We Were the Mulvaneys Summary
by Joyce Carol Oates

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We Were the Mulvaneys Summary

(Novels for Students)

I. Family Pictures

We Were the Mulvaneys begins in the voice of the youngest member of the family, Judd Mulvaney, who serves as narrator intermittently throughout the novel. He introduces readers to the Mulvaney family, which was socially prominent in their rural upstate New York community, where they lived from 1955 to 1980. The father, Michael Sr., ran a successful roofing company. The mother, Corinne, watched over the household, High Point Farm, which was busy with four children, pets, and farm animals, all while running a small antiques business out of one of the barns on the property. The Mulvaney children—Mike Jr., Patrick, Marianne, and Judd—were popular and successful in school. Mike Jr. was a football star, Marianne was a cheerleader, Patrick had top academic honors, and Judd, born considerably later, was the treasured youngest of the family.

The first few chapters of the novel establish the situation, with Judd explaining that he felt left out of the family's brightest moments, the events such as huge parties and visits from interesting friends, that helped define the Mulvaneys as one of the most popular families in the Chautauqua Valley.

The story begins in the chapter titled "Valentine's Day, 1976." Marianne, after attending the Valentine's Day dance in town at Mt. Ephraim High School, spends the night at a friend's house in town and phones the next day for a ride home. After Patrick drives into town for her and brings her back in a snowstorm, she goes to her room then takes a bath, not telling her family what happened after the dance: a senior boy, Zack Lundt, got her drunk and raped her.

Because her family revolves around the cheery demeanor generated by Corinne, Marianne keeps the news of the rape to herself. She blames herself, not the boy, for what has happened. In the middle of a weekday morning, another mother tells Corinne that she has seen Marianne going into the Catholic Church, although school is in session and the family is Protestant. Corinne goes to the church and gets Marianne. En route home, the car runs over something in the road that seems to be a small animal, and Marianne becomes hysterical. Corinne takes her to the family doctor, who examines her and explains that Marianne has been raped.

When Michael comes home and Corinne tells him the news, he races over to the Lundt's house, bursts in, and tries to strangle Zachary Lundt, but he is stopped by the police whom Corinne called as he raced out into the night. The news of his assault against the boy and his father, a friend of Michael's, spreads around town. When Marianne goes back to school in a few weeks, there are rumors and jokes whispered that imply she is promiscuous. Marianne, in a fragile mental state, refuses to testify against Zachary Lundt, and a lawyer advises the Mulvaneys that there is not much legal recourse.

Michael Mulvaney begins drinking heavily, which makes him miss work. He starts spending more time in the working-class bars that he used to frequent before his roofing business prospered and the Mulvaneys became socially prominent. Old friends avoid him and his family, which feeds his resentment. One night, an old acquaintance who runs a seedy inn and tavern where the Mulvaneys used to go when they were a young married couple calls: he tells Corinne that she has to come and get her husband, who has been hurt in a fight. Spending the night with him in one of the inn's rooms, Corinne realizes that her main commitment is to her husband.

Soon after, without any discussion with the rest of the family, the parents arrange to send Marianne away to live with a distant relative. They do this because Michael cannot bear the constant reminder of his powerlessness in the face of what happened to her.

II. "The Huntsman"

After Marianne leaves, the family slowly dissolves. Mike Jr. moves out of the house, living in town and working for Mulvaney Roofing. He drinks and hangs around with a wild crowd, arguing constantly with his father. After a car...

(The entire section is 2,141 words.)