We Were the Mulvaneys Themes

Themes

Several other themes prevalent in Oates' fiction permeate We Were the Mulvaneys. Three of the most important involve violence, religion, and art. The pivotal event of the novel is an act of sexual predation, but behind it lies a culture that accepts, as the title of one chapter puts it, that "Boys Will Be Boys." Prior to his marriage to Corinne, Michael had been a sexual "predator," using his charm to exploit college girls. Mike, Jr. asserts his manhood by sneaking out at night to sleep with his girlfriend and, although he is never shown as sexually violent, he often comes home drunk after he has been with her. He is aroused at the thought of group sex between some of his acquaintances in high school and a girl, reputed to be retarded, whom they make drunk. Oates may have based this episode on a highly publicized actual rape case where most of the town denied that their sons could have been involved, a culture of denial that echoes in the novel when the parents of the rapist refuse to believe that Marianne did not ask for it. Even Marianne has been so indoctrinated into the belief that boys will be boys that she blames herself for encouraging her rapist.

One way of facing a culture of violence and of uncertainty is to embrace religion. Corinne, especially, finds support in religion that lies outside the mainstream because when she was a child she was saved during a snowstorm when she saw fireflies lighting her way to shelter. To believe in...

(The entire section is 483 words.)

We Were the Mulvaneys Themes

Estrangement

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.

Revenge

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...

(The entire section is 1023 words.)