62 pages 2 hours read

Joyce Carol Oates

We Were the Mulvaneys

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1996

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Important Quotes

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“For a long time you envied us, then you pitied us.

For a long time you admired us, then you thought Good!—that’s what they deserve.

‘Too direct, Judd!’—my mother would say, wringing her hands in discomfort. But I believe in uttering the truth, even if it hurts. Particularly if it hurts.” 

(Chapter 1, Page 4)

The opening chapter of the novel positions Judd, the youngest of the four Mulvaney siblings, as the narrator of the family’s history. Through Judd’s voice, Oates utilizes the unnamed, generalized “you” as the auditors of Judd’s account, which we understand are all the people who have long lived in the shadow of the Mulvaney myth—that of a perfect, functional, successful American family who does not need anyone else. This is why, in Judd’s view, their environment envies them and wishes their downfall. Judd briefly relativizes his own words by invoking his mother’s voice, but then continues with his version of the truth, as if to show he is determined to push beyond the decent into the brutally honest. This sets the tone for the whole novel. 

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“But this document isn’t a confession. Not at all. I’ve come to think of it as a family album. The kind my mom never kept, absolute truth-telling. The kind no one’s mom keeps. But if you’ve been a child in any family you’ve been keeping such an album in memory and conjecture and yearning, and it’s a life’s work, it may be the great and only work of your life.” 

(Chapter 1, Page 6)

“Absolute truth-telling” is impossible in any medium, as truth is multifaceted and consists of as many sides as there are participants in each event. However, by using these words, Judd wishes to emphasize his detachment from his version of truth, as that implies bias through love and care, which Judd purports to eschew. By using the words “memory and conjecture and yearning,” he shows us how fragile the concept of his own truth must be as it spins itself from such an emotional core.