We Were the Mulvaneys Essay - Critical Essays

Criticism

David Kelly

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...

(The entire section is 1861 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 1613 words.)

Valerie Miner

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....

(The entire section is 1367 words.)

Thomson Gale

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...

(The entire section is 5983 words.)

Joanne V. Creighton

In the following essay, Creighton discusses factors influencing 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,...

(The entire section is 4945 words.)