with her friend Sable Mills on a farm not far from the one where she raised her family and running an antique store like the one she ran at High Point Farm. She hosts the family reunion at the end of her book and is surrounded by children, grandchildren, friends, and church members.
Judd, the narrator of the book, is the youngest Mulvaney, born several years after his next older sibling, which leaves him with a feeling that the peak years of the Mulvaney family life, the ones that were most legendary, came before he arrived and that subjects are being discussed that he is does not know about. In 1976, when Judd is thirteen, his siblings leave home in quick order: Marianne is sent to live with relatives, Mike goes into the Marines, and Patrick goes to college.
When Patrick decides to kill the boy who raped Marianne, he phones Judd from college and enlists him in the plan, instructing Judd to secretly remove one of the rifles from the house. Judd is frightened, but he also admires his brother and vows not to let him down. He delivers the gun to Patrick and later picks it up without ever finding out what happened with it.
Judd is left with his parents and watches his father's downward spiral as he loses his business and the house. Then one night in 1980 he and his father come to open physical confrontation, and Judd, still in high school, moves out and takes his own rented room in a ramshackle building.
At the end of the book, Judd is thirty, the editor of a twice-a-week local newspaper.
The story of the destruction of the Mulvaney family centers on the rape of seventeen-year-old Marianne. She is a happy, popular teenager, a member of the 4-H club and the cheerleading squad, until Zachary Lundt gets her drunk after the Valentine's dance and rapes her. After that, Marianne finds herself ostracized: first at school, where she is treated as though she is promiscuous, and at home, where her father is unable to come to grips with his own failure to protect her.
Marianne internalizes the blame for the rape, feeling that she is just as responsible as Zach Lundt was for what happened because she was drinking in his car. Having been sent away, she waits patiently for years, expecting to be called back home. In later life, she finds herself unable to deal with emotional attachments or responsibilities: when Abelove, whom she has had a crush on, declares his love and asks her to marry him, she runs away from the co-op without telling him, and when Penelope Hagström offers to promote her to an executive position in her charitable organization, Marianne again runs off without a word. She eagerly races to her father's death bed when she hears he has called for her, only to find that he is too far gone to recognize her.
Marianne ends up happily married to Whit West, a veterinarian who runs a shelter for animals. Her childhood on the farm, and her love for her horse Molly-O and her cat, Muffin, who is her traveling companion throughout the book, are reflected in her eventual sense of security at Dr. West's clinic.
Michael Mulvaney Sr.
Michael Mulvaney is the father of the Mulvaney family, their protector and the source of their dissolution, dying estranged from his wife and children, addled by alcohol, and bitter.
Michael Mulvaney came from a large Irish Catholic family, leaving home at age eighteen to get away from his drunk, abusive father: because he left, his father insisted that no one in the family would ever contact him for the rest of his life. After marrying Corinne, his family grew, and his business, Mulvaney Roofing, prospered, growing into one of the largest in the county. As he succeeded, Michael left behind his working-class friends and began associating with others who were prosperous.
After attacking the boy who raped Marianne and finding out that the law will not prosecute him, Michael begins drinking heavily. His business suffers, and he loses money on lawyer fees. He becomes increasingly bitter toward the people he thought were his friends and even toward his family. He cannot bear to see Marianne anymore, so she is sent away, which angers his sons.
Michael loses his business; he loses the farm; he argues with Corinne and leaves her. Late in his life, after he has taken jobs from men he would not have even hired at Mulvaney Roofing, he spends an evening with his son, Mike, who finds that his father barely has a grasp on reality anymore. Eventually, Michael is found lying in the street, and his family is called to his deathbed. He is thought to have called for Marianne, to whom he has not talked in the years since she was banished, but it could also be that he actually spoke the name of his favorite sister, Marian.
Michael Mulvaney Jr. is the most obscure family member, in part, because he is the most distant from the book's narrator, Judd, and in part because he moves away early. When Marianne is molested, Mike is already out of high school and working for his father's roofing company. He is a former high school football hero, and his younger brother and sister are reminded of his social position by the trophies in school that bear his name. Although he has a sense of honor, like all the Mulvaneys, he also bears the shame of not interfering with his friends when he knew they were raping a girl.
After Marianne is raped, Mike, like his father, soothes his anger with drinking. He becomes known to local police because of his reckless driving, but his football hero reputation saves him from serious charges. After he injures a girl badly in a car accident, he joins the Marines. For most of the novel, he is away. He ends up with a wife and two children, working as a civil engineer in Wilmington, Delaware.
Patrick is a boy genius, with a keen scientific mind but none of the social skills that the other members of his family enjoy. He attends high school with Marianne, one grade above her: after she is raped, Patrick has to live with the school gossip that she has been promiscuous and got what she deserved. He becomes so bitter that he sabotages his graduation, at which he is speaking as valedictorian, with a stink bomb in the air ducts.
In college, Patrick finds himself even more an outcast. He goes to a concert, attempting to behave in the way that normal college students behave, and he sees someone who resembles Zachary Lundt: this association leads to the revelation that Lundt's assault on his sister has caused all of the troubles that have torn apart the Mulvaney family and the idea that he can correct the family's problems by killing Lundt. He kidnaps at gunpoint the man he considers his enemy and takes him to a deserted bog, but at the last minute he realizes that killing him will not make life better for the Mulvaneys.
After realizing the futility of revenge, Patrick quits school and travels. He is not in contact with the family often and cannot be reached when his father dies. It is a surprise when he shows up at the family reunion at the end of the book well-adjusted: he is physically fit, has a beautiful girlfriend, and has a peaceful outlook on life.
Dr. Whittaker West
West is a veterinarian who has a clinic for stray animals, Stump Creek Hill, that has gained national attention. He divides his time between treating animals and lobbying politicians for grants to support his work. On her own, living in a rented room with her cat Muffin, Marianne goes to West's clinic one day when the cat is sick. She becomes involved with the animal refuge and moves in, taking on more and more duties. When Muffin dies, West tells her that he is in love with her. They show up at the family reunion, years later, married, with children.
In this novel, Oates dramatizes how trauma and loss can disrupt a group's self-concept and cohesiveness. The Mulvaneys are not able to maintain their group identification as prosperous and successful once an attack intrudes and injures one of the family members. Once that loss occurs, the self-concept of the group and its collective sense of its place in the world alter. When this shift occurs, the group no longer coheres, and individuals disperse literally or insulate themselves in other ways. This loss of coherence is most conspicuous in Marianne who is sent away from the family because her father cannot live with the realization that his family is vulnerable to violent acts and that he is powerless to protect his children from them. After being molested by Zachary Lundt, Marianne is sent away from her previously close-knit family. Psychologically, she replicates that removal by withdrawing from potential relationships and from opportunities to progress professionally. Though the victim in the initial instance, she is punished; having learned that she is to blame, she is driven by shame to continue that punishment by denying herself good. Oates symbolizes her guilt and shame with the torn, bloodied dress that Marianne hides in the back of her closet. Significantly, Marianne's mother knows where to find the dress, and she disposes of it without a word to Marianne, allowing her daughter to fixate in a self-punishing mental state. The aftereffects of the assault harden into a pattern of withdrawal and self-sabotage which assures Marianne's future unhappiness. If her parents could have accepted Marianne as changed by her experience and loved her despite that change, her trauma would have likely had less effect and those effects would have neutralized sooner. Banning her from the family underscored the guilt Marianne was quick to feel for the assault perpetrated on her. The novel seems to suggest that if victims and their families do not have sufficient support to work through trauma and loss, these disrupting, violent acts can change both the victim and the family dynamics permanently.
In Patrick Mulvaney's response to the assault on his sister, Oates is able to explore both the attraction of revenge and its uselessness. Patrick's prank during commencement and his later, much more dangerous kidnapping of Zachary Lundt are impotent responses to a violent assault. Fortunately, Patrick gains some insight into the futility of revenge when he witnesses Lundt's near drowning. Patrick realizes that acting hurtfully now cannot revise the past. He realizes that hurting Lundt solves nothing. Though the novel does not follow his life for many years, Oates makes clear in the end that Patrick has been able to find peace chiefly because he realizes that revenge cannot give him peace.
Topics For Further Study
- The animals that the Mulvaneys raise on their non-producing farm are central to this story. Make a list of all of the animals mentioned in the novel, and then write a chart that shows what it would cost to feed them all in today's dollars.
- Michael Mulvaney's slide into alcoholism follows a fairly standard pattern. Interview a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and find out what that person thinks of Michael's behavior, as you present it. Then report to the class the steps that your interviewee said Michael or Corinne could have taken.
- Examine the statistics linking rape and alcohol abuse in your state, and write a letter to Marianne Mulvaney explaining what happened to her and whether she has a case against Zachary Lundt that would stand up in court.
- Author Jonathan Franzen's novel The Corrections was chosen for Oprah's Book Club, just as this novel was, but Franzen declined the offer, even though it would have meant thousands of more copies would sell. Research the controversy over Franzen's refusal, and conduct a debate representing both sides of the argument.
- Much is made in the novel of the fact that the Mulvaney parents disagree about joining the Mt. Ephraim Country Club and about Michael's eventual expulsion from it. Contact at least three country clubs to find out what a person would have to do to join and what a person would have to do to be thrown out, and then write the rules that you would use if you were to start your own private club. Present your rules to your class with explanations.
In the head of the family, Michael Mulvaney Sr., Oates explores the ever widening destruction caused by progressive alcohol addiction. Mul-vaney's downfall follows the typical downward spiral of alcoholism. Moreover, his abuse of alcohol is not just a reaction to the assault on his daughter. Oates shows that Michael is a likely candidate for alcoholism even if the rape had not occurred and triggered his behavior. For one thing, his father was an abusive alcoholic, and studies show that alcoholism is usually repeated in subsequent generations, either because of genetic or learned factors. Also, Michael's younger days, before the responsibilities of a growing business and family reined him in, were characterized by drunken weekends when he caroused at the tavern at Wolf's Head Lake, following the path of Haw Hawley, who ends up broken and divorced himself. As Corinne realizes later, when Michael takes up with his old drinking buddies again, the life that they built at High Point Farm (which constituted the "high point" in their marriage) may have "only postponed Wolf's Head Lake in their lives." Alcohol, which is first understood as a means of enjoying a weekend, later becomes a deadly weapon of self-torture, self-sabotage, and the destruction of relationships with others. Oates's novel dramatizes this widening sphere alcohol affects. As a response to trauma and loss, alcohol is a self-medicating insulation in the present moment serving as a barrier to unbearable pain. Over the long haul, however, alcohol is the thief that steals everything away from Michael Mulvaney Sr., his business, his social circle, his family. Ironically, Michael Sr. chooses to drink, and that choice is much more pervasively destructive than Marianne's choicelessness in being assaulted by Zack Lundt.
In spite of the travails of the Mulvaney family, Corinne, the mother, continues to hold on to the hope that things will eventually be set aright again. The family's life at High Point Farm, where they are happy together, is built around Corinne's view of the world: she is the one who grew up on a farm and values socializing and religion. Her family values rub off on her husband and children, but their hold on them is not as strong as Corinne's. After the rape of Marianne, the others stray from the family's optimistic outlook; they feel vulnerable, subject to the same hardships that befall others. But Corinne holds on to her positive attitude.
The novel uses the cowbell to symbolize diminished and ascendant hope. It is the focus of an early chapter, in which Corinne uses it to call Patrick in from his wanderings to tell him to pick Marianne up in town. Neither realizes then that this moment marks the end of innocent life at High Point Farm, which is, after the rape, clouded with secrets, suspicion, guilt, and anger. For contrast, Oates brings back the cowbell at the end of the novel, when the extended family is gathered at Corinne's new farm: this time, when Corinne rings the bell, it suggests the advent of a bright future for the family members. Judd describes her "Laughing like one of her own grandchildren, the color up in her cheeks, tugging the cord of the old gourd-shaped cowbell to summon us all to eat, at last." In Corinne's optimism lies the energy for the recreation of her life. Perhaps Oates is suggesting that a positive outlook provides the energy necessary to transform one's life.
