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We Were the Mulvaneys

We Were the Mulvaneys

Most families deal with tragedy at one time or another. When violence happens to a family member, the tragedy it brings can cause a chain reaction that throws an entire family into chaos. This is what happens to the Mulvaneys in Joyce Carol Oates's novel We Were the Mulvaneys (1996). This bestselling book examines themes of violence, family, and coping with tragedy.

Content warning: this article contains themes of sexual assault and homicide.

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We Were the Mulvaneys: Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates was born on June 16, 1938. She lived in a small town in rural New York, similar to the setting of We Were the Mulvaneys. Oates became a prolific writer, publishing numerous works across genres, including fiction, nonfiction, short stories, and poetry. Many of her over 70 written works feature hardship and violence that happens to average people. This is the case in We Were the Mulvaneys.

As a child, Oates spent a lot of time on her grandmother's farm, which likely inspired the lively, animal-filled farm that the Mulvaneys took care of.

We Were the Mulvaneys: Book Summary

The Mulvaney family—parents Michael and Corinne and their children Mike Jr., Patrick, Marianne, and Judd—live on a farm in the 1970s in upstate New York. The narrator, Judd, describes their story. They seem to embody the ideal American family and are well-liked in the community. Michael’s roofing business is doing well, and he aspires to climb higher up the social ladder.

We Were the Mulvaneys, Farm, StudySmarterFig 1: The Mulvaneys live on an idyllic farm and also have a successful business.

This seemingly perfect life shatters suddenly in 1976. After a school dance, Marianne gets drunk and is raped by another student, Zachary Lundt. The community hushes up the attack, and Marianne refuses to press charges; she doesn’t want to endure the additional trauma. Continuing to be around Marianne is too much for Michael. When he sees her, he is reminded of what has happened, and he comes to hate her.

Corinne decided that the best thing for the family is to send Marianne away to live with a cousin. However, exiling Marianne only deepens the cracks forming in the Mulvaney household. The three brothers leave their parents over the next ten years, and then Michael loses his business and the farm. He then leaves Corinne and dies, impoverished, in 1986.

Corinne and her friend Sable Mills decide to live together, and Corinne starts to piece her life back together. Patrick, angry with how his family reacted to what happened to Marianne, takes revenge by humiliating Zachary Lundt. Judd gets a job with a newspaper, Mike Jr. gets married, and Marianne falls in love with Whit West, who runs an animal shelter.

In 1993, they all come together again for a Mulvaney family reunion that Corinne put together. Marianne and Whit have married and have two children, as do Mike Jr. and his wife. Patrick has a job with the Berkeley Institute for Child Development, and Judd works for a newspaper. Despite their struggles, they can reminisce fondly about Michael and speak openly about the things they once stayed silent about.

Joyce Carol Oates is well-known for her dark and violent themes. We Were the Mulvaneys actually has one of her happier endings, with the remaining Mulvaneys gathering and remembering Michael.

We Were the Mulvaneys: Characters

  • Michael Mulvaney: Corinne’s husband and father of the Mulvaney siblings. He runs a successful roofing company but loses it after failing to cope with Marianne's rape. He eventually leaves Corinne and dies alone.
  • Corinne Mulvaney: Michael’s wife and mother of the Mulvaney siblings. After the family falls apart and Michael dies, she rebuilds her life and eventually orchestrates a family reunion.
  • Marianne Mulvaney: The only Mulvaney daughter. After she is raped at her high school prom, she is sent away to live with a cousin. She later falls in love with Whit West.
  • Patrick Mulvaney: The middle Mulvaney brother. Angry with the handling of Marianne’s attack and that she was sent away, he takes revenge on the rapist himself. He later works at the Berkeley Institute for Child Development.
  • Mike Jr. Mulvaney: The eldest Mulvaney brother. After Marianne is sent away, he joins the marines. He later gets married and has two children.
  • Judd Mulvaney: The youngest Mulvaney child. He leaves home to study journalism and then gets a job with a newspaper.
  • Zachary Lundt: The boy who rapes Marianne at their high school prom.
  • Whit West: A kind man who runs an animal shelter. He and Marianne fall in love and eventually get married and have two children.
  • Sable Mills: Corinne’s friend. The two live together after Michael’s death.

