Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Rural New York

Though New York City is a huge and densely populated urban center, much of New York State is rural farmland. The area that stretches north toward the state capital, Albany, and west toward Buffalo is referred to as upstate New York. The western part of the state is mostly rural, with more in common culturally with the farmlands of Pennsylvania and Indiana than with life in New York City. In this western area, Oates set several of her works, including We Were the Mulvaneys.

The fictional town of Mt. Ephraim in upstate New York is described as being "in the Chautauqua Valley approximately seventy miles south of Lake Ontario." New York does have a Chautauqua County, but it is unlikely that it is the location Oates has in mind, since this area, along New York's westernmost border with Pennsylvania, is the adjacent to Lake Erie, not Lake Ontario. The area she describes is further east, toward the Finger Lakes Region, named after a series of narrow lakes that look a little like fingers flared out and stretching southward.

Agriculture plays an important role in the economy of New York State, providing about a $3 billion business annually. About a quarter of the state's land is used for farm production, including apples and grapes (western New York is considered one of the country's best climates for producing quality wines); corn, oats, and soybeans; and livestock and dairy products, which account for more...

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Literary Style

(Novels for Students)


The French word, denouement, literally means "the unraveling" and is commonly used to describe the part of a story that comes after the action is completed, when the plot complications that have been put in motion throughout the story have reached their climax and the issues explored are settled. The main part of We Were the Mulvaneys ends with the scattering of Michael Mulvaney's ashes. It is a poignant moment, one that gives some closure to some family members, but it still leaves unanswered questions: Patrick is still missing after having abducted a man at gunpoint years earlier, and Marianne's relationship with Dr. West has just been mentioned, leaving open the possibility that she may repeat with him the self-sabotaging choices she made in previous relationships. Corinne is left alone and penniless.

The book's epilogue, set some years later, might be seen as the author's way of pasting a happy ending onto an unhappy story, but it actually is necessary for telling readers the results of the family's struggles. The fact that the Mulvaneys end up as functional adults in their separate lives is not a reversal of the events of the book, but a reasonable result of the growth process. Although Oates skips years in the lives of her characters, she lets readers know, when the story has unraveled, exactly where the events of the story have led each of them.

First-Person Narrator

We Were the...

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Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

On the one hand, Oates writes We Were the Mulvaneys as a conventional, linearly plotted novel carried forward by the force of the events that shape the lives of the Mulvaneys. She also makes Judd a first-person narrator, but because he is a journalist he serves as a public rather than a private voice. She allows him to slip into the role of an omniscient narrator who creates the interior voices of various members of his family. We move, for example, in and out of the minds of each member of the Mulvaney family: Marianne "[k]nowing she'd hurt her mother's feelings earlier . . . [t]hough she couldn't remember any longer what either of them had said"; Mike, Jr. deciding to do nothing about his suspicions that his classmates are raping someone; Patrick attacking Marianne's rapist with a plan "like an artwork he'd created, out of his guts, the anguish of his Mulvaney pride"; Corinne rationalizing Marianne's behavior after her rape as a "[v]itamin deficiency. Obviously the girl had allowed herself to become exhausted, pushed herself too hard"; Mike, Sr., in the last throes of alcoholism finding it "[t]oo damned exhausting to love [his children], even to keep them straight." The effect of this technique makes Judd's conception of the Mulvaneys become the Mulvaneys. It also emphasizes the "weness" of the family structure. Judd teaches us that although this family structure disintegrates, it also renews itself as a reconstituted family. We believe, like him, that this...

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Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Because we live in a society where we hear much about the breakdown of the family and where we see daily news stories about violence against and within families, We Were the Mulvaneys contains themes that will be both familiar and troubling to most readers. Group members will differ in their responses because their experiences of family will differ. They also may discover in the course of discussion that they place different values on different aspects of family, a fact that should lead to lively conversations that can promote understanding of the importance of family dynamics.

1. Which of the Mulvaneys interests you the most? Why? Are any of the Mulvaneys more important to the story than the others?

2. Why does Mike, Sr. reject Marianne after her rape? Why does Corinne support him in this? Do you find these responses convincing?

3. Do you define Zachary Lundt's act as rape? Why have it occur on Valentine's Day?

4. How do you describe the Mulvaney family language—their use of nicknames, for example, and their way of talking to each other through animals?

5. How well does Oates capture the social milieu of the American high school? How does this connect to high school as you remember it?