The French word, denouement, literally means "the unraveling" and is commonly used to describe the part of a story that comes after the action is completed, when the plot complications that have been put in motion throughout the story have reached their climax and the issues explored are settled. The main part of We Were the Mulvaneys ends with the scattering of Michael Mulvaney's ashes. It is a poignant moment, one that gives some closure to some family members, but it still leaves unanswered questions: Patrick is still missing after having abducted a man at gunpoint years earlier, and Marianne's relationship with Dr. West has just been mentioned, leaving open the possibility that she may repeat with him the self-sabotaging choices she made in previous relationships. Corinne is left alone and penniless.
The book's epilogue, set some years later, might be seen as the author's way of pasting a happy ending onto an unhappy story, but it actually is necessary for telling readers the results of the family's struggles. The fact that the Mulvaneys end up as functional adults in their separate lives is not a reversal of the events of the book, but a reasonable result of the growth process. Although Oates skips years in the lives of her characters, she lets readers know, when the story has unraveled, exactly where the events of the story have led each of them.
We Were the Mulvaneys is told from a first person point of view, narrated by Judd Mulvaney. However, Oates modifies or adapts the point of view as needed. In some places Judd speaks in first person about his experiences, referring to himself as "I" or "me." He experiences Green Isle Co-op for himself on a trip there with his mother, and he knows more than anyone else about Patrick's plan to abduct Zachary Lundt because Patrick has involved Judd in the plan. But some events lie beyond Judd's firsthand knowledge, such as the rape or the gunpoint abduction or his parents' night at the Wolf's Head Inn; in these cases, perhaps readers can assume that he is reporting on what he has heard or learned, perhaps even filling in gaps with his imagination.
In addition, some events are reported in third person point of view. The third person narrative reports on Marianne's life apart from her birth family, her stay at the Green Isle Co-op, her time with Miss Hagström, her move to Sykesville where she meets Whit West; similarly, long sections focus on Patrick's life at Cornell and his thoughts about his mentor and fellow students. For these parts, Oates uses third person.
Rural New York
Though New York City is a huge and densely populated urban center, much of New York State is rural farmland. The area that stretches north toward the state capital, Albany, and west toward Buffalo is referred to as upstate New York. The western part of the state is mostly rural, with more in common culturally with the farmlands of Pennsylvania and Indiana than with life in New York City. In this western area, Oates set several of her works, including We Were the Mulvaneys.
The fictional town of Mt. Ephraim in upstate New York is described as being "in the Chautauqua Valley approximately seventy miles south of Lake Ontario." New York does have a Chautauqua County, but it is unlikely that it is the location Oates has in mind, since this area, along New York's westernmost border with Pennsylvania, is the adjacent to Lake Erie, not Lake Ontario. The area she describes is further east, toward the Finger Lakes Region, named after a series of narrow lakes that look a little like fingers flared out and stretching southward.
Agriculture plays an important role in the economy of New York State, providing about a $3 billion business annually. About a quarter of the state's land is used for farm production, including apples and grapes (western New York is considered one of the country's best climates for producing quality wines); corn, oats, and soybeans; and livestock and dairy products, which account for more than 60 percent of the state's agriculture. New York is the country's third largest dairy production state.
The fact that High Point Farm in the novel is not used for agricultural production is an accurate reflection of the transformation that began about 1960 and continued into the early 2000s in New York State and across much of the country. Advances in transportation and communication have made once isolated areas reasonably accessible, which enables people to commute to work in cities and yet live in rural area. Since the 1970s, population movement has been away from cities: while suburbia once constituted those towns adjacent to a large city, suburban sprawl has driven housing into what was once farmland. Although the remote area discussed in the novel is not directly affected by the flight of city dwellers from urban centers, it is part of the same desire, which began in the 1960s, a longing to escape man-made environments and enjoy a spacious, natural setting. Although Oates's Chautauqua Valley is located in the middle of farmland and the people live on farms, no one among the Mulvaneys' social circle (except the poor family that leases land from them) actually practices farming. Like the members of the Green Isle Co-op, the people living in and around Mt. Ephraim live like farmers, although they are not farmers themselves.
With few exceptions, We Were the Mulvaneys accomplishes the rare yet often hoped-for balance of being embraced by both critics and the book-buying public. With an initial 1996 print run of 75,000 copies, the novel was clearly expected to be popular. Attention to the book soared, however, when it was announced as the first selection of 2001 for Oprah's Book Club. After that, hundreds of thousands of copies were bought. Though the 2002 movie adaptation was made for a cable television network, its three Emmy award nominations helped draw attention to an even wider audience.
When the book debuted, most critics were enthusiastic about it. For example, Joanne V. Creighton, writing in the Chicago Tribune, announces at the start of her review, "We Were the Mulvaneys is a major achievement that stands with Oates' finest studies of American life," going on to call it, "capacious, riveting and moving." This assessment is echoed by a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, who describes the book as "Elegiac and urgent on tone," and who concludes, "the prose is sometimes prolix, but the very rush of narrative, in which flashbacks capture the same urgency of tone as the present, gives this moving tale its emotional power." A Booklist reviewer notes that "Oates' latest novel is a tragic, compelling tale," and adds the prediction: "Her legion of fans will be pleased."
Reviewing the book for the Washington Post, Dwight Garner points out how easy it would be to "undervalue" the work of a writer who is as productive as Oates. "By now it's become trite to exclaim at the length of Oates' books, or at the sheer abundance of them." He later insists: "It would be a mistake, however, to underestimate We Were the Mulvaneys." Garner finds that the book's subject justifies Oates's style: "The busy spill of her sentences is a perfect match for the tumble of big-family life."
A 1996 review in Glamour, however, uses a less serious tone: "Injustices pile up," its reviewer writes after a short summary, "and so, unfortunately, do Oates' essentially familiar themes: Life is Random! People are cruel! One wrong turn and you're finished! Still, Oates makes her twenty-sixth novel fresh and psychologically affecting as she probes the destruction and resurrection of an American nuclear family." While that review hints at sarcasm, the review by Gayle Hanson in the Washington Times a few months later is openly disdainful, noting that "Joyce Carol Oates' We Were the Mulvaneys is long on cliché-driven verbiage and short on insight, with a plot that could have been lifted from a community college course called the Dysfunctional Family in American Literature."
Kelly is an instructor of literature and creative writing. In this essay, he proposes that the turn of events in the epilogue of the novel is actually the logical result of the events that come before it.
Some critics have viewed Joyce Carol Oates's We Were the Mulvaneys as the tragic tale of a happy family brought low by an act of violence, to which the author has chosen to add an optimistic but unlikely happy ending. This view seems to derive from a few fairly obvious facts about the book. For one thing, the lives of all five surviving members of the Mulvaney clan shift from emptiness to fulfillment after the narrative stops studying them, so that they suddenly show up in the book's epilogue financially secure and emotionally sound. In real life, the chances of such a spontaneous outbreak of contentment would be unlikely, and Oates's way of handling their changes in fortune outside the book's narrative only serves to make readers suspicious. Another aspect that calls out to skeptics is that this particular book, with an ending that is unusually upbeat for Oates, has become the bestselling novel, prompting the suspicion that she may have deliberately damaged the story's natural flow to provide a crowd-pleasing conclusion.
If the epilogue reverses the course of the novel for no reason other than commercial ones, the choice would assure an artistic failure, regardless of the novel's sales numbers. That fact is far from clear, though. That Oates does not give the details of family life between 1990, when Michael Mulvaney Sr. dies, and Independence Day of 1993, which is given as the date of the cheerful family reunion, does not mean that the story picks up after the break in an unrelated place. It just means that the story has developed from the elements Oates earlier set in place.
We were the Mulvaneys is a story about identity. From the first line—"We were the Mulvaneys, remember us?"—to the last, which ends with "back when we were the Mulvaneys," the novel is presented as a story about what it means to be a Mulvaney and the ways that two parents and their four children regrettably lose touch with that identity. The violent rape of Marianne, the one daughter, is an obvious catalyst for changes in Mulvaney family persona, and the epilogue suggests the family's unrecorded struggle to reclaim its original identity. If this reading makes sense, then, yes, the time that is unexplained, between the scattering of Michael Mulvaney's ashes and the epilogue, is indeed unfinished business.
However, the novel actually gives every indication that the opposite is more likely the case, namely that Corinne, Mike Jr., Patrick, Marianne, and Judd are happy in the end precisely because the years have allowed them to shed their Mulvaney identity and develop on their own. In the end, they have not returned to the happiness they once had; rather, they have survived the burden of being Mulvaneys that should have had a much more limited influence over their lives. Being Mulvaneys, in the grand sense which Judd pines for at the book's start, turns out to have not been a solution to their problems, but the cause.
The book offers many definitions of what it once meant to be a Mulvaney. The family members have nicknames; they have a coded way of talking that hints at things left unsaid; and for their values, the Mulvaneys look to each other, leaving them slightly puzzled by the world at large. Any family or other social group creates its own rules and forms its own identity. In this case, though, readers do not get a clear picture of the Mulvaney group persona because all of the facts are filtered through the consciousness of Judd, who tends to idealize the family, projecting onto it a fading greatness that may not have existed after all.
Judd is the one who calls the home, High Point Farm, a "Storybook House." When Judd says, "For a long time you envied us, then you pitied us," and "For a long time you admired us, then you thought, Good!—that's what they deserve," he conveys an outsider's perspective on the family that applies to some degree to himself. When he says, in the book's second sentence, "You may have thought that our family was larger," he shows that he is the one who thinks of the era that he did not experience firsthand as a sort of golden age of Mulvaneys. Though Judd says that he is telling this story to get to the truth, Oates makes it clear that his memories are clouded by nostalgia. The reality of the family's structure comes out through the telling of the story, and it is different than what the youngest Mulvaney's enthusiasm might lead readers to believe.
The Mulvaney family at its best is a fabricated construct, drawn together by the sheer will of the parents, Michael and Corinne, who have the desire to create an ideal household but not the experience or temperaments to make it happen. Each parent contributes to the family's life in the affluent upstate New York countryside in the late twentieth century. From Michael come a gift of friendliness and an interest in social attention, visible in his strong desire, over Corinne's objection, to join the local country club. Corinne contributes domestic gifts: she sets the pace for life at High Point Farm and provides the family with its moral values. Their differences ensure that their children will be well-rounded, but their differences also practically guarantee that the family will fail.
The problems with the family extend back as far as the history given in the book. For one thing, Michael and Corinne, well-meaning as they are, are just not family-oriented people at heart. Michael was banished by his own father, sent out into the world in his teens. His eventual banishment of his daughter, which may seem surprisingly cruel, reflects the treatment he received as a youngster. Corinne's family is local but conspicuously absent from the Mulvaneys' lives: the cousin to whom Marianne is sent to live is not familiar to the children, and Corinne's mother, though she lives only about a hundred miles away, is never talked about except for one striking childhood memory about fireflies in winter. The idea that the Mulvaneys are perfect is undermined by what readers learn about the parents' backgrounds.
When they are growing up, the Mulvaney children are not so much happy as, like their father in his roofing business, successful. They have the drive to be successful in sports and academics. This kind of success is driven by outward perceptions, a mark of the way they handle themselves among non-Mulvaneys. Even at High Point Farm, their social interactions are mitigated by the dogs, cats, birds, and horses. It makes sense that the Mulvaney family identity would be attractive to Judd, since he looks at it as an outsider; the family identity is constructed to respond to outsiders best. But the assault on Marianne separates the family from the socially acceptable world (and, not coincidentally, the animals, which stop being the media for Mulvaney communication immediately after the assault). As their social status dwindles due to social prejudice, fear, shame, and given Michael's quick descent into alcoholism, the members of the family find that they have to face the world as individuals, not as representatives of a group. At this point, they find that they are lost.
The change affects Marianne most profoundly, of course. In the short term, she turns to Catholicism to cope with her guilt and shame. In the long term, she internalizes the shame to such a degree as to sabotage her own successes in coming years, running away from Abelove once it becomes apparent that her love for him might be returned and, as if to demonstrate that her psychosis is not just a fear of men, running from an offered promotion at the home of her patron, Miss Hagström. Marianne's psychological damage is expectable, perhaps even unavoidable. The effect on her siblings, though, shows how shaky the family structure is to begin with: Mike Jr. is the first to leave: realizing that his life after high school is degenerating into drunkenness and bitterness, he gets himself into the structured environment of the Marines and is seldom seen at High Point Farm again. Patrick, who spends a few years wondering why he is unable to reach his intellectual potential, decides that his failures are the fault of the boy who raped Marianne, but eventually he finds that it is better to save a life than to take one. Judd tries to support his mother, who accepts her husband's increasingly abusive behavior, until he decides that he cannot help her, and he makes the healthy choice of going out into the world to find his own way.