We Were the Mulvaneys: Analysis

We Were the Mulvaneys is a dark and bluntly honest examination of a family's struggle to cope with an act of violence. Joyce Carol Oates used a depressing tone, dark imagery, and first-person perspective to tell the story.

We Were the Mulvaneys was Joyce Carol Oates's 26th published novel, but it was her first to top the New York Times bestsellers list.

Genre

Joyce Carol Oates’s We Were the Mulvaneys can be considered domestic fiction. It centers around a family and deals with topics such as marriage and a troubled household.

Domestic fiction: a genre most popular in the mid-nineteenth century that typically focuses on a woman's story. It typically explores topics including marriage, an unhappy domestic situation, and danger that comes from outside the household.

Other well-known works of domestic fiction include Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868), Catharine Maria Sedgwick's A New-England Tale (1822), Susan Warner's A Wide, Wide World (1850), and Maria Susanna Cummins's The Lamplighter (1854).

Tone

The tone of the novel We Were the Mulvaneys is painfully honest and even depressing. The tone is fitting for the sad themes that the book covers. Oates achieves darkness in the writing through carefully constructed imagery. Judd’s narration is blunt and does not shy away from the harsh truths of what his family experienced. As Judd puts it,

“I believe in uttering the truth, even if it hurts us. Particularly if it hurts us.” (Part 1, “Storybook House”)

Imagery

Joyce Carol Oates utilizes dark imagery to create the depressing tone of this novel. Her descriptions focus on death, darkness, and the lack of qualities that a reader might associate with Joy. For example, in the chapter “Every Heartbeat” in part one of the book, Oates describes the sky as “the color of lead” and trees as “partly dead.” This focus on the negative underlined the depression that comes after tragedy.

We Were the Mulvaneys, Dark Tree, StudySmarterFig 2: Dark imagery helps set the tone in We Were the Mulvaneys.

Narrator

The majority of Joyce Carol Oates’s book We Were the Mulvaneys is narrated by Judd, the youngest of the Mulvaney brothers. This allows Oates to use a first-hand perspective to describe the crumbling of the family. When there are events that Judd did not witness, they are sometimes relayed as though Judd has been told about what happened. In other cases, especially when describing things Marianne experienced alone, Oates uses a third-person perspective.

We Were the Mulvaneys: Themes

Joyce Carol Oates addresses many themes throughout the novel We Were the Mulvaneys. Three of the main themes are violence and chaos, family, and coping with tragedy.

In January 2001, Oprah’s Book Club spotlighted We Were the Mulvaneys, applauding how it addresses serious themes.1

Violence

Violence has a considerable effect on the Mulvaneys family. Before the assault, they are successful and happy, and everyone else wants to be like them. They are doing so well that Michael Mulvaney sets his sights on climbing the social ladder even higher. A single act of violence tears the family apart. Oates shows just how much suffering and chaos can come from one instance of violence and how it can travel through a family unit to affect all members.

Family

Family itself is another theme that plays a big role throughout the book. Oates examines how a perfect family can fall apart. When Michael refuses to acknowledge what has happened, he begins to hate the very sight of his daughter. Corinne sends Marianne away in a misguided attempt to keep the family from shattering. However, the family that cannot stand together to deal with tragedy eventually falls apart.

Each Mulvaney son leaves home and deals with the violent tragedy in their own way. Michael destroys himself while trying to ignore the event. Corinne relies on her religion to maintain her optimism, and with time she brings the family back together at the reunion.

Coping with Tragedy

Each member of the Mulvaney family copes with Marianne’s assault differently—some more successfully than others. Michael shuts down quickly after the rape, refusing to talk about it and spiraling into anger and drunkenness. He is unable to recover, and eventually leaves his wife and dies. Patrick is angry at what happened and how the family handled it. He seeks revenge, going so far as to plan to kidnap and kill Marianne’s rapist. Thankfully, Patrick grows with time; he does take his revenge but does not take it as far as murder.

