We Were the Mulvaneys Analysis
by Joyce Carol Oates

Start Your Free Trial

Download We Were the Mulvaneys Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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 than 60 percent of the state's agriculture. New York is the country's third largest dairy production state.

The fact that High Point Farm in the novel is not used for agricultural production is an accurate reflection of the transformation that began about 1960 and continued into the early 2000s in New York State and across much of the country. Advances in transportation and communication have made once isolated areas reasonably accessible, which enables people to commute to work in cities and yet live in rural area. Since the 1970s, population movement has been away from cities: while suburbia once constituted those towns adjacent to a large city, suburban sprawl has driven housing into what was once farmland. Although the remote area discussed in the novel is not directly affected by the flight of city dwellers from urban centers, it is part of the same desire, which began in the 1960s, a longing to escape man-made environments and enjoy a spacious, natural setting. Although Oates's Chautauqua Valley is located in the middle of farmland and the people live on farms, no one among the Mulvaneys' social circle (except the poor family that leases land from them) actually practices farming. Like the members of the Green Isle Co-op, the people living in and around Mt. Ephraim live like farmers, although they are not farmers themselves.

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...

(The entire section is 2,954 words.)