The break-up of the family is, of course, exacerbated by the actions of Michael Sr., who sends Marianne away and then alienates the whole town with his anger, public drunkenness, and business negligence. Oates makes it clear, through the information she gives about his childhood and early courtship of Corinne, that Michael's behavior, though triggered by his realization that he cannot protect his daughter, is in his nature all along. The rift with his father suggests the sort of world view that he knew first; as a young man, he was a heavy drinker, as resentful of the social superiority of college students as Marianne's rapist proves to be of her; as a young husband, he hunts and drinks with a rowdy crowd at Wolf's Head Lake. The only thing that has made it possible for the Mulvaneys to become a socially acceptable family at all is that Corinne has been able to suppress Michael's nature, even though she could not change it. After the rape, she makes the decision to dedicate herself to this flawed man at the expense of her children.
What Do I Read Next?
- Brenda Daly's Lavish Self-Divisions: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates, published by University Press of Mississippi in 1996, the year that We Were the Mulvaneys appeared, gives readers a critical survey of Oates's previous work.
- Oates's twenty-ninth novel, Broke Heart Blues, is considered her next great novel after We Were the Mulvaneys. Published in 2000, it is about John Reddy Heart, a popular boy in an affluent Buffalo suburb during the 1960s, who becomes an iconic figure when one of his mother's boyfriends is murdered.
- Songs in Ordinary Time, a novel by Mary McGarry Morris, concerns a young woman raising three children and struggling with an alcoholic husband. Set in Vermont in 1960, the book is similar in some ways to We Were the Mulvaneys. It was published by Penguin in 1996.
- Greg Johnson's biography of Joyce Carol Oates, Invisible Writer (1998), covers her life approximately up to the time of the publication of this novel. In preparing his book, Johnson had access to private family papers and was allowed to interview family members. His biography traces connections between the novels and the life of Oates and also debunks certain myths that have surrounded the author.
- Oates's collection The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art (2003) gathers together essays that explain her view of writing, drawing from her life story.
It is no coincidence that the Mulvaneys are able to find contentment only after the death of Michael Sr. One reading of the book might have it that the violent act against Marianne twists Michael Sr. in such a way that the family, as dysfunctional families do, wraps itself around his demons, leaving Corinne and the children time to find themselves only when he is gone. An even broader view, though, would be that the family members are a bad fit from the start, that Michael Mulvaney tries too hard to seem socially acceptable, in the way that his son Patrick ends up trying to feign being "normal." The happy people that are reintroduced to the readers in the book's epilogue are happy because they are individuals and are in control of their own lives. It is significant that Corinne's new friend and roommate, Sable Mills, has never heard of the Mulvaneys, the legendary family introduced in the book's first pages: they all end up happy once they are freed of the job of living up to the responsibility of happiness.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on We Were the Mulvaneys, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
Ellen G. Friedman
In the following excerpt, Friedman demonstrates how Oates "redraws" the family unit through a departure from the Oedipal pattern and aligning the father with cultural changes.
Particular narrative practices that depart from tradition draw our attention not only for their literary values but also for what can be read in such departure concerning cultural meaning. The arguments proposed here presume agreement on this issue: social practices and meanings are figured in fiction, and fictional narratives stay within a geography of cultural possibility. Despite the instability of signs, instabilities circulate within borders that are made visible in the interactions between literature and social institutions and practices. Such legitimating and disciplinary attributes of narrative have been connected to the unconscious of narrative, to oedipal sources. "Every narrative" Roland Barthes wrote in Pleasure of the Text, leads "back to Oedipus." In his view, the Father, as a figure for origin and law, is the rationale for all storytelling: "If there is no longer a Father, why tell stories […]? Isn't storytelling always a way of searching for one's origins, speaking one's conflicts with the Law?"
Oedipus's centrality in current explanatory cultural narratives is emphasized even in philosophical texts written to oppose it. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari resist oedipal determinism in Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia against the prevailing ideas of cultural and orthodox psychoanalysts: "They all agree that, in our patriarchal and capitalist society at least, Oedipus is a sure thing […]: They all agree that our society is the stronghold of Oedipus." Deleuze and Guattari assess the fascination with oedipus as profound, and with exasperation declare that he "is demanded, and demanded again and again." In his introductory remarks to the book, Mark Seem, one of its translators, summarizes the revolutionary effort it would take to disengage from the oedipal thrall: "The first task of the revolutionary […] is to learn […] how to shake off the Oedipal yoke and the effects of power, in order to initiate a radical politics of desire freed from all beliefs. Such a politics dissolves the mystifications of power through the kindling, on all levels, of anti-oedipal forces […] forces that escape coding, scramble the codes […]."
Because the trope of the father, particularly the oedipal father, is repeatedly invoked in explanations of culture and narrative, this essay theorizes the new role of the father before turning its attention to the texts that exemplify this pattern and its narratological and cultural implications. […]
Joyce Carol Oates's We Were the Mulvaneys, published a year after Synonym for Love, repeats this pattern in a complex family narrative that is even more insistent than Moore's text in its refusal of the inevitability and finality of the oedipal family pattern. The process of the plot transforms the father from a "punishing imago" to an inhabitant of the world of flesh and releases his family into the present and the promise of a future. The text centers on an ideal nuclear family consisting of mother, father, three sons, and a daughter. They live in a paradisiacal farm called "High Point" in upstate New York from 1955 to 1980. The father, a self-made man, a benign Sutpen when we first meet him, has made the family rich and is a pillar of the community. Oates is blunt about his representational status as an originating patriarch. He describes himself as having created a new Garden of Eden whose inhabitants bear his name, Mulvaney: "Like God said gazing upon his creation in the Garden of Eden, it was good […]. The Mulvaneys who bore his name, not just the kids but the woman, too." This Eden's destruction is managed through a Freudian plot: the daughter, Marrianne, is raped at a dance and thus made useless as exchange value to insure the paternal legacy. The text baldly tells us the significance of this rape: "Did you know Marianne: how by breaking the code that day, you broke it forever? For us all?" The oedipal family then unravels. The father embarks on a frenzy of destructive revenge, mostly through lawyers, which costs him all his wealth and land. He cannot look at his daughter, and his wife obliges him by sending her away. One by one, the children leave; the father turns into a drunkard; and the mother tries to survive. The narrative follows each of the children as they slowly build lives away from the patriarchal center. As the father becomes indigent and finally dies and is cremated, turned to ashes, the mother gains a life. She makes a business out of antiques, sets up a household with another woman, and prospers.
Oates is quite deliberate in making her readers aware of the difference between the possible ending and the new one she is writing. The novel "proper" ends with the father's cremation, his ashes tossed out on the wind by two of the brothers: "shaking out the last of the grit and ashes. As the wind took them, so roughly. And gone." However, the death of the patriarch does not initiate yearning. Rather, it is followed by an epilogue that takes place on Independence Day. Called "Reunion: Fourth of July 1993," it emphasizes the family members' independence from the oedipal. Moreover, since the holiday celebrates freedom from the parent nation, England, and the initiation of the US, it intimates the possibility of new cultural configurations once loosened from the víse of the paternal narrative. At a Fourth of July family reunion, uncles, cousins, mother, children, and grandchildren gather, and the missing father is hardly registered. Each has succeeded despite what had seemed for many years like a horrific decentering of family. The family has not only survived without the patriarchal head, but they have thrived. Although they still carry the patronymic, they have moved quietly and unobtrusively beyond the Name of the Father. The last sentence of the epilogue, in which the narrator speaks of his brother, suggests such a beyond: "I laughed, poking Patrick in the arm, had to laugh at that expression his face he'd had when we were boys, when we were the Mul-vaneys." Although individual Mulvaneys continue, the Mulvaneys—the individual members organized in an oedipal family led by the father—are past. This ending redraws the family epic, reimagining and expanding its representational possibilities. The father has moved out of the center and is a family figure among others, unexceptionally mortal and fallible.
In another register, this ending on Independence Day also suggests a rethinking of a sense of nation partially anchored in a sacred notion of the Founding Fathers. Coincidentally, the television documentary film Thomas Jefferson: A View from the Mountain, which brought to general public attention Jefferson's affair with Sally Hemings and the living descendents of that affair, aired in 1995, a year before Oates's novel was published. It was given a great deal of play in the popular media and awakened national doubt about the mythical, idealized figures that Americans have been schooled to revere as the nation's father, such as Jefferson. The resulting complications in the nation's sense of Jefferson—his hypocrisy above all—was the national equivalent to the trajectory of the father in postpatriarchal fiction, in which in his fallibility he becomes more ordinary and relieved of mythic power.
Such an affiliation between world and text allows discourse between the two registers; the changed treatment of the father in We Were the Mulvaneys resonates with the changed treatment of cultural fathers, such as Jefferson. Thus another attribute of this relation is that fictional narratives serve a fundamental function of cultural legitimation; in Jerome Bruner's vocabulary they are "normative." Or in Foucauldian terms, in its relation to social institutions and practices, the novel has surveillance and disciplinary functions. Although the function of narrative in relation to social practices may be variously described, that relation is rarely in contention; whether that relation be normative or disciplinary, narrative has a privileged ethical relation to culture and to readers. In the move beyond the Name of the Father in We Were the Mulvaneys, as well as other narratives, we read social change.[…]
Like the fathers in postpatriarchal fiction, Jefferson has gone from mythic proportions to embodied, fallible man. He is the Jefferson for our age; his fall into the somatic is in many ways enabling. It enables the nation, perhaps one instance at a time, to let go of its oedipal romance to allow for a more pluralistic understanding of what it is. Acknowledging black descendents of Jefferson sheds a necessary critical light on the construction of national ideals as well as extending who is entitled by their legacy. Just as the Mulvaneys are past, so in the sense of patriarchal iconic entity is Jefferson. Making him past has made others, such as his black descendents, so much more publicly present. The 1990s was also the decade that saw the "year of the woman" prompted by the Thomas-Hill hearings, in which Anita Hill did not get use of the "master's voice" as Thomas did. Toni Morrison's Paradise registers this national drama in another, larger more resonant and historical key. In her postpatriarchal beyond, the most tentative of those discussed here, women contest, challenge, destabilize oedipal assumptions and power, thus providing opportunities for alternatives.[…]
These authors write perhaps against the past but also for the present toward the future. If contemporary US writers can imagine beyond the patriarchal narratives, refuse and refute the oedipal imperative, and if they are registering or in some sense policing a cultural shift, perhaps it is not too much to say that the promises implied in the pluralistic democracy that is the US seem that much less improbable.
Source: Ellen G. Friedman, "Postpatriarchal Endings In Recent US Fiction," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 48, No. 3, Fall 2002, pp. 693-713.
In the following review, the reviewer explores Oates's questioning of family instincts and survival as symbolic of humanity's evolution.
To be without a family in America is to be deprived not just of that family, but of an entire arsenal of allusive material as cohesive as algae covering a pond.
We Were the Mulvaneys: If they were the Mulvaneys, who are they now? What happened? How did it happen? Examining systems and shifts within an upwardly/downwardly mobile white American family between 1955 and 1993, Joyce Carol Oates has written an uncharacteristically cathartic book with a provocatively happy ending.
Oates's twenty-sixth novel questions instinct and survival. She employs social theory, theology and science to ask whether changes within the family are emblematic of evolution within the species. Is the Mulvaney story a tale of predetermination, adaptation or self-creation?
Audacious speculation is nothing new for Oates, one of our best contemporary novelists, who combines a nineteenth-century political and moral range with a twentieth-century psychoanalytic sensibility. Perhaps this talent for thinking is one reason Oates writes better novels than short fiction. While her stories often seem raw, the extended enterprise of a novel affords her adequate space to filter emotional dilemmas through action and consequence.
Oates is under-appreciated in a culture suspicious of artist as intellectual and artist as productive worker. Her fiction consistently raises philosophical issues within an examination of American violence. Some critics have an almost prudish response to her prolific (promiscuous) output. Even those who appreciate her seem to read each new book for evidence that her speedy literary metabolism stems from psychological compensation or glandular defect. But Oates's unblinking curiosity about human nature is one of the great artistic forces of our time.
