We Were the Mulvaneys focuses almost exclusively on the six characters who make up the nuclear Mulvaney family. Michael, Sr., one of nine children, quarrels with the family of his childhood as a way of precipitating their abandonment of him. His background propels him into a very different kind of adult world, one where he is astonished by love and by fatherhood. Until Marianne's rape, he had been a good father, hard-working, proud, committed to his wife and children. But he is unable to break the cycle of family dysfunction when Marianne's rape estranges him from the world he believed would protect his family emotionally just as the roofs he builds protect them physically. Oates does, however, enable the two older sons to break the cycle of dysfunction that so often engulfs generations of families by having them quarrel with their father as a way of finding a healthier autonomy than Michael found when he was disowned by his father.
One of the perplexing aspects about We Were the Mulvaneys is why Corinne chooses her husband over her daughter. A patriarchal, fundamentalist faith may explain some of this, but Corinne has not been a victim of patriarchy. Rather, she has been an independent woman within her marriage and has nurtured this independence in her children. In fact, she is so concerned with not intruding on their privacy that she at times does not even see them, so much so that it is days before she discovers Marianne's rape. She is a mother who knows how to release her children because she is also a fatalist who believes that they will find their way as she found hers by following fireflies in winter. She releases but she does not abandon her children: From the time Marianne is exiled until she disappears after leaving the commune she joined, Corinne maintains her ties with her daughter via the telephone and occasional visits. Although Corinne is victimized by the choice her husband forces, she also becomes a person who can move beyond the past. But even as she moves beyond it, she believes in the past and in the ties that bind, an attitude that is emphasized at the end of the novel in the family reunion at the home Corinne has bought and turned into an antique shop.
Oates clearly delineates each of the Mulvaney children. Mike, Jr., is the most like his father, but he is the least scarred by the breakup of the family because he has benefited the longest from the family unity of his childhood. He also can leave the family to join the service, a place where he finds the order and discipline that he has lost when the family and school worlds of his childhood collapse. Patrick is the brightest child, a scholarship student at Cornell where he tries to deny the emotional needs of humans by studying their biology. When he discovers that his revenge—conducted in a biological swamp—provides no avenue to justice, he drops out of school and seeks justice in social causes and environmentalism. Unlike Patrick, the child who is the loner, Marianne thrives on her popularity and her acceptance into the higher social classes of high school. Although this aspect of her personality represents what her father aspires to, she also has internalized her mother's religiosity so that when she is raped she adopts the sin as her own. She accepts her exile, but at the same time her movements indicate her need to be nurtured and sheltered, first in a commune that raises and sells food, then with an aging female poet, and finally at an animal shelter. Through this shelter and the love for animals she developed at High Point Farm, Marianne learns to let her cat Muffin die and then to resurrect a new self in her marriage to a veterinarian. Judd, as the youngest of the family, feels the exile of his sister and the subsequent loss of his brothers the most keenly. Through his voice, as he tries to understand what has happened to the Mulvaneys, he engages us in questions about what it means to be a family.
Abelove is the charismatic leader of the Green...
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