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,...
(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...
(The entire section is 1613 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 1367 words.)
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...
(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, 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...
(The entire section is 4945 words.)