The Mulvaney family has an American Dream-like cache of midcentury luck. Dad, Michael Mulvaney, graduates from working-class bitterness to middle-class success. His pretty, quirky wife, Corinne, proves her talent for family choreography by raising four charmed kids: Mike Jr., a handsome athlete; Patrick, a science prodigy; Marianne, a sweet apprentice homemaker; and Judd, the earnest little Mulvaney caboose whom everyone, distractedly, loves.
In any text of evolutionary theory, authorship determines credibility. The first-person omniscient narrator here is young Judd, who has grown up into a truth-seeking journalist. Judd is the most peripheral Mulvaney, the repository of secrets and heir to family progress. His voice ranges from sardonic to awestruck to mournful. Judd becomes an agile, broadly empathetic storyteller, entering the minds of his parents and siblings, sometimes even referring to himself in the third person.
The crucible of Mulvaney identity is High Point Farm, outside Mt. Ephraim, New York, an expansive, picturesque registered landmark built in 1849. Classy yet unpretentious, it gets photographed for local calendars.
The gravel drive is lined with tall aging spruces. Around the house are five enormous oaks and I mean enormous—the tallest is easily three times the height of the house and the house is three storeys. In summer everything is overgrown, you have to stare up the drive to see the house—what a house! In winter, the lavender house seems to float in midair, buoyant and magical as a house in a child's storybook.
Look closer, and something is always awry, like "the sprawling, overgrown and somewhat jungly farm itself, blurred at the edges as in a dream where our ever-collapsing barbed wire fences trailed off into scrubby, hilly, uncultivated land. (On a farm, you have to repair fences continually, or should.)" Broken fences and broken clocks—Corinne's antique clocks, each telling a different time.
The midseventies are a blessed period for the Mulvaneys. Dad, a flourishing businessman, finally gets accepted into the Mt. Ephraim Country Club. Mike Jr. is courted with numerous college football scholarships. Patrick excels in school. Corinne's antique collection swells. Marianne, a popular cheerleader, is elected Valentine princess. Then crisis strikes: Zachary Lundt, a high school student, rapes the beautiful, innocent Marianne.
The novel becomes a saga of shame and redemption. Gossip travels fast in Mt. Ephraim, and disgrace falls not on the rapist but on the Mulvaneys. Each family member internalizes the rape as a personal attack for being what Lundt calls a "hot s―Mulvaney." Each follows a different avenue to revenge, penance and/or refuge. Mike Jr. leaves home, joins the Marines and eventually marries back into the domestic dream. Patrick retreats inside his head as the nerdy Cornell genius. Michael Sr. drinks his way through a tangle of real and imagined betrayals. Corinne and Marianne take different doses of Christianity: Corinne charitably suspends judgment of her family, while Marianne humbly retreats into forgiveness, self-effacement and self-erasure. Judd's way of dealing with his shame is to tell secrets, as a small-town newspaperman and as the narrator of this book.
Oates eloquently employs daily details, cataloguing Corinne's antiques, mapping Patrick's Ithaca jogging route, calculating the number of paint gallons required to spruce up High Point Farm. She is a vivid storyteller, and the occupations, names and places are rich in allusive imagery. Michael Sr., a roofer, climbs his way into the middle class Marianne's neo-Marxist-Christian guru is called "Abelove." Corinne's romantic antiques serve as icons for pious Marianne, who identifies with a picture called The Pilgrim, and also for fierce Patrick, who admires a woodcut called The Huntsman: "The young hunter was blond, beardless, hatless, in plain clothing of a bygone era; the mountain ram was a magnificent beast with curly black wool, remarkable curling horns, a high-held head…. Both were heroic figures, very male."
As modern huntsman, Patrick torments his sister's rapist, this man-boy he blames for destroying the family. He meticulously plans Zachary's murder and then, at the moment of execution, he realizes Zachary is no longer the cocky teenager and Marianne no longer the violated cheerleader. They have all changed, all adapted.
Oates is fascinated by the markings of kinship. Particularly impressive is her shaping of siblings' passions, allegiances and resentments. She reveals the special affinities between Mike and Judd—eldest and youngest—as well as between middle children Patrick and Marianne. She observes the erotic and competitive tensions among brothers and sister as they negotiate for notice and immunity from their parents, coping with the essential contradiction of being an individual within a family.
As in other novels (Son of the Morning, American Appetites, Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart), Oates here combines the analytic intellect of Iris Murdoch with the cinematic enterprise of Stephen King. One of her most nuanced and painful scenes is this détente in a cheap cafe between down-and-out father and successful eldest son:
He'd taken out his wallet, was offering the ravaged old dad some bills, and the dad was protesting, "No! No thanks, son," almost convincingly, "—you're an old married man now, soon there'll be babies and you'll need all the money you can get." Breaking off then to cough, as if coughing were a signal of sincerity, but there was a cigarette in his fingers and he'd inhaled wrong and the coughing veered out of control. This is how you'll die the bulletin came puking up your lung-tissue. But Mike was insisting that his dad accept the money, the kid's big-boned handsome face dark with blood and eyes glistening with misery…. Giving in then and the son in the tall muscled Marine-body slipped cash into his shyly opened hand.
I wish I could believe the last chapter: a July 4 picnic and baseball game—almost all the Mulvaneys reunited after years of recrimination, punishment, individuation, evolution. "Mom must have seen it in my face, that happiness that's almost too much to bear, she stood beside me lifting her glass, voice rapturous, 'I'm just so, so happy every one of you is here! It just seems so amazing and wonderful and, well, a miracle, but I guess it's just ordinary life, how we all keep going, isn't it?'"
Is this really Joyce Carol Oates, intrepid archeologist in the dark, sticky folds of the contemporary psyche? Witnessing redemption on the Independence Day baseball diamond? Perhaps she's right. Perhaps sentimentality—forget divine will or scientific logic—is the perversely simple secret survival code of the American family.
Source: Valerie Miner, "Independence Day," in the Nation, October 28, 1996, pp. 62-64.
In the following essay, the critic gives an overview of Oates's life and work.
For over four decades, Joyce Carol Oates has produced a large body of work consisting of novels, short stories, criticism, plays, and poetry. Few living writers are as prolific as Oates, whose productivity is the cause of much commentary in the world of letters. Not a year has gone by since the mid-1960s in which she has not published at least one book; occasionally as many as three have been released in a single year. Her contributions to the field of poetry alone would be considered a significant output. "Any assessment of Oates's accomplishments should admit that the sheer quantity and range of her writing is impressive," observed a Contemporary Novelists essayist. The essayist added: "Oates is a writer who embarks on ambitious projects; her imagination is protean; her energies and curiosity seemingly boundless; and throughout all her writing, the reader detects her sharp intelligence, spirit of inquiry, and her zeal to tell a story."
A prodigious output means nothing if readers do not buy the books. Oates has established a reputation for consistently interesting work, ranging in genre from stories of upper-class domesticity to horror and psychological crime, but everywhere she reveals "an uncanny knack for understanding middle America, suburbia, and the temper of the times," to quote the Contemporary Novelists critic. Violence and victimization often feature in Oates's stories and novels, but existential questions of self-discovery abound as well. In an era of postmodernism and deconstruction, she writes in a classic mode of real people in extreme situations. As one Publishers Weekly reviewer put it, "Reading an Oates novel is like becoming a peeping tom, staring without guilt into the bright living rooms and dark hearts of America."
In Book Oates said, "I am a chronicler of the American experience. We have been historically a nation prone to violence, and it would be unreal to ignore this fact. What intrigues me is the response to violence: its aftermath in the private lives of women and children in particular." Susan Tekulve in Book felt that, like nineteenth-century writer Edgar Allan Poe, "Oates merges Gothic conventions with modern social and political concerns, creating stories that feel at once antique and new. But she also shares Poe's love of dark humor and a good hoax." New York Times Book Review correspondent Claire Dederer found the author's novels "hypnotically propulsive, written in the key of What the Hell Is Going to Happen Next? Oates pairs big ideas with small details in an ideal fictional balancing act, but the nice thing is that you don't really notice. You're too busy rushing on to the next page."
Oates has not limited herself to any particular genre or even to one literary style. She is equally at ease creating realistic short stories—for which she won an O. Henry Special Award for Continuing Achievement—or parodistic epics, such as the popular Gothic novels Bellefleur, A Bloodsmoor Romance, and Mysteries of Winterthurn, all published in the 1980s. She attracts readers because of her ability to spin suspenseful tales and to infuse the ordinary with terror. As Oates stated in a Chicago Tribune Book World discussion of her themes, "I am concerned with only one thing: the moral and social conditions of my generation." Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote in the Nation that "a future archeologist equipped with only her oeuvre could easily piece together the whole of postwar America."
Born into a working-class family, Oates grew up in rural Erie County, New York, spending a great deal of time at her grandparents' farm. She attended a one-room school as a child and developed a love for reading and writing at an early age. By fifteen, she had completed her first novel and submitted it for publication, only to discover that those who read it found it too depressing for younger readers. Oates graduated from Syracuse University in 1960 and earned her master's degree the following year from the University of Wisconsin. It was at Wisconsin that she met and married her husband, Raymond Joseph Smith, with whom she has edited the Ontario Review. The newlyweds moved to Detroit, where Oates taught at the University of Detroit between 1961 and 1967. After one of her stories was anthologized in the Best American Short Stories, she decided to devote herself to creative writing.
Urban issues are a major theme in Oates's writing, such as her 1969 novel them, which earned a National Book Award in 1970. However, her early work also reveals her preoccupation with fictitious Eden County, New York, a setting based on her childhood recollections. Betty De Ramus is quoted in the Encyclopedia of World Biography as saying: "Her days in Detroit did more for Joyce Carol Oates than bring her together with new people—it gave her a tradition to write from, the so-called American Gothic tradition of exaggerated horror and gloom and mysterious and violent incidents."
The novel them chronicles three decades, beginning in 1937, in the life of the Wendall family. The novel "is partly made up of 'composite' characters and events, clearly influenced by the disturbances of the long hot summer of 1967," Oates acknowledged. Although regarded as a self-contained work, them can also be considered the concluding volume in a trilogy that explores different subgroups of U.S. society. The trilogy includes A Garden of Earthly Delights, about the migrant poor, and Expensive People, about the suburban rich. The goal of all three novels, as Oates explained in the Saturday Review, is to present a cross-section of "unusually sensitive—but hopefully representative—young men and women, who confront the puzzle of American life in different ways and come to different ends."
A story of inescapable life cycles, them begins with sixteen-year-old Loretta Botsford Wendall preparing for a Saturday night date. "Anything might happen," she muses innocently, unaware of the impending tragedy. After inviting her date to bed with her, Loretta is awakened by the sound of an explosion. Still half asleep, she realizes that her boyfriend has been shot in the head by her brother. Screaming, she flees the house and runs into the street where she encounters an old acquaintance who is a policeman. Forced to become his wife in return for his help, Loretta embarks on a future of degradation and poverty. The early chapters trace Loretta's flight from her past, her move to Detroit, and her erratic relationships with her husband and other men. The rest of the book focuses on two of Loretta's children, Jules and Maureen, and their struggle to escape a second generation of violence and poverty.
New York Times reviewer John Leonard wrote, "them, as literature, is a reimagining, a reinventing of the urban American experience of the last thirty years, a complex and powerful novel that begins with James T. Farrell and ends in a gothic dream; of the 'fire that burns and does its duty.'" Leonard added: " them is really about all the private selves, accidents and casualties that add up to a public violence." Christian Science Monitor contributor Joanne Leedom also noted the symbolic importance that violence assumes and links it to the characters' search for freedom: "The characters live, love, and almost die in an effort to find freedom and to break out of their patterns. They balance on a precipice and peer over its edge. Though they fear they may fall, they either cannot or will not back away, for it is in the imminence of danger that they find life force. The quest in them is for rebirth; the means is violence; the end is merely a realignment of patterns."
Throughout the 1970s, Oates continued her exploration of American people and institutions, combining social analysis with vivid psychological portrayals: Wonderland probes the pitfalls of the modern medical community; Do with Me What You Will focuses upon the legal profession; The Assassins: A Book of Hours attacks the political corruption of Washington, DC; Son of the Morning traces the rise and fall of a religious zealot who thinks he's Christ; and Unholy Loves examines shallow-ness and hypocrisy within the academic community. In these and all her fiction, the frustrations and imbalance of individuals become emblematic of U.S. society as a whole.
