We Were the Mulvaneys
In her latest novel, We Were the Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates writes with piercing clarity and a deep sympathy of the dissolution of an American family - and an American way of life. The Mulvaneys - parents Mike and Corinne, children Mikey Jr., Patrick, Marianne, and Judd - seemed to lead an almost charmed life on their rambling farm outside a small town in upstate New York (familiar Oates territory), Mike owned a successful roofing company; Corinne kept the semi-chaotic household bustling through sheer force of her good humor (and devout Christianity); animals - horses, cats, and dogs - thrived alongside the kids, although none was immune to the occasional scrape.
And then on Valentine's Day in 1976, a high school senior raped the Mulvaneys' beautiful, kind and sweet-natured daughter Marianne, and the bottom fell out of their world. Oates deftly, heartbreakingly traces the impact of the rape on each member of this family, exposing how swiftly and irrevocably good can be dragged down and corrupted into evil. The once-popular Marianne becomes a kind of pariah, abandoned by her friends and pushed away by her parents. Her father, overwhelmed by grief and anger, lets the business slide, alienates former friends, and devotes himself to alcohol and law suits. Mikey Jr. distances himself from the family and his former life by joining the Marines. Patrick, the family egghead, at first retreats into his coldly rational fascination with Darwin and the theory of evolution, but once he's at Cornell he becomes obsessed with a scheme to avenge Marianne.
As in previous works, Oates here covers many years and retraces the complicated, twisting paths that bring her characters to their present plight. But We Were the Mulvaneys departs from earlier works in the brilliance and vividness with which it evokes the tensions and pleasures of family life and family relationships. The Mulvaneys manage to be both "every family" and minutely realized individuals with their own quirky obsessions and personal tragedies. The book is also packed with the images and ideas of the decades it covers - the music, products, politics, social norms, and mores of the late 1950s through the early 1990s. This large, sharply etched, immensely readable book is an examination of the American dream, and of the harsh but also beautiful realities that have transformed that dream over the past four decades.
We Were the Mulvaneys is at once a richly textured novel of family life and love (including the abiding love of animals) and a profound discourse on the themes of free will, evolution, gender, class, spirituality, forgiveness and the nature and purpose of guilt. A master of her craft, Oates weaves a seamless web in which ideas blend perfectly with plot.
Joyce Carol Oates is the author of numerous novels, including My Heart Laid Bare, Man Crazy, We Were the Mulvaneys (a 1996 New York Times "Notable Book of the Year"), What I lived For (nominated for the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award and a Pulitzer Prize), as well as collections of essays (most recently Where I've Been, and Where I'm Going), stories, poetry and plays.
Joyce Carol Oates received a National Book Award in 1970 for her novel, them. Because It Is Bitter, Because It Is My Heart was nominated for a National Book Award in 1990 and her most recent novel, Blonde, was nominated in 2000. Black Water was a finalist for the 1992 National Book Critics Circle Award. Zombie was awarded the 1995 Lilla Risk Rand fiction prize by the Boston Book Review. In 1990, she was awarded the Rea Award for the Short Story, given to honor a living U.S. writer who has made a significant contribution to the short story as and art form.
She has received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the Lotus Club, and is a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. For many years her short stories have been included in the annual Best American Short Stories and the O'Henry Prize stories collections. She is the recipient of the 1996 PEN/Malamud Award for lifetime achievement in the short story form, joining such previous winners as William Maxwell, Grace Paly, and Peter Taylor.
Born in Lockport, New York, she was educated at Syracuse University and the University of Wisconsin. Joyce Carol Oates is married and lives in Princeton, New Jersey, where she is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University.
What is a family except memories?
This is a question asked by Judd Mulvaney, the youngest of the Mulvaney children. I think it's a question we might all ask: Can there be a family without memories, or a family wracked with heart-break and mystery in which memories are partly erased, denied? When I wrote We Were The Mulvaneys, I was just old enough to look back upon my own family life and the lies of certain individuals close to me, with the detachment of time. I wanted to tell the truth about secrets: How much pain they give, yet how much relief, even happiness we may feel when at last the motive for secrecy has passed.
Readers have reacted in sharply contrasting ways to the dilemma of the heart of the novel: If a loving, family-oriented woman must choose between her husband and one of her children, whom does she choose? Corinne Mulvaney is a deeply, unself-consciously religious woman who acts out of love and duty, but also with an unquestioned sense of God's intentions. She doesn't think of herself her own wishes but those of others; until the end of the novel, when she befriends an energetic, irrepressible woman named Sable, Corinne doesn't think of herself as an individual at all. She's Corinne Mulvaney, known to everyone as Michael Mulvaney's wife. Her behavior will seem baffling, even unconscionable, to those who don't share her faith. I don't believe that, in her place, I would have acted as she did, but I don't judge her harshly. Perhaps I even envy her faith.
It happens in some families, perhaps many more than we know that a "split" occurs. A parent is hurt. It might be a father, as in this case, it might be a mother. Someone who is strong-willed, very loving, but also very dominating. Someone who, until the split occurs, you wouldn't expect to be so stubborn. So heartrendingly stubborn. This parent is hurt, or insulted, or thwarted, or "disappointed." This parent's pride is lacerated. And the individual, often a child, who has caused the rupture can't be easily forgiven. Maybe he or she doesn't wish to beg for forgiveness. Maybe he or she is as stubborn as the parent. And suddenly... the family is "split." People choose sides. People cease speaking to one another, sometimes for years. And only after a duration of time can things be made right again and healing can begin again.
