We Were the Mulvaneys Themes
by Joyce Carol Oates

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We Were the Mulvaneys Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Several other themes prevalent in Oates' fiction permeate We Were the Mulvaneys. Three of the most important involve violence, religion, and art. The pivotal event of the novel is an act of sexual predation, but behind it lies a culture that accepts, as the title of one chapter puts it, that "Boys Will Be Boys." Prior to his marriage to Corinne, Michael had been a sexual "predator," using his charm to exploit college girls. Mike, Jr. asserts his manhood by sneaking out at night to sleep with his girlfriend and, although he is never shown as sexually violent, he often comes home drunk after he has been with her. He is aroused at the thought of group sex between some of his acquaintances in high school and a girl, reputed to be retarded, whom they make drunk. Oates may have based this episode on a highly publicized actual rape case where most of the town denied that their sons could have been involved, a culture of denial that echoes in the novel when the parents of the rapist refuse to believe that Marianne did not ask for it. Even Marianne has been so indoctrinated into the belief that boys will be boys that she blames herself for encouraging her rapist.

One way of facing a culture of violence and of uncertainty is to embrace religion. Corinne, especially, finds support in religion that lies outside the mainstream because when she was a child she was saved during a snowstorm when she saw fireflies lighting her way to shelter. To believe in fireflies serves as a metaphor for faith and, if faith cannot protect Corinne from pain, it can at least provide her with a survival mechanism. Because Michael has no such mechanism, his response to pain is to escape it through alcoholism. Faith, however, also can serve as a crutch that prevents people from working through their pain or helping others work through it. Thus Marianne retreats into a Catholic church after her rape, as if this will make it go away. For Michael, Corinne, and Marianne, alcohol or religion serve as defense mechanisms that take the place of communication as a way of healing. Before the rape, the Mulvaney family had developed a way of talking through animals to one another, but after it, they abandon this practice and are left without even an indirect method for meaningful communication. What Judd calls their secret lives cease to be lives of privacy and become, instead, lives of isolation.

Where Corinne embraces religious fundamentalism as a way of fulfilling the need for meaning, Marianne a commune experience, Mike, Jr., the Marine Corp, and Patrick environmentalism, Judd embraces journalism, a career Oates associates with the creative process. Judd is not only a journalist, but also an artist whose passion is to make meaning out of the world he observes and to articulate that meaning for us.


(Novels for Students)


In this novel, Oates dramatizes how trauma and loss can disrupt a group's self-concept and cohesiveness. The Mulvaneys are not able to maintain their group identification as prosperous and successful once an attack intrudes and injures one of the family members. Once that loss occurs, the self-concept of the group and its collective sense of its place in the world alter. When this shift occurs, the group no longer coheres, and individuals disperse literally or insulate themselves in other ways. This loss of coherence is most conspicuous in Marianne who is sent away from the family because her father cannot live with the realization that his family is vulnerable to violent acts and that he is powerless to protect his children from them . After being molested by Zachary Lundt, Marianne is sent away from her previously close-knit family. Psychologically, she replicates that removal by withdrawing from potential relationships and from opportunities to progress professionally. Though the victim in the initial instance, she is punished; having learned that she is to blame, she is driven by shame to continue that punishment by denying herself good. Oates symbolizes her guilt and...

(The entire section is 1,506 words.)