Oates's short stories of this period exhibit similar themes, and many critics judged her stories to be her finest work. "Her style, technique, and subject matter achieve their strongest effects in this concentrated form, for the extended dialogue, minute detail, and violent action which irritate the reader after hundreds of pages are wonderfully appropriate in short fiction," Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Michael Joslin observed. "Her short stories present the same violence, perversion, and mental derangement as her novels, and are set in similar locations: the rural community of Eden County, the chaotic city of Detroit, and the sprawling malls and developments of modern suburbia."
One of Oates's most popular and representative short stories is "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" Frequently anthologized, the story first appeared in 1966 and is considered by many to be a masterpiece of the short form. It relates the sexual awakening of a teenage girl by a mysterious older man through circumstances that assume strange and menacing proportions; it is a study in the peril that lurks beneath the surface of everyday life.
The protagonist, fifteen-year-old Connie, is a typical teenager who argues with her mother over curfews and hair spray, dreams about romantic love with handsome boys, and regards her older, unmarried sister as a casualty. One Sunday afternoon Connie is left home alone. The afternoon begins ordinarily enough with Connie lying in the sun. "At this point," noted Greg Johnson in Understanding Joyce Carol Oates, "the story moves from realism into an allegorical dream-vision. Recalling a recent sexual experience as 'sweet, gentle, the way it was in movies and promised in songs,' Connie opens her eyes and 'hardly knew where she was.' Shaking her head 'as if to get awake,' she feels troubled by the sudden unreality of her surroundings, unaware—though the reader is aware—that she has entered a new and fearsome world."
Shortly afterward, a strange man about thirty years old appears in a battered gold convertible. His name is Arnold Friend. Excited by the prospect but also cautious, Connie dawdles about accepting his invitation to take a ride. Friend becomes more insistent until, suddenly, it becomes clear that Friend has no ordinary ride in mind. He makes no attempt to follow Connie as she flees into the house, but he also makes it clear that the flimsy screen door between them is no obstacle. As Mary Allen explains in The Necessary Blankness: Women in Major American Fiction of the Sixties, "his promise not to come in the house after her is more disturbing than a blunt demand might be, for we know he will enter when he is ready."
Oates explores another genre with her Gothic novels Bellefleur, A Bloodsmoor Romance, and Mysteries of Winterthurn. These novels are an homage to old-fashioned Gothics and were written with "great intelligence and wit," according to Jay Parini. Oates told Parini that she considers the novels "parodistic" because "they're not exactly parodies, because they take the forms they imitate quite seriously." The novels feature many of the stock elements of conventional Gothics, including ghosts, haunted mansions, and mysterious deaths. But the plots are also tied to actual events. "I set out originally to create an elaborate, baroque, barbarous metaphor for the unfathomable mysteries of the human imagination, but soon became involved in very literal events," Oates explained in the New York Times Book Review. Her incorporation of real history into imaginary lives lends these tales a depth that is absent from many Gothic novels. Though fanciful in form, they are serious in purpose and examine such sensitive issues as crimes against women, children, and the poor, as well as the role of family history in shaping destiny. For these reasons, Johnson believed that "the gothic elements throughout her fiction, like her use of mystical frameworks, serve the larger function of expanding the thematic scope and suggestiveness of her narratives."
Bellefleur is a five-part novel that encompasses thousands of years and explores what it means to be an American. It is the saga of the Bellefleurs, a rich and rapacious family with a "curse," who settle in the Adirondack Mountains. Interwoven with the family's tale are real people from the nineteenth century, including abolitionist John Brown and Abraham Lincoln, the latter who in the novel fakes his own assassination in order to escape the pressures of public life. In his New York Times Book Review assessment of the book, John Gardner wrote that its plot defies easy summarization: "It's too complex—an awesome construction, in itself a work of genius," and summarized it as "a story of the world's changeableness, of time and eternity, space and soul, pride and physicality versus love." Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Stuart Schoffman called the Bellefleurs' story "an allegory for America: America the vain, the venal, the violent." Wrote New York Times critic Leonard: "On one level, Bellefleur is Gothic pulp fiction, cleverly consuming itself…. On another level, Bellefleur is fairy tale and myth, distraught literature…. America is serious enough for pulp and myth, Miss Oates seems to be saying, because in our greed we never understood that the Civil War really was a struggle for the possession of our soul." Oates herself has acknowledged that the book was partially conceived as a critique of "the American dream," and critics generally agreed that this dimension enhances the story, transforming the Gothic parody into serious art. Among the most generous assessments was Gardner's; he called Bellefleur "a symbolic summation of all this novelist has been doing for twenty-some years, a magnificent piece of daring, a tour de force of imagination and intellect."
In 1990 Oates returned to familiar themes of race and violence in Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart. The story tells of a bond shared between Jinx Fairchild, a black sixteen-year-old living in the small industrial town of Hammond, New York, and Iris Courtney, a fourteen-year-old white girl who seeks help from Jinx when a town bully begins harassing her. During a scuffle, Jinx inadvertently kills the boy, and the story follows Jinx and Iris as their lives are guided by the consequences of this event. Encompassing the years 1956 to 1963, the book explores the issues of racial segregation and downward mobility as the two characters struggle to overcome their past by escaping from the confines of their hometown. "Iris and Jinx are linked by a powerful bond of secrecy, guilt and, ultimately, a kind of fateful love, which makes for a … compelling … story about the tragedy of American racism," wrote Howard Frank Mosher in the Washington Post Book World.
In American Appetites, Oates also explores life among the upper-middle class and finds it just as turbulent and destructive beneath the surface as the overtly violent lives of her poorer, urban characters. Ian and Glynnis McCullough live the illusion of a satisfying life in a sprawling suburban house made of glass, surrounded by a full social life and Glynnis's gourmet cooking. When Glynnis discovers her husband's cancelled check to a young woman they once befriended, however, the cracks in their carefully constructed lifestyle are revealed, leading to a fatal incident. American Appetites is a departure for Oates in that it is told in large part as a courtroom drama, but critics seem not as impressed by Oates's attempt at conveying the pretentiousness of this group of people as with her grittier tales of poverty and racism. Hermione Lee, writing in the London Observer, felt that the theme of Greek tragedy and its "enquiry into the human soul's control over its destiny … ought to be interesting, but it feels too ponderous, too insistent." Likewise, Robert Towers in the New York Times Book Review praised Oates's "cast of varied characters whom she makes interesting,… places them in scrupulously observed settings, and involves them in a complex action that is expertly sustained," but somehow they produce an effect opposite of the one intended. "We're lulled into a dreamy observation of the often dire events and passions that it records," Towers concluded. Bruce Bawer in a Washington Post Book World review found the device of conveying ideas "through intrusive remarks by the narrator and dramatis personae" ineffective and "contrived." However, Bawer suggested that although American Appetites conveys "no sense of tragedy … or of the importance of individual moral responsibility," it does "capture something of the small quiet terror of daily existence, the ever-present sense of the possibility of chaos."
Oates reconstructs a familiar scenario in her award-winning Black Water, a 1992 account of a tragic encounter between a powerful U.S. senator and a young woman he meets at a party. While driving to a motel, the drunken senator steers the car off a bridge into the dark water of an East Coast river, and although he is able to escape, he leaves the young woman to drown. The events parallel those of Senator Edward Kennedy's fatal plunge at Chappaquiddick in 1969 that left a young campaign worker dead, but Oates updates the story and sets it twenty years later. Told from the point of view of the drowning woman, the story "portrays an individual fate, born out of the protagonist's character and driven forward by the force of events," according to Richard Bausch in the New York Times Book Review. Bausch called Oates's effort "taut, powerfully imagined and beautifully written … it continues to haunt us." A tale that explores the sexual power inherent in politics, Black Water is not only concerned with the historical event it recalls but also with the sexual-political power dynamics that erupted over Clarence Thomas's nomination for Supreme Court Justice in the early 1990s. It is a fusion of "the instincts of political and erotic conquest," wrote Richard Eder in the Los Angeles Times Book Review.
Oates's 1993 novel Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang recounts in retrospect the destructive sisterhood of a group of teenage girls in the 1950s. The story is pieced together from former Foxfire gang member Maddy Wirtz's memories and journal and once again takes place in the industrial New York town of Hammond. The gang, led by the very charismatic and very angry Legs Sadovsky, chooses their enemy—men—the force that Legs perceives as responsible for the degradation and ruin of their mothers and friends. The girls celebrate their bond to one another by branding each others' shoulders with tattoos. But as they lash out with sex and violence against teachers and father figures, they "become demons themselves—violent and conniving and exuberant in their victories over the opposite sex," wrote Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Cynthia Kadohata. Although Oates acknowledged to New York Times Book Review critic Lynn Karpen that Foxfire is her most overtly feminist book, she wanted to show that though "the bond of sisterhood can be very deep and emotionally gratifying," it is a fleeting, fragile bond.
In portraying the destructive escapades of these 1950s teenagers, Oates is "articulating the fantasies of a whole generation," remarked Times Literary Supplement contributor Lorna Sage, "putting words to what they didn't quite do." Likening the book to a myth, Oates told Karpen that Foxfire "is supposed to be a kind of dialectic between romance and realism." Provoking fights, car chases, and acts of vandalism, the Foxfire gang leaves their mark on the gray town—antics that get Legs sent to reform school, "where she learns that women are sometimes the enemy, too," noted Kadohata. New York Times Book Review critic John Crowley likened the novel to a Romantic myth whose hero is more compelling than most of the teen-angst figures of the 1950s. Legs, Crowley noted, is "wholly convincing, racing for her tragic consummation impelled by a finer sensibility and a more thoughtful daring than is usually granted to the tragic male outlaws we love and need."
Sexual violence invades another upstate New York family in Oates's We Were the Mulvaneys, published in 1996. In sharp contrast to the isolated, emotionally impoverished family introduced in First Love, the Mulvaneys are well-known, high-profile members of their community: Michael Mul-vaney is a successful roofing contractor and his wife, Corinne, dabbles at an antiques business. As told by Judd, the youngest of the three promising Mulvaney sons, the family comes unraveled after seventeen-year-old Marianne is raped by a fellow high school student. Ashamed of his daughter's "fall from grace," proud and patriarchal Michael banishes her to the home of a relative, an action that drives him to the drunken state that results in the loss of home and job. Meanwhile, other family members succumb to their individual demons. The saga of a family's downfall is uplifted by more positive changes a decade later, which come as a relief to readers who identify with the Mulvaneys as compelling representatives of the contemporary American middle class.
Although, as with much of her fiction, Oates has denied any autobiographical basis for We Were the Mulvaneys other than a familiarity with the northern New York setting and once owning a cat answering to the description of the title family's household pet, the creative process involved in creating the novel is almost as evocative as personal experience. "Writing a long novel is very emotionally involving," Oates told Thomas J. Brady in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I'm just emotionally stunned for a long time after writing one." We Were the Mulvaneys, which at 454 pages in length qualifies as "long," took many months of note-taking, followed by ten months of writing, according to its author. After being chosen by Oprah Winfrey as one of her book club editions, the novel became the first of Oates's works to top the New York Times bestseller list.
Throughout her prolific writing career Oates has distributed her vast creative and emotional energies between several projects at once, simultaneously producing novels, stories, verse, and essays, among other writings. In her 1995 horror novel, Zombie, she seductively draws readers into the mind of a serial killer on the order of Jeffrey Dahmer. While straying from fact far enough to avoid the more heinous aspects of Dahmer-like acts, Oates plugs readers directly into the reality of her fictitious protagonist, Quentin P., who "exists in a haze of fantasies blurred by drugs and alcohol and by his inherent mental condition of violent and frenzied desires, thoughts and obsessions," according to New York Times Book Review critic Steven Marcus. Through the twisted experimentation on young men (involving, among other things, an ice pick) that Quentin hopes will enable him to create a zombielike companion who will remain loyal to him forever, Oates "is certain to shock and surely to offend many readers," warned Tribune Books critic James Idema, "but there could be no gentler way to tell the story she obviously was compelled to tell."