In lucky families, this is. Think of the many families who never heal, never forgive!
The Mulvaneys are a family in which the pride of one dominant individual is fatally injured, but they are also a family in which forgiveness finally, belatedly, occurs. I based this story on "real-life" experiences, as the expression has it. Yet as I wrote the novel, it came to acquire a fairy-tale quality; it came, in time, to remind me, so very unexpectedly, of a Shakespearean tragedy in which no one is actually "wrong" and yet all suffer.
Two Mulvaney children, Marianne and her older brother Patrick, are among my favorite characters from my writing. They abide deep in my heart. I can "see" them so vividly! Marianne is sweet, good-natured, docile, though in her own way stubborn; Patrick is the brainy boy, outspoken, rather a smart aleck within the family, but unswervingly honest and idealistic. He would die for his family. He would - almost - commit a terrible crime for his sister.
I wish I could claim to be as naturally "good" as Marianne. I know that there are girls and women like Marianne. (Her character is based partly on one of my high school friends.) I would like to hope that I could be magnanimous like Marianne, and forgive those who have wounded me, but I'm not sure that this is so. It's enough for me as the novelist to know and take solace in the fact that such individuals as Marianne do exist. I celebrate their generosity and goodness. I reach out to them: Thank you! Your being is an example to us all.
Finally, I have to say of We Were the Mulvaneys that it's the novel closest to my heart. Passages were transcribed in white heat, as in a fevered dream. I was scarcely inventing or imagining, only just "remembering." My writing is so much about homesickness. The rural landscapes and waterways of upstate New York, where I was born and grew up on a small, not-very-prosperous farm north of Lockport. The sights, smells and texture of life in a small town. The intense emotions of high school life, ephemeral anxieties and joys. The wounds that can cut deep, and scar for years, or a lifetime.
In We Were the Mulvaney's animals are almost as important as people. I wanted to show the tenderness in our relationships with cats, dogs, and horses. Especially cats. Marianne's cat Muffin was based on a real cat of that name and everything about him in the novel is, or was, true in life. Marianne's experience is exactly what mine was. Muffin's life was saved for 13 miraculous months. Or, his death was forestalled. Exactly as in We Were the Mulvaneys, except that I was already married, and all the circumstances were different. This is a sentimental confession, but I may as well make it...
And, so to continue in the vein, of sentimental truth telling: "Stump Creek Hill" does exist, under another name, in southern New Jersey. It is an abandoned animal shelter "dedicated to the care of sick, injured, abandoned, and elderly wildlife and domestic animals." Just as this shelter saves the lives of numberless animals, so too, in the novel it saves Marianne from isolation and despair. I wish there were more Mariannes in our midst, and I wish there were more "Stump Creek Hills." In the meantime, we can do our best to support such selfless organizations, and, within a smaller, more domestic compass of activity, we can do our best to prevent the situations that cause such hurt to the innocent.
As Dr. Whitaker West says, "That's the best kind of thinking - wishful."
I'm deeply moved the Oprah Winfrey has selected this novel for Oprah's Book Club, a family novel presented to Oprah's vast American family.
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After the rape, Marianne keeps repeating, "I am as much to blame as he is." Does the narrative back this assertion up in anyway? How much does Oates really reveal about what happened that night?
Both parents reject their daughter after the rape. Why? How are their reasons different? Are we meant to condemn both of them for their cruelty to Marianne? Or is their action somehow understandable and forgivable?
What role does the farm play in the life of the family? Is Oates making some larger life about the tragedies of the family farm in American society?
Why is it Patrick — the scientist, the cold rationalist — who acts to "execute justice" on Marianne's rapist?
Animals of at the heart of the Mulvaney family — they not only love their cats, dogs, birds, and horses, they love each other and communicate with each other through their animals. Is this a family strength, or does it reveal something skewed in the family emotional dynamic? Have they in a sense glorified their animals by playing up their "cuddly" loving qualities and overlooking their darker instincts? Does their connection with the animals change after Marianne is raped?
Darwin and the theory of evolution are discussed at several points in the novel. What point is Oates trying to make with this? How does Darwinian evolution relate to the central incident of the book?
Marianne is a Christian and Patrick a rationalist — yet theirs is the bond that remains the most intact after the rape. Are their worldviews more closely related that either of them believes? Or does the rape and its consequences somehow reconcile them not only emotionally but intellectually and spiritually as well?
If Marianne's rape happened today instead of the mid-1970's, would the impact on the family and on her life have been different? What if the Mulvaney's lived in a big city instead of in a small town — would the rape have had a different "meaning"?
Does the novel's ending in a joyous family reunion came as a shock after so much misery and heartbreak? Is this meant to be a lasting redemption?
Does Oates encourage a traditional good-and-evil reading of her novel? Or does she lead is to reexamine these very categories?
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1. How did this book touch your life? Can you relate to it on any level? What do you believe is the message the author is trying to convey to the reader?
2. Describe the character development in We Were the Mulvaneys. How does Joyce Carol Oates use language and imagery to bring the characters to life?
3. In your opinion, is the book entertaining? Explain why or why not.
4. What did you learn from this book? Was it educational in any way?
5. In conclusion, summarize your reading experience with We Were the Mulvaneys. What grade would you give this novel?
6. If you enjoyed this book, what other books would you recommend to fellow readers?
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