62 pages 2 hours read

Joyce Carol Oates

We Were the Mulvaneys

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1996

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Summary and Study Guide


We Were the Mulvaneys is a novel by American writer Joyce Carol Oates, originally published in the US in 1996. Set largely in the rural Northeastern United States in the 1970s, this story deals with the myth of the ideal American family and the ruinous effects it can have when real-life events threaten the appearance of familial unity. After having been featured as an Oprah Book Club selection in January 2001, the novel became a Number 1 Bestseller, and a New York Times Notable Book. It also became an Emmy-nominated Lifetime Television movie in 2002.

Joyce Carol Oates (1938- ) is one of the pre-eminent American writers, adept at prose, poetry, drama, and nonfiction. Since 1963 she has published more than 65 novels, as well as numerous short story collections, known for experimentation in style and content, controversial subject matters and technical mastery. She has won numerous awards, including a National Book Award, two O. Henry Awards (for short fiction), a National Humanities Medal, and the Pen/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Art of the Short Story. She has been shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize five times, nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and is widely translated.

The edition of the novel used for this study guide is by Harper Perennial, published in the UK in 2008.

Plot Summary

In the 1970s, the picture-perfect Mulvaney family lives on High Point Farm near the town of Mt. Ephraim in upstate New York. Envied by their peers, Michael, who owns a successful roofing business, and Corinne, a homemaker and self-styled antiques dealer, have raised four children: athlete Michael “Mike” Jr., academically gifted Patrick, the gentle and religious Marianne, and Judd, the baby of the family. Their life revolves around the farm and its many animals, although Michael has social-climbing ambitions.

After St. Valentine’s Prom in 1976, things irrevocably change. Zachary Lundt, the son of one of Michael’s friends, rapes Marianne, and the effect this event has on the family is tremendous. As Mt. Ephraim society refuses to acknowledge what has happened, both Michael and Corinne struggle to understand the abrupt change, and as a result, Michael grows to hate Marianne’s reminding presence within the family. Corinne decides to sacrifice her daughter for the sake of her husband and the family, and they send Marianne to live with a distant cousin, exiling her from the family.

Over the next decade, unable to accept the turn of events, all Mulvaney children leave the family: Mike Jr. joins the marines, Patrick leaves for college, and after a bitter altercation, young Judd leaves home at 17 to start his career as a journalist. Michael begins to drink heavily and loses the business and the farm, eventually leaving Corinne to live on his own in dire poverty. He dies in 1986 a broken and lonely man, while Corinne slowly rebuilds her life, and together with her friend, Sable Mills, buys a small farm where they open an antique barn.

Patrick refuses to accept the family’s stance towards Marianne’s rape and avenges her by kidnapping and humiliating Zachary Lundt. After this, he leaves college and spends years roaming around the country. Marianne also leads a life of restless wandering, until she comes across a shelter for old and abused animals, run by Whit West, whom she eventually marries. Judd becomes a local newspaper editor.

In 1993, Corinne organizes a Fourth of July Mulvaney family reunion. Mike Jr. attends with his wife and two children, as do Marianne and Whit with their two babies. Judd arrives; after many years, he sees his brother Patrick, who now works at the Berkeley Institute for Child Development. The family fondly remembers things from the distant past, even their late father.