Within her nonfiction writing, Oates's foray into sports philosophy resulted in the book-length essay On Boxing, which led to at least one television appearance as a commentator for the sport. She also submitted a mystery novel to a publisher under a pseudonym and had the thrill of having it accepted before word leaked out that it was Oates's creation. Inspired by her husband's name, in 1988 Oates published the novel Lives of the Twins under the name Rosamond Smith. "I wanted a fresh reading; I wanted to escape from my own identity," Linda Wolfe quoted Oates as saying in the New York Times Book Review. She would use the Smith pseudonym again for several more mystery novels, including Soul/Mate, a story about a lovesick psycho-killer, Nemesis, another mystery concerning aberrational academics, and Snake Eyes, a tale of a tattooed psychopathic artist.
Oates's 1997 novel Man Crazy is a reverse image of Zombie; it tells the first-person story of a "pathological serial victim," Ingrid Boone, who through a rag-tag childhood, a promiscuous and drugged-out adolescence, and a stint with a satanic motorcycle cult, has her personal identity nearly destroyed. New York Review of Books critic A. O. Scott commented that Oates "continually seeks out those places in our social, familial and personal lives where love and cruelty intersect…. Oates is clearly interested in exploring the boundary between a world where cruelty lurks below the surface of daily life and one in which daily life consists of overt and constant brutality."
Published in 2000, one of Oates's most successful novels to date is Blonde, a fictional reworking of the life of Marilyn Monroe. Oates told a writer at Publishers Weekly that, while she was not intent upon producing another historical document on the tragic star, she did want to show "what she was like from the inside." According to some critics, Oates was successful in her endeavor. Booklist contributor Donna Seaman commented that the author "liberates the real woman behind the mythological creature called Marilyn Monroe." A Publishers Weekly reviewer found the novel "dramatic, provocative and unsettlingly suggestive," adding that Oates "creates a striking and poignant portrait of the mythic star and the society that made and failed her." In World Literature Today, Rita D. Jacobs concluded that Blonde "makes the reader feel extraordinarily empathetic toward the character Marilyn Monroe and her longing for acceptance and a home of her own."
Oates's first published works were short stories, and she has continued to pen them throughout her career. Her collections of short fiction alone amount to more work than many writers finish in a lifetime. A Publishers Weekly reviewer remarked that with her short works Oates has "established herself as the nation's literary Weegee, prowling the mean streets of the American mind and returning with gloriously lurid takes on our midnight obsessions." Whether in macabre horror stories such as those in The Collector of Hearts: New Tales of the Grotesque or in realistic works such as those found in Faithless: Tales of Transgression, Oates offers "a map of the mind's dark places," wrote New York Times Book Review contributor Margot Livesey. Orlando Sentinel correspondent Mary Ann Horne stated that in Faithless, Oates "does what she does best … delving into the dark areas of ordinary consciousness, bringing back startling images from the undercurrent of modern fears and secrets."
Oates uses secrets as a diving board for her exploration of a small town's psyche in Middle Age: A Romance, published in 2001. The book opens with the drowning death of sculptor Adam Brandt as he tries to rescue a child. His death becomes a catalyst for the residents of Salthill-on-Hudson, New York. Adam's former lovers begin to investigate his life, dissatisfied husbands become inspired to finally leave, and singles find their soul mates. In Booklist, Carol Haggas approved of the title: "Few caught in the throes of middle age would categorize it as 'romantic,' yet what makes Oates's characters romantic is how well they fare on their journeys of personal reinvention and whether they, and the reader, enjoy the trip." While the book received some criticism for lack of a linear plot, New York Times critic Claire Dederer viewed that as a strength of Oates's writing. "Naked of a compelling plot, in a strange sense Oates's remarkable ability is clearer than ever. We have time to notice the careful construction of theme, the attention to a cohesive philosophy, the resonant repetition of detail." More than one reviewer noted that the ending of Middle Age proves more redemptive than most of Oates's previous fictions. As Beth Kephart summarized in Book, "There is light, a lot of it, at the end of this long book." A Publishers Weekly contributor concluded it is "reminiscent of her powerful Black Water, but equipped with a happy ending, Oates's latest once more confirms her mastery of the form." St. Louis Post-Dispatch reviewer Lee Ann Sandweiss likewise noted that Middle Age is "Oates's most compassionate and life-affirming work to date…. This novel establishes, beyond any doubt, that Joyce Carol Oates is not only [one of] America's most prolific writers but also one of our most gifted."
From the introspection of middle age, Oates moved to the self-discovery of early adulthood in I'll Take You There. Called her most autobiographical novel to date, the book deals with an unnamed protagonist as she comes of age at Syracuse University in the early 1960s. Like Oates, "Anellia" (as she calls herself) is raised on a farm in western New York state and is the first in her family to go to college. Anellia cloaks herself in guilt and low self-esteem, bequeathed to her by her brothers and father. They blame her for her mother's death from cancer developed shortly after Anellia was born. Desperate for a mother figure and female companionship, the poor Anellia joins a snobby, bigoted sorority where she seems to be singled out for torment because of her finances and lack of grooming. She feels special pain from the antagonistic relationship she has with the sorority's British housemother, Mrs. Thayer. She uncovers Mrs. Thayer's excessive drinking and both of them are forced to leave the house, humiliated.
Still desperate for love and affection, she starts an affair with African-American philosophy graduate student Vernon Matheius. Vernon is intent on ignoring the civil rights struggles of the times, believing that philosophy is his personal salvation. Their relationship is categorized by discord and Anellia also snoops through his life and uncovers the fact that he has a wife and children he is denying. As Anellia deals with the fallout from her discovery and her separation from Vernon, she receives word that her father, who she thought dead, is dying in Utah. She travels west to be with him at his bedside, hoping to gain a sense of familial kinship. In a twist of irony, she is not allowed to look directly at her father, but steals a glimpse of him through a mirror, which kills him from distress when he sees her.
Critics and fans described I'll Take You There as a hallmark of Oates's consistent excellence in style, form, and theme. Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Stanley Crouch praised Oates's "masterful strength of the form, the improvisational attitude toward sentence structure and the foreshadowing, as well as the deft use of motifs." Even perceived weaknesses by some critics are regarded by others as quintessential Oatesian mechanics. In Rachel Collins's review for Library Journal, she questioned the heavy use of characterization and psychological backgrounding that takes place in about the first 100 pages. A Publisher's Weekly reviewer reflected that "Oates's fans will be pleased by the usual care with which she goes about constructing the psychology of Anellia and Vernon." Collins went on to call the book "a bit formulaic," noting that the romance between Anellia and Vernon lacks "the intense sexual energy present in Oates's other works." Booklist contributor Donna Seaman wrote that the scenes with Anellia and Vernon are "intense and increasingly psychotic" and Oates's "eroticism verges on the macabre and the masochistic." Vicky Hutchings in the New Statesman concluded the book is neither "depressing nor dull, but full of edgy writing as well as mordant wit."
Published in 2003, The Tattooed Girl is the story of thirty-nine-year-old writer Joshua Seigl, who has been diagnosed with a debilitating nerve condition. In need of an assistant, he interviews and rejects a number of graduate students, and impulsively hires the vacuous Alma Busch. While it seems like an act of charity, Seigl is increasingly patronizing to Alma, thinking that he has "rescued" her. Alma is described as dim-witted and slow, suffering from a lack of self-esteem and scarred by past sexual trauma, which resulted in the crude tattoo on her face. Seigl, of course, is unaware of Alma's anti-Semitism, which is born of her disfigurement and fueled by her sadistic waiter boyfriend, Dmitri Meatte. As Seigl's health deteriorates, Alma gains psychological strength to sabotage Seigl's health, finances, and mental well-being and eventually hatches a plan to take his life.
While a Kirkus Reviews contributor called The Tattooed Girl "better-than-average Oates," some reviewers found the characterization of Seigl, Alma, and Dmitri inconsistent. New York Times writer Michiko Kakutani said, "The novel gets off to a subtle and interesting start…. Oates's keen eye for psychological detail seems to be fully engaged in these pages." Yet she argued that "the attention to emotional detail evinced in the novel's opening pages—in which she limned Seigl's fears of mortality and his anxieties about his family and work—evaporates by the middle of the book, replaced by horror-movie plots and cartoony characters." In the New York Times Book Review Sophie Harrison noted that Alma, Seigl, and Dmitri's actions "contradict their given characters, and the irony doesn't always feel intentional." The Kirkus Reviews contributor observed that "Oates is onto something with the bruised, malleable figure of Alma," but the secondary figures of Dmitri and Seigl's hypomaniac sister Jet "have nothing like its principal's realness." Even so, Oates continued to receive praise for her style, including a review in Booklist which described The Tattooed Girl as a "mesmerizing, disturbing tale" told with "her usual cadenced grace."
Also published in 2003 was Oates's second book for young adult readers, Small Avalanches and Other Stories, in which she reprises some of her previously published short stories for adults as well as new material. The twelve stories all deal with young people taking risks and dealing with their consequences. As with her adult fiction, Oates maintains her dark tone. School Library Journal reviewer Allison Follos observed, "The stories have a slow, deliberate, and unsettling current." James Neal Webb on the BookPage Web site echoed that "Oates's trademark is her ability to tap, uncontrived, into the danger that's implicit in everyday life."
In 2004 Oates began publishing suspense novels under a new pseudonym. Writing as Lauren Kelly, Oates has been true to her prolific nature. Indeed, the first three novels published under the moniker were released in less than two years. In the first novel, Take Me, Take Me with You, research assistant Lara Quade is mysteriously sent a ticket to a concert. When she redeems the ticket, she finds that her seatmate, Zedrick Dewe is there under identical circumstances. As the story progresses, Lara and Zed's relationship begins to grow, and they eventually discover that their pasts are linked. Reviewing the novel for Library Journal, Stacy Alesi called the story "haunting and beautifully written." Interestingly, a Kirkus Reviews critic used similar terms to describe the second Kelly novel, The Stolen Heart. The critic stated that the novel is "a haunting portrait of grief and psychological fragilityy." The Stolen Heart begins when Merilee Graf is twenty-six years old. When Merilee was ten years old, one of her classmates vanished and was never found. Sixteen years later, Merilee's chance encounter with the missing girl's brother coincides with the death of her own father. Merilee's recollections of the disappearance are then triggered by these events. Although a Publishers Weekly contributor thought the story is "overwrought," they also noted that it is "oddly compelling."
In addition to her fiction and poetry, Oates lays claim to a large body of critical essays, ranging in subject matter from literature and politics to sports and quality of life. Although she has said that she does not write quickly, she also has admitted to a driving discipline that keeps her at her desk for long hours. In an era of computers, she continues to write her first drafts in longhand and then to type them on conventional typewriters. She told Writer: "Writing to me is very instinctive and natural. It has something to do with my desire to memorialize what I know of the world. The act of writing is a kind of description of an inward or spiritual reality that is otherwise inaccessible. I love transcribing this; there's a kind of passion to it."
Source: Thomson Gale, "Joyce Carol Oates," in Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2006.
Joanne V. Creighton
In the following essay, Creighton discusses factors infuencing Oates's intellectual and emotional development, which may subsequently have influenced her writing, and the place of the self and the mind in Oates's writing.
Personal and Cultural Contexts
In a 1988 essay, "Does the Writer Exist?," Joyce Carol Oates is bemused by the often disorienting "contrast between what we know of a writer from his or her work—the private self—and what we are forced to confront in the irrefutable flesh—the 'public' self." Certainly, the contrast between Joyce Smith, the seemingly quiet, serene, cultivated, and sensitive woman, and Joyce Carol Oates, who writes of violence, brutality, sordid-ness, sexual compulsion, and emotional duress, has often struck observers.
Earlier, she carefully guarded the life and self that exist outside of her written work. Only the baldest facts were revealed. In recent years Oates has been somewhat less self-protective, letting out more information about her family background, acknowledging the autobiographical underpinnings of her works, commenting about personal experiences.
We can now fill in more about the "powerful appeal of certain personalities" and places in her life. Among the most potent influences are her parents and the "vanished world" of their lives and her childhood: "To say my father, my mother is for me to name but in no way to approach one of the central mysteries of my life." Oates is more explicit about how much her writing is an attempt, in part, "to memorialize my parents' vanished world; my parents' lives. Sometimes directly, sometimes in metaphor." She goes back actually and psychically into her family's past in her recent writing. There is a coming-home quality—a reappraisal of the past from the mellow perspective of midlife—about Oates's latest work, which is more openly autobiographical and personal. She went back to the realm of her childhood, for example, to prepare to write the novel Marya: A Life (1986), which is, she acknowledges, a deliberate conflation of her mother's experiences and her own. Similarly, in You Must Remember This (1987), she claims to have "tried consciously to synthesize my father's and my own 'visions' of an era now vanished" ("Father," 84).
