We Were the Mulvaneys Criticism
by Joyce Carol Oates

Start Your Free Trial

Download We Were the Mulvaneys Study Guide

Subscribe Now

David Kelly

(Novels for Students)

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, though. That Oates does not give the details of family life between 1990, when Michael Mulvaney Sr. dies, and Independence Day of 1993, which is given as the date of the cheerful family reunion, does not mean that the story picks up after the break in an unrelated place. It just means that the story has developed from the elements Oates earlier set in place.

We were the Mulvaneys is a story about identity. From the first line—"We were the Mulvaneys, remember us?"—to the last, which ends with "back when we were the Mulvaneys," the novel is presented as a story about what it means to be a Mulvaney and the ways that two parents and their four children regrettably lose touch with that identity. The violent rape of Marianne, the one daughter, is an obvious catalyst for changes in Mulvaney family persona, and the epilogue suggests the family's unrecorded struggle to reclaim its original identity. If this reading makes sense, then, yes, the time that is unexplained, between the scattering of Michael Mulvaney's ashes and the epilogue, is indeed unfinished business.

However, the novel actually gives every indication that the opposite is more likely the case, namely that Corinne, Mike Jr., Patrick, Marianne, and Judd are happy in the end precisely because the years have allowed them to shed their Mulvaney identity and develop on their own. In the end, they have not returned to the happiness they once had; rather, they have survived the burden of being Mulvaneys that should have had a much more limited influence over their lives. Being Mulvaneys, in the grand sense which Judd pines for at the book's start, turns out to have not been a solution to their problems, but the cause.

The book offers many definitions of what it once meant to be a Mulvaney. The family members have nicknames; they have a coded way of talking that hints at things left unsaid; and for their values, the Mulvaneys look to each other, leaving them slightly puzzled by the world at large. Any family or other social group creates its own rules and forms its own identity. In this case, though, readers do not get a clear picture of the Mulvaney group persona because all of the facts are filtered through the consciousness of Judd, who tends to idealize the family, projecting onto it a fading greatness that may not have existed after all.

Judd is the one who calls the home, High Point Farm, a "Storybook House." When Judd says, "For a long time you envied us, then you pitied us," and "For a long time you admired us, then you thought, Good!—that's what they deserve

(The entire section is 15,769 words.)