Marianne herself doesn't want to take legal action against her attacker because she wants to avoid further trauma from the legal process. Being sent away from her family was a kind of exile for Marianne, but it did allow her to eventually meet and fall in love with her husband, Whit West. Corinne is another interesting case; she remained optimistic by holding on tightly to her religion. Doing so allowed her to keep going even when Michael left her and all her children had scattered. Her optimism helps her to bring the family together at the reunion.

We Were the Mulvaneys: Book Quotes

At first, the family ignored Marianne’s rape.

No one would be able to name what had happened or would wish to name it. Rape was a word that came not to be spoken at High Point Farm." (Part 1, “The Penitent”)

This refusal to confront the tragedy only made matters worse. It led to Corinne sending Marianne away because Michael hated seeing her and being reminded of the violence he was trying to forget.

Because nothing between human beings is uncomplicated and there's no way to speak of human beings without simplifying and misrepresenting them.” (Part 4, “On My Own”)

This quote is from the scene in which Judd leaves his family home at the age of seventeen. The quote emphasizes the complicated nature of family relationships, especially when Judd decides to go out on his own and no longer spend time around his parents.

For what are the words with which to summarize a lifetime, so much crowded confused happiness terminated by such stark slow-motion pain?” (Epilogue)

While at the family reunion, Judd Mulvaney wonders what his mother has told her friend and housemate about her late husband. Judd’s thoughts about his father highlight how a single act of violence unraveled his father’s happy life.

We Were the Mulvaneys - Key takeaways

  • We Were the Mulvaneys is a novel published in 1996 by Joyce Carol Oates.
  • In We Were the Mulvaneys, a family struggles to deal with the chaos caused by an act of violence.
  • The tone of We Were the Mulvaneys is dark, brutally honest, and even depressing.
  • We Were the Mulvaneys can be considered domestic fiction.
  • Three of the major themes of We Were the Mulvaneys are violence, family, and coping with tragedy.

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1"We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates." January 2001, Oprah.com

Frequently Asked Questions about We Were the Mulvaneys

The tone of We Were the Mulvaneys is brutally honest and depressing.

In We Were the Mulvaneys, a family struggles to deal with the chaos caused by an act of violence. 

We Were the Mulvaneys is about violence, family, and coping with tragedy.

We Were the Mulvaneys is a domestic fiction novel. 

We Were the Mulvaneys was published in 1996. 

Final We Were the Mulvaneys Quiz

Question

Who wrote We Were the Mulvaneys (1996)?

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Answer

Joyce Carol Oates

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In what year was We Were the Mulvaneys published?

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Answer

1996

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Question

What genre is We Were the Mulvaneys?

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Answer

Domestic fiction

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Question

Which of the following does NOT describe the tone of We Were the Mulvaneys?

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Answer

Dark

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Question

What inspired the setting of We Were the Mulvaneys?

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Answer

Oates's childhood home in rural New York state and her grandmother's farm. 

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Question

Which of the following are major themes in We Were the Mulvaneys?

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Answer

Violence

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Question

Why does Marianne not take legal action against her attacker?

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Answer

She wants to avoid the additional trauma of taking legal action.

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Question

What does Patrick want to do to Marianne's attacker, and what does he actually do?

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Answer

He wants to abduct and murder him; he ends up abducting him, but only humiliating him. 

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Why does Corinne send Marianne away?

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Answer

Michael has come to hate the sight of Marianne after the attack and Marianne's refusal to press charges. Corinne thinks sending Marianne away will keep the rest of the family together.

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Question

True or false: at the family reunion, the remaining Mulvaneys can finally talk openly about the things they once stayed silent about.

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Answer

True

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Question

Who is the narrator of most of We Were the Mulvaneys?

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Answer

Judd Mulvaney

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Question

True or false: exiling Marianne from the Mulvaney household successfully keeps the rest of the family happily together.

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Answer

False

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