Oates is bemused by the "genteel" literary community that misunderstands and criticizes the harsh and violent world of much of her fiction. This world, Oates insists, is part of her literal and psychic inheritance. She tells of the tremendous tension she experienced writing Marya, "the most 'personal' of my novels." She had the feeling that she was "trespassing—transgressing?—in some undefined way venturing onto forbidden ground." She discovers belatedly that she had fictionally recapitulated an incident from her family's past that had not been disclosed to her: the murder of her maternal grandfather in a barroom brawl, after which her mother was "given away" to be reared by her aunt's family. In an uncanny way, she was drawn to invent (or to remember) this subject from her family's past.
There are other violent events and family secrets only recently revealed. Oates's paternal grandfather, Joseph Carlton Oates, abandoned her grandmother and father when her father was only two. Twenty-eight years later he reappeared, bearing a grudge against his son, wanting to fight him, but the son, Frederick Oates, would not participate. Joyce Carol Oates comments sardonically that perhaps the most unintentionally generous gesture of her grandfather was his abandonment of his family, for "it is likely, given his penchant for drinking and aggressive behavior, he might very well have been abusive to his wife and to my father, would surely have 'beaten him up' many times—so infecting him, if we are to believe current theories of the etiology of domestic violence, with a similar predisposition toward violence." Oates learned recently that when her father was 15 her great-grandfather tried unsuccessfully to kill his wife in a fit of rage and then killed himself ("Father," 45, 84).
While her father did not duplicate the violent patterns of behavior of his father and grandfather, he was fascinated with the "romance of violence" and its transmutation into masculine sport, "which excludes women," and he retained a "conviction that there is a mysterious and terrible brotherhood of men by way of violence." He took his daughter to boxing matches, inculcating in her the same lifelong fascination with the sport (and with violence). For her, however, as we shall see, boxing is a study of "the other": "Boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men." Frederick Oates also enjoyed another quin-tessentially "male" sport, flying—the "romance of the air," as Oates calls it, "transcending space and time and the contours of the familiar world in which you work a minimum of 40 hours a week, own property in constant need of repair, have a family for whom you are the sole breadwinner[.] What is flying but the control of an alien, mysterious element that can at any moment turn killer—the air?" He and his flying buddies performed loops and turns and rolls, and sometimes buzzed friends' and neighbors' houses. It was her father, Oates claims, who inspired the flying scenes in her novel Bellefleur (1980). He also sometimes took his young daughter Joyce for rides ("Father," 84-85), which appears, curiously, to have precipitated the fear of flying that compelled the adult Oates to eschew air travel whenever possible.
What most impresses Oates about her father and mother is their representative and exemplary survival and "transcendence" of "a world so harsh and so repetitive in its harshness as to defy evocation, except perhaps in art" ("Father," 84). They survived and prevailed despite family turmoil and the wrenching hardships and dislocations of the Great Depression. Her mother, creative with flowers and in decorating the house, still makes her daughter's clothes. Her father, who had to quit high school, who was laid off work several times, and who worked most of his life as a tool-and-die designer, has innate musical ability and, at over 70 years of age, enrolled in classes in English literature and music at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
They are neither self-pitying nor nostalgic about the hard times of the past. Of her father Oates writes, "If there was anger it's long since buried, plowed under, to be resurrected in his daughter's writing, as fuel and ballast." That Oates is, for example, the first member of her family to graduate from high school, let alone college, evokes in her a "class" anger, but she makes clear that it is "a personal anger, not one I have inherited from my family." From her parents Oates claims to have learned the genius of happiness, an "instinct for rejoicing in the life in which they have found themselves," and a predilection for useful employment: "we love to work because work gives us genuine happiness, the positing and solving of problems, the joyful exercise of the imagination" ("Father," 108).
What is critical in understanding Oates's relationship to American traditions and culture, I believe, is that she sees her parents' lives, and her own, as emblematically American. Her parents' survival and triumph over hardship—and, similarly, her own "transmogrification" of their vanished world into art—are examples of the aspiring and triumphant human spirit.
Oates's family is prototypically American in its multicultural immigrant origins: Irish, German, and Hungarian. Her maternal grandparents were Hungarians who emigrated to the United States in ship steerage at the turn of the century and settled in the Buffalo area. Her grandfather's name was Bs, Americanized to Bush; her grandmother's name was Torony. She says, "I never read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle without a powerful reaction; surely Sinclair was describing my grandparents' lives as well as those of his hapless Lithuanian immigrants." She was raised "American" with most of what was ethnic "ignored, or denied, or repressed, very likely for reasons of necessity." The temperament of her Hungarian grandfather, for example, might seem to "sound flamboyant and colorful" only "if seen through the retrospective of years and the prudent filter of language." Similarly, her grandmother's refusal to learn to read English, reasoning that it was "too late" when she had come to the States at age 16, although she lived into her eighties, "is associated in my mind with a peculiar sort of Old World obstinacy and self-defeat." There was no contact for over 60 years with relatives in Hungary, and she and her brother learned no Hungarian as children. Yet when she visited Budapest in May of 1980, she experienced a kind of unsettling recognition. For one thing, she is "struck by the disquietingly familiar look of strangers glimpsed on the streets: the eyes, the cheekbones, skin coloring, the general bearing." Some resemble her, she thinks, more than her brother or parents: "Uncanny sensation!—as if I had stepped into a dream." She is disoriented by the realization that Joyce Carol Oates is widely read in Hungary—another indication, no doubt, of uncanny correspondence. Most dominant is the visceral "tug of recognition, pleasurable yet disturbing" with the people: "I have been told that beneath their gaiety Hungarians are melancholy people and of course it's true: I know the temperament from within" ("Budapest," 331-35).
Budapest is one of the memorable cities that engraves itself on the author's psyche. "Lovely Budapest": I don't know where I am, but I think I am at home" ("Budapest," 343). Oates's experiences while on tour in Eastern-bloc countries inspired some fine stories, such as "Old Budapest" and "My Warszawa: 1980" in her volume of short stories Last Days (1984).
Indeed, the shaping effect of place is critical to an understanding of Joyce Carol Oates. The quintessential world of her fiction remains the geography of her childhood—both the countryside around Millersport in upper New York State, where she lived on her grandparents' farm, and the small city, Lockport, where she attended school. The latter locale becomes her fictitious and symbolic Eden County, akin to Faulkner's "little postage stamp world," Yoknapatawpha County. This Eden County world is skillfully evoked in a number of works, from her first, such as By the North Gate (1963), Upon the Sweeping Flood (1966), and With Shuddering Fall (1964), through her most recent, including: Son of the Morning (1978), Bellefleur, Marya: A Life, You Must Remember This, and Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (1990). Oates's childhood world remains the generating core of her fiction, infusing her work with resonance and authenticity.
Lockport, with its distinctive Erie Canal, Oates explains, is "the city of my birth, my paternal grandmother's home, suffused forever for me with the extravagant dreams of early adolescence—I attended sixth grade in Lockport, and all of junior high school there; the city is probably more real to me, imaginatively, than any I have known since." Lockport is sometimes, as in Marya, imagined as "Innisfail," evoking Yeats's lost romantic world. Sometimes, as in You Must Remember This, Lock-port becomes fused with another city of Oates's experience, Buffalo, to become the fictitious city "Port Oriskany." Oates claims to have had a map of Port Oriskany taped to her wall during the writing of You Must Remember This so that she could stare at it and "traverse its streets, ponder its buildings and houses and vacant lots, most of all that canal that runs through it" (Preface to Y, 380).
Not only is the Eden County world described with authenticity, so also is the quintessential Oatesian experience associated with that place: female adolescence. Repeatedly in her stories and novels, Oates portrays with convincing resonance the inchoate identity of the adolescent girl who plays alternatively at being good and being wild. Oates captures so well the dreamy narcissism of the adolescent, her infatuation with sleazy charms, her experimental flirtation with danger, temptation, and even death.
Second only to the world of her childhood is the impact of Detroit on the writer. Detroit is, Oates acknowledges, the place "which made me the person I am, consequently the writer I am—for better or worse." She acknowledges that much of the writing of her early period, between 1963 and 1976, "has been emotionally inspired by Detroit and its suburbs (Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, to a lesser degree Grosse Pointe) that it is impossible for me now to extract the historical from the fictional."
In an essay entitled "Visions of Detroit" she asks: "Why do some events, some people, some landscapes urban or rural fall upon us with an almost inhuman authority, dictating the terms of our most private fantasies, forcing upon us what amounts very nearly to a second birth—while others, most others, make virtually no impression at all and quickly fade." There's "never an answer," she concludes; but she does think, in retrospect, that "the extraordinary emotional impact Detroit had" on her must have been partly due to the awakening of "submerged memories of childhood and adolescence in and around the equally 'great' city of Buffalo, New York" ("Detroit," 348).
Detroit has, for Joyce Carol Oates, a representational and visceral effect: she characterizes it as "ceaseless motion, the pulse of the city. The beat. The beat. A place of romance, the quintessential American city." Its "brooding presence, a force, larger and more significant than the sum of its parts" offered "a sentimental education never to be repeated for me" ("Detroit," 347, 349). For those of us who, like Oates, have lived in Detroit, she does indeed convincingly evoke the city—its streets and neighborhoods, its institutions, its geographical and social stratifications, its raw and seamy violence, its vaguely threatening but hauntingly vital "pulse."
Detroit offered Oates a vivid canvas on which to explore the "larger social/political/moral implications of my characters' experiences." While detailing the lives of specific characters, Oates's novels encapsulate important phenomena of American culture: the migration of poor to the city, like the Wendalls in them (1969); the sterility of the suburban rich, as in Expensive People (1968); the effects of social upheavals such as the Detroit riot in them; and the malaise of the sixties, as in Wonderland (1971). A number of Detroit novels look critically at major societal institutions—medicine, law, education—and the struggles of radically dislocated characters who look to these structures for stable concepts of identity. Most often a male character dominates the early Oates novel, and the central movement of the novel is his attempt to free himself from intolerable constraints, often through violence—a mode of action particularly suited to Detroit, the reigning "murder capitol."
Joyce Carol Oates observes the gaudy drama of this prototypical city from her comparatively serene and protected residence in the university. The university, in fact, is another important place in Oates's fictional world. All of her adulthood—from age 17 on—Oates has lived within the culture of a university. Yet for a significant period of Oates's career, the university is dwarfed by the city. The conflict between the city and the university, between the demands of the raw external environment and the lures of the seemingly protected world of academia, is an important tension in Oates's work: it is a conflict played out in her Detroit fiction as well as in her later works.
Sister Irene in "In the Region of Ice" (The Wheel of Love, 1970) cannot minister to the raging emotional needs of her student, Allen Weinstein. Maureen in them accuses her teacher "Joyce Carol Oates" of being off in a world of books, unaware of the demands of the world in which her students live. Maureen has throughout her harsh young life looked to the library and books quite literally as a sanctuary from reality, and she sets out on a quest to beg, borrow, and steal her way into the protected environment of academia: she becomes, through determined husband-stealing, the wife of a college instructor. The university is vaguely implicated in the social unrest of the sixties: Jules Wendall becomes part of the foolish-sounding, incendiary counterculture around Wayne State University at the time of the Detroit riot.
Others of Oates's characters are not peripheral hangers-on but legitimate students who attempt to make themselves anew within a university culture, such as Jesse (Wonderland) in his medical studies at the University of Michigan. He, like Marya in a much later book, discovers that it is not easy to slough off the past and construct a new self.
Sometimes the academic world itself becomes the central setting of Oates's work: it is not portrayed sympathetically. In The Hungry Ghosts (1974), set at "Hilberry University" in southwestern Ontario (and probably inspired by Oates's experiences at the University of Windsor), Oates takes a satiric perspective, stressing the insecurities, pedantry, fears, and phobias within a claustrophobic academic culture. That satiric perspective continues with another academic fiction, Unholy Loves (1979), set at "Woodslee University" in upper New York State, although the novel is also a serious study of the "holy love" of art, and the validity and sanctity of the artist's vocation.
