We Were the Mulvaneys focuses almost exclusively on the six characters who make up the nuclear Mulvaney family. Michael, Sr., one of nine children, quarrels with the family of his childhood as a way of precipitating their abandonment of him. His background propels him into a very different kind of adult world, one where he is astonished by love and by fatherhood. Until Marianne's rape, he had been a good father, hard-working, proud, committed to his wife and children. But he is unable to break the cycle of family dysfunction when Marianne's rape estranges him from the world he believed would protect his family emotionally just as the roofs he builds protect them physically. Oates does, however, enable the two older sons to break the cycle of dysfunction that so often engulfs generations of families by having them quarrel with their father as a way of finding a healthier autonomy than Michael found when he was disowned by his father.
One of the perplexing aspects about We Were the Mulvaneys is why Corinne chooses her husband over her daughter. A patriarchal, fundamentalist faith may explain some of this, but Corinne has not been a victim of patriarchy. Rather, she has been an independent woman within her marriage and has nurtured this independence in her children. In fact, she is so concerned with not intruding on their privacy that she at times does not even see them, so much so that it is days before she discovers Marianne's rape. She is a mother who knows how to release her children because she is also a fatalist who believes that they will find their way as she found hers by following fireflies in winter. She releases but she does not abandon her children: From the...
(The entire section is 693 words.)
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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.
See Marianne Mulvaney
Della Rae Duncan
A mentally challenged girl from the poor area of Mt. Ephraim, Della Rae is molested by a group of boys from the football team.
Miss Penelope Hagström
On the road by herself, Marianne is taken into the home of Miss Hagström, an elderly, crippled poet. Famous nationally for her writing, Miss Hagström is known in her own town of Spartansburg as an unfortunate woman who was abandoned by her fiancée years ago and has been weakened over the decades by multiple sclerosis. She is a sharp wit and is usually kind to Marianne, seeing in her the intelligence and capability which Marianne does not see in herself. At times, though, Miss Hagström can be bitter and sarcastic.
When Miss Hagström offers to elevate Marianne's position, to make her the associate director of the Hagström Foundation for the Arts in addition to being her personal assistant, Marianne finds the increased involvement uncomfortable and leaves her one night without saying goodbye to Miss Hagström.
Miss Ethel Hausmann
When it is decided that Marianne cannot stay at High Point Farm with her family, she is sent to live in Salamanca with Ethel Hausmann, a relative on Corinne's side. Miss Hausmann is not familiar to the family. She is in her early fifties and has never had children of her own; she has worked for a podiatrist for thirty years, silently in love with him.
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.
See Mike Mulvaney Jr.
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...
(The entire section is 2550 words.)