6. Who plants the stink bomb at graduation? Why?

7. What is the significance of the firefly episode?

8. How does the episode when Judd follows the wounded deer relate to the rest...

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Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

With the tide We Were the Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates places the emphasis of her novel on how the family creates itself within the environment of a socially mobile and often violent twentieth-century America. Michael Mulvaney, Sr., the disowned son of an Irish steelworker from Pittsburgh, and Corinne Hausmann, a farm girl from upstate New York, have married and settled on picture-perfect High Point Farm in Mount Ephraim, New York. Here they have been successfully raising their family of four, integrating their life on the farm with their life in a town that has recognized Michael's success in the business community by inviting him to join the local country club. Michael has "reimagined himself as a small-town American businessman who owned property, had money and influence, was 'known' and 'liked' and 'respected' in his community. He'd been a loner in his late adolescence, and was now a 'family man.'" The family he has created lives safely behind the unlocked doors of their historic farmhouse, and the children learn responsibility and independence by helping with the farm chores before and after school and during the summers. Corinne Mulvaney oversees a family where "friends, relatives, houseguests, . . . business contacts, hired help" freely visit them: "every day and frequently every hour you could count on it that something was happening" She mothers with a light hand: The children collect dozens of animals that become household pets with individual names, they let clutter pile on the staircase until Corinne calls for ritual cleaning, and they are encouraged to become individuals.

But then come the events surrounding the Valentine's Day prom, 1976, when the only Mulvaney daughter, Marianne, is raped by the son of one of the town's elite and the family learns that the elite stick together, siding with one of their own over the newcomer to their social set. We Were the...

(The entire section is 777 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)


"American Dreams and Nightmares," in Glamour, Vol. 94, No. 9, September 1996, p. 132.

Creighton, Joanne V., "Dealing with Devastation," in Chicago Tribune, September 22, 1996, p. 3.

Garner, Dwight, "When Bad Things Happen," in Washington Post, September 22, 1996, p. X04.

Hanson, Gayle, "Tale of Family Breakdown Falls Apart," in Washington Times, December 22, 1996, p. B7.

Oates, Joyce Carol, We Were the Mulvaneys, Penguin, 1997.

Review of We Were the Mulvaneys, in Booklist, Vol. 93, No. 22, August 1996, p. 1855.

Review of We Were the Mulvaneys, in...

(The entire section is 271 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

  • The animals that the Mulvaneys raise on their non-producing farm are central to this story. Make a list of all of the animals mentioned in the novel, and then write a chart that shows what it would cost to feed them all in today's dollars.
  • Michael Mulvaney's slide into alcoholism follows a fairly standard pattern. Interview a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and find out what that person thinks of Michael's behavior, as you present it. Then report to the class the steps that your interviewee said Michael or Corinne could have taken.
  • Examine the statistics linking rape and alcohol abuse in your state, and write a letter to Marianne Mulvaney explaining what happened to her and whether she has a case...

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Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

We Were the Mulvaneys connects to nineteenth and early twentieth century traditions of family novels and plays, though it lacks the emphasis on successive generations of family in works like John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga (1922) and lacks the social satire of the tradition of Jane Austen. It relates more to the darker tradition of Nathaniel Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables (1851; see separate entry) and Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms (1925), particularly in Judd's focus on revenge and questions of justice. With its revenge theme and the hope it offers despite that theme, the novel fits in the tradition of classical tragedies—for example, of Oedipus Rex and Hamlet. Michael's...

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Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Oates inscribes her novel "for my 'Mulvaneys,'" not to signal it as autobiographical— if it has substantial autobiographical elements, these have not been made public—but to connect it to the world of upstate New York that she grew up in and has used in works such as Marya: A Life (1986; see separate entry), You Must Remember This (1987; see separate entry), and Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart (1990; see separate entry). Although it is set more recently than the 1950s of these novels, We Were the Mulvaneys portrays the same kind of social class divisions and the same kind of teen-age world where girls strive to be popular and boys prove their manhood through sex. Where the highly...

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Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

  • We Were the Mulvaneys was available as of 2006 in an abridged form on audio cassette and CD, read by J. Todd Adam. It was released by HighBridge Audio in 2001.
  • The book was adapted to a movie by the Hallmark Network in 2002. Starring Blythe Danner and Beau Bridges, it was nominated for three Emmys (lead actress, lead actor, and music). As of 2006, the film was available on DVD from Hallmark Entertainment.
  • An excellent essay on this book written by Oates herself is available at the Oprah Book Club website http://www.oprah.com/obc/pastbooks/joyce_caroloates/obc_20010124_essay.jhtml (accessed April 26, 2006).

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What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

  • Brenda Daly's Lavish Self-Divisions: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates, published by University Press of Mississippi in 1996, the year that We Were the Mulvaneys appeared, gives readers a critical survey of Oates's previous work.
  • Oates's twenty-ninth novel, Broke Heart Blues, is considered her next great novel after We Were the Mulvaneys. Published in 2000, it is about John Reddy Heart, a popular boy in an affluent Buffalo suburb during the 1960s, who becomes an iconic figure when one of his mother's boyfriends is murdered.
  • Songs in Ordinary Time, a novel by Mary McGarry Morris, concerns a young woman raising three children and struggling with an alcoholic...

(The entire section is 215 words.)