Increasingly, Joyce Carol Oates's fiction is about the attractions and the dangers of the life of the mind, and gradually women take central stage. Whereas a number of Oates's early novels focus on male protagonists and their quests for liberation from intolerable constraints, often through violence, the novels of Oates's middle period portray a number of intelligent, gifted, sensitive young women, who are more identifiably like the author herself: Laney in Childwold (1976), Brigit in Unholy Loves, Monica and Sheila of Solstice (1985), Marya in Marya: A Life, Enid in You Must Remember This, Iris in Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart—not to mention the more fanciful characterizations of Deidre in A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982), and Perdita in Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984).
Oates circles back to her childhood world as she depicts more frequently young women with a developing interest in books and ideas—an interest sharply at odds with the tough, mindless, back-country environment in which many of them are situated. Some of the bright young girls of Oates's fictional world find genuine, if fitful, joy in their awakening to the inner life. They go far beyond the vacuous and frightened women of Oates's earlier fiction—the Maureen Wendalls who try to steal their way into the academic world, to cocoon themselves from the harshness of the external world.
For example, Kasch in Childwold describes Laney's awakening: "You stir, you wake, you come to consciousness, heaved upon the sands of consciousness; but where are you, why have you gone so far? The books you read are not my books, the language you use is not my language." Marya describes the formative awakening of a young girl's intellectual life at a university. Marya—like Enid, Brigit, and Sheila—is also drawn to the artistic life and to the attractions and the dangers of the unconscious, the generating source of creativity. Oates depicts in these young women the developing sensibilities of the female artist. Portrayed, as well, is the uneasy residence of the artistic sensibility within the academy, the conflicting pulls of the conscious and the unconscious, the intellectual and the instinctual—conflicts that are dramatized, for example, in the symbiotic relationship of the artist and teacher, Sheila and Monica, in Solstice.
Since Oates both literally and figuratively lives within a university culture—now that of Princeton University, where she is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor in the Humanities—it is not surprising that her work, both creative and critical, is very much informed by and set within the context of intellectual traditions. While Oates is at times critical of the academy, its failed teachers, its fears and phobias and petty politics, she is also very aware of its value: its sanctification of the inner life, its rich heritage of ideas and art. A distinguished teacher; a learned critic; a provocative and insightful reviewer and commentator; a coeditor, along with her husband, Raymond Smith, of the Ontario Review and the Ontario Review Press; a major writer of novels, stories, plays, and poems: Oates is indeed, as John Updike has suggested, aptly described as a "woman of letters."
Conceptual and Aesthetic Contexts
It is the mature woman of letters, the Joyce Carol Oates within her published work, about whom I am most concerned in this study of the novels of the middle years. Where does this voice fit within intellectual and literary traditions? Oates's provocative and astute critical essays continue to offer both valuable insights into her views of the artistic process and useful perspectives from which to view her fiction.
Subscribing to romantic and modernist logo-centricism, Oates argues in her critical essays that the author's voice and vision are encapsulated in a work of art. Not for her is the postmodern view that "texts" (which she calls "that most sinister of terms") unravel, deconstruct on the page. Rather, "the greatest works of art sometimes strike us as austere and timeless, self-contained and self-referential, with their own private music, as befits sacred things." Reading is "the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another's skin; another's voice; another's soul." As writing is a search for the "sacred text," criticism is "the profane art," the "art of reflection upon reflection … [a] discursive commentary upon another's vision." In direct challenge to poststructuralist theories that would "decenter" the author, Joyce Carol Oates insists on the essentially rhetorical and pleasurable nature of writing and of reading: art provides an opportunity for communication between the consciousness of the writer and the reader.
Oates is unconcerned about the "anxiety of influence" described by Harold Bloom. An erudite person, she readily acknowledges, "I've been influenced in many ways by nearly everyone I've read, and I've read nearly everyone." But Oates does not take the structuralist view that devalues the individual and asserts the primacy of external shaping forces (language, culture, history). Rather, she retains (to be sure, with some skepticism and questioning) the romantic notion of the uniqueness and the primacy of the individual.
The private, fluid, ultimately mysterious core of the self is a subject of bemused speculation in a number of Oates's essays and fictional works. In a 1984 essay she looks back to a time in 1972 and comments that "I seemed to have been another person, related to the person I am now as one is related, tangentially, sometimes embarrassingly, to cousins not seen for decades." Yet she claims to have had then, while very sick, a "mystical vision." Although now the very term seems "such pretension," the experience impressed her enormously. She envisioned
the "body" [as] a tall column of light and blood heat, a temporary agreement among atoms, like a high-rise building with numberless rooms, corridors, corners, elevators shafts, windows…. In this fantastical structure the "I" is deluded as to its sovereignty, let alone its autonomy in the (outside) world; the most astonishing secret is that the "I" doesn't exist!—but it behaves as if it does, as if it were one and not many. In any case, without the "I" the tall column of light and heat would die, and the microscopic life particles would die with it … will die with it. The "I," which doesn't exist, is everything.
So, the deluded sovereignty of the nonexistent "I" is a matter of some irony to Oates, and she equates this irony with a postmodern perspective: "as a novelist of the 1980s, my vision is postmodernist, and therefore predisposed to irony" ("Pleasure," 197). Yet her postmodern irony does not discredit the intellectual and literary heritage of humanism and modernism. The elusive self, "individual, stubborn, self-reliant, and ultimately mysterious," is at the center of Oates's work. Marya (1986), for example, is prefaced by a quotation from William James—"My first act of freedom is to believe in freedom"—and the spirit of James, Oates says, pervades the novel. What she says about James's views is equally applicable to her own: "It is the fluidity of experience and not its Platonic 'essence' that is significant, for truth is relative, ever-changing, indeterminate; and life is a process rather like a stream. Human beings forge their own souls by way of the choices they make, large and small, conscious and half-conscious … identity (social, historical, familial) is not permanent" (Preface to M, 377-78).
Oates's perspective, then, is very human-centered. Only with human consciousness, human perception, human creativity is the world given significance. For her it is not an overstatement to say, along with Emily Dickinson, "The Brain—is wider than the Sky—." She argues that "most human beings, writers or not, are in disguise as their outward selves … their truest and most valuable selves are interior" ("Exist," 52). But the interior self is dualistic, made up of both conscious and unconscious contents, and ideally what needs to be achieved is some happy balance between the two: "that mysterious integration of the personality that has its theological analogue in the concept of grace."
Joyce Carol Oates sounds very Jungian when she argues that the psyche "seems to be at its fullest when contradictory forces are held in suspension" ("Soul," 185). Like Jung, Oates has a tremendous respect for the dark other within the self. It is out of the human psyche that all that is mysterious has arisen—all the wonderlands perpetuated across time, all the Jekyll/Hyde dualities, all the collective fantasies we call culture. There are intimations of a Jungian collective unconsciousness in some of Oates's remarks, or at the very least a recognition of universal commonalities in human experience, and especially in American cultural experience. The artist is exceptionally receptive to them as they well up, with their own undeniable authority, out of the unconscious: "Something not us inhabits us; something insists upon speaking through us" ("Beginnings," 14).
Just as the self is ideally balanced between conscious and unconscious contents, so too does the writer attempt to achieve a balance between unconscious motives and conscious technique. Technique—"the dams, dikes, ditches, and conduits that both restrain emotionally charged content and give it formal, and therefore communal, expression"—act as the writer's defense against the "white heat" of the unconscious: "Clearly the powerful unconscious motives for a work of art are but the generating and organizing forces that stimulate consciousness to feats of deliberation, strategy, craft, cunning." Oates describes her own practice as a writer as "an active pursuit of 'hauntedness': I can't write unless I am preoccupied with something sometimes to the point of distraction or obsession." Being in the grip of a literary obsession "has the force of something inhuman: primitive, almost impersonal, at time almost frightening" ("Beginnings," 7, 19, 14).
Oates, raised a Catholic, appears to have no belief in a transcendent God, but she does subscribe to a sense of immanent (albeit metaphoric) godliness within the inner life, the human psyche: "To say that the kingdom of God is within is, in one sense, to speak simply in metaphor, and very simply. To say that most people are very rarely interested in the kingdom of God (at least as it lies within, and not without) is to speak the most obvious truth." Oates places the highest possible value on the godlike creativity of the artist: it is not outrageous to think that "we live the lives we live in order to produce the art of which we believe ourselves capable" ("Soul," 172, 177).
In her repeated borrowing of theological metaphors to describe the nature of art, Oates echoes the high modernist tradition of Joyce and Yeats: "The secret at the heart of all creative activity has something to do with our desire to complete a work, to impose perfection upon it, so that, hammered out of profane materials, it becomes sacred: which is to say, no longer merely personal" ("Dream," 43).
To achieve such a sacred text is a kind of triumph, a transcendence of the profane. Throughout her work, Oates is concerned with transcendence of various kinds, with human attempts to overcome limitations and obstacles. "Can it be true, or is it a useful fiction," she asks, "that the cosmos is created anew in the individual?—that one can, by way of a defiant act of self-begetting, transcend the fate of the nation, the community, the family, and—for a woman—the socially determined parameters of gender?" Her characters are groping toward wholeness, struggling to grow. She says, "in my fiction, the troubled people are precisely those who yearn for a higher life—those in whom the life-form itself is stirring … only out of restlessness can higher personalities emerge, just as, in a social context, it is only out of occasional surprises and upheavals that new ways of life can emerge" (Boesky, 482).
To be sure, the difficulty of such transcendence is dramatized again and again in Oates's fiction: she is aware of the hubris, the Faustian overreaching, that is often a part of such a struggle. Moreover, her characters are deeply embedded within entangling familial and social groups, and within recognizably American geographical, historical, cultural, political, and ethical contexts. Oates claims that she "could not take the time to write about a group of people who did not represent, in their various struggles, fantasies, unusual experiences, hopes, etc., our society in miniature" (Boesky, 482).
In her faith in the aspiring human spirit, Oates is prototypically American and finds her place within the traditions of American romanticism. But it is romanticism with a difference, with an ironic postmodernist recognition that "the 'I,' which doesn't exist, is everything." She says, "Our past may weight heavily upon us but it cannot contain us, let alone shape our future. America is a tale still being told—in many voices—and nowhere near its conclusion." She herself—the Joyce Carol Oates who doesn't exist in the flesh but who is a voice incarnated in an impressive body of work—is one of the preeminent tellers of that tale.
Source: Joanne V. Creighton, "The 'I,' Which Doesn't Exist, Is Everything," in Joyce Carol Oates, Twayne's United States Authors on CD-ROM, G.K. Hall & Co., 1997; previously published in 1992.
"American Dreams and Nightmares," in Glamour, Vol. 94, No. 9, September 1996, p. 132.
Creighton, Joanne V., "Dealing with Devastation," in Chicago Tribune, September 22, 1996, p. 3.
Garner, Dwight, "When Bad Things Happen," in Washington Post, September 22, 1996, p. X04.
Hanson, Gayle, "Tale of Family Breakdown Falls Apart," in Washington Times, December 22, 1996, p. B7.
Oates, Joyce Carol, We Were the Mulvaneys, Penguin, 1997.
Review of We Were the Mulvaneys, in Booklist, Vol. 93, No. 22, August 1996, p. 1855.
Review of We Were the Mulvaneys, in Publishers Weekly, August 5, 1996, p. 430.
Cologne-Brookes, Gavin, Dark Eyes on America: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates, Louisiana State University Press, 2005.
This academic survey of Oates's works contains a lengthy analysis of We Were the Mulvaneys.
Nussbaum, Carol, Sex and Social Justice, Oxford University Press, 1999.
In addition to discussing the ways in which society treats sexual transgressions, this book refers to Oates's description of the gang rape of Della Rae Duncan in the novel as an example of ritualistic group assault behaviors.
Oates, Joyce Carol, "Art and 'Victim Art,'" in Where I've Been, and Where I'm Going: Essays, Reviews, and Prose, Plume, 1999, pp. 69-75.
Because she often includes acts of violence, particularly sexual violence, in her works, Oates is frequently accused of using victimization as a literary tool; here, she responds to this observation.
Watanabe, Nancy Ann, Love Eclipsed: Joyce Carol Oates's Faustian Moral Vision, University Press of America, 1998.
One of the most scholarly overviews of Oates's work published as of 2006, this book draws from a wide selection of literature throughout history—Shakespeare, Pope, Goethe, and Rousseau, to name just a few—to explain her oeuvre as one that greatly deserves its world-wide following.