We Were the Mulvaneys

by Joyce Carol Oates
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2141

I. Family Pictures

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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 accident which he survives, but which does serious injury to his fiancée, who is riding with him, Mike Jr. joins the Marines and is seldom heard from throughout the rest of the novel.

Patrick leaves home to attend Cornell University a few months after Marianne is sent away. Before leaving, he gives the valedictorian speech at graduation at Mt. Ephraim High School. Embittered because the boy who raped his sister is part of the school's popular group, Patrick arranges for noxious fumes to spray through the audience during the commencement ceremony, a plot so cleverly planned and orchestrated that no one even suspects him. At college, Patrick has no friends. He seldom comes home during breaks, and when he does, he leaves soon.

Even with Marianne gone, Michael continues to drink and act belligerent in public, driving his business into the ground. He hires lawyers to determine who he can sue for redress over his grievances, forcing him to take out thousands of dollars in loans to pay them.

Two years later, Marianne travels by bus to visit Patrick. It is 1978, and she has left the home of the distant cousin to attend Kilburn State College, where she attends class infrequently. She is a member of the Green Isle Co-Op, a community of coworkers who grow food and bake breads and sell their goods in local stores when they can. Patrick is astounded at how little she looks like the cheerleader she once was: her hair is chopped, and she is undernourished, and he mistakes her at first for a twelve-year-old boy.

Michael Sr. goes to the Mt. Ephraim Country Club one afternoon and notices a group of his former friends sitting together, laughing. Drunk, he pours a glass of beer on the head of a district judge, which leads to his arrest for assault and a newspaper article about the incident. The results are further erosion in Mulvaney Roofing and more attorney bills.

Feeling himself to be something of an outcast, Patrick goes to see a rock band on campus. He does not feel comfortable with the crowd, but while there he notes a boy that he mistakes at a distance for Zachary Lundt. Patrick gets the idea to kidnap Lundt and kill him. He contacts Judd, telling him to take one of the rifles from the house and meet him at a secret location in the woods near the family home, and he calls the Lundt house, pretending to be one of Zachary's old high school friends and finds out when he will be home for Easter break. One night, Patrick goes out to a bar where Zachary is with his friends and abducts him at gunpoint. He takes him deep into a nearby swamp, where Lundt falls under water and is about to drown before Patrick realizes that he does not want to kill his worst enemy. He reaches into the mud and saves Lundt's life and then leaves Lundt in the wilderness.

III. "The Pilgrim"

Marianne works hard at the Green Isle Co-Op, waiting for the day when her mother will call her up and say that her father wants her to return home to High Point Farm. She is loved and respected by her co-workers, but she avoids closeness. She cries when she is by herself. When the director's assistant leaves, the director discovers that Marianne has the drive and intelligence to be second in charge; he increases her responsibilities. Like most of the young women at the co-op, Marianne has a crush on Abelove, the director, and is honored to work closely with him.

When news of her grandmother's death reaches her, Marianne resolves to go to the funeral and to renew her connection to her family. A shy boy from the co-op named Hewie Miner offers to drive her across the state to the town where Corinne was raised. After traveling several hours, though, Marianne finds that she does not have it in herself to enter the chapel: she watches from outside and sees her mother and Judd, but neither of her other brothers or her father. On the way home, she has Hewie drive through Mt. Ephraim, past the Mulvaney Roofing building, through the streets she knew as a child, and past High Point Farm, realizing how removed she is now from it all.

After her day-long journey, Abelove approaches Marianne and asks if she and Hewie are in love. She assures him that they are not, and he then offers her an even higher position in the Green Isle Co-op: associate director. As he is explaining how much everyone at the co-op loves her, Abelove confesses that he is in love with her, too. Marianne leaves, telling him that she wants to think about what he has said: that night, she packs her things and leaves the Green Isle Co-op, her home and life's obsession for several years, without saying goodbye to anyone.

IV. Hard Reckoning

In the spring of 1980, Judd finishes junior year of high school in a new town: the dwindling Mulvaney Roofing business and mounting legal bills have forced the family to sell High Point Farm and move to nearby Marsina. Michael Sr. has been consistently drunk and angry, spending time away from home, so that selling the house and finding a new house have fallen to Corinne. Michael's vague attempts to restart the roofing business in the new town fail. The family hears from Mike Jr., Patrick, and Marianne intermittently.

Marianne ends up in Spartansburg, as the companion of an older, wheelchair-bound writer, Penelope Hagström. Miss Hagström respects Penelope's intelligence and trusts her with her household business.

One night, when he arrives home late and drunk, Michael is rough with Corinne, and Judd intervenes against his father. The next day, Judd moves out and finds his own apartment.

The roofing business goes bankrupt, and all of the family's remaining assets, including the new house, are sold. With the dissolution of the house, Michael and Corinne go in different directions. He lives in a series of smaller apartments and then rented rooms, taking jobs that he cannot keep because he drinks, is unable to work on roofs or do heavy labor, and is too belligerent to take orders from men who once would have been his employees.

In 1988, Corinne finally contacts Marianne, who is twenty-nine years old, to tell her that her father is dying and has called for her. Marianne had left Miss Hagström several years earlier when the older woman offered to increase her responsibilities. She had moved to a small town, rented a room, and taken a job in a grocery store. But one day, when her cat Muffin, the one reminder of life at High Point Farm, fell ill, she had rushed him to a local animal hospital, run by Dr. Whittaker West, a veterinarian whose dedication had earned his hospital and animal shelter an excellent nationwide reputation. Soon Marianne had moved into the huge mansion that houses the shelter and had become West's assistant. When the time came to euthanize Muffin, Dr. West, while consoling Marianne, admitted that he was in love with her.

In Rochester, where Michael Mulvaney has been taken, Judd and Corinne insist that he has called Marianne's name, but he does not seem to recognize her or anyone around him. To her ear, he seems to have spoken his older sister's name, Marian. He dies, and Mike Jr. returns to join the family in scattering his father's ashes on a hill above High Point Farm.

Epilogue. Reunion: Fourth of July 1993

The Mulvaneys are all invited to a Fourth of July reunion at a farm that Corinne and her friend Sable Mills have bought and turned into an antique shop. The business is prospering, and the farm, though not as grand as the one at High Point Farm, is expansive enough for the two women, and it is adjoined by a creek that ran past the old family property, about eighteen miles away. Judd is the editor of a small newspaper, the Chautauqua Falls Journal. Marianne is married to Whit West, and they have a young son. Mike Jr., who is now a civil engineer in Wilmington, Delaware, has a wife and two children, and they are expecting another. Patrick, who has not been back to the area since the night he abducted Zachary Lundt, has traveled from California by motorcycle with his girlfriend, showing an entirely different personality than the bookish introvert that he was when he left. In all, twenty-seven people have gathered at the home of Corinne Mulvaney, giving her children time to reacquaint themselves with each other and get to know their extended family and their mother's friends.

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