Hannibal Free Public Library

We Were the Mulvaneys

Joyce Carol Oates

February 25

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 the sheer force of her good humor (and devout Christianity); animals—horses, cats, dogs—thrived alongside the kids, although none was immune to the occasional scrape. And then on Valentine's Day in 1976, the Mulvaneys' beautiful, kind, sweet-natured daughter Marianne is raped, and the bottom fell out of their world.

We Were the Mulvaneys is at once a rich textured novel of family life and love (including the abiding love of animals) and a profound discourse on 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 has often expressed an intense nostalgia for the time and place of her childhood, and her working-class upbringing is lovingly recalled in much of her fiction. The dramatic trajectory of Oates's career, especially her amazing rise from an economically straitened childhood to her current position as one of the world's most eminent authors, suggests a feminist, literary version of the mythic pursuit and achievement of the American dream. Yet for all of her success and fame, Oates's daily routine of teaching and writing has changed very little, and her commitment to literature as a transcendent human activity remains steadfast. Not surprisingly, a quotation from that other prolific American writer, Henry James, is affixed to the bulletin board over her desk, and perhaps best expresses her own ultimate view of life and writing: "We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art."


  1. After the rape, Marianne keeps repeating, "I am as much to blame as he is." Does the narrative back up this assertion in any way? How much does Oates actually reveal about what happened that night?
  2. Both parents reject their daughter after the rape. Why?
  1. What role does the farm play in the life of this family? Is Oates making some larger point about the difficulties and tragedies of the family farm in American society?
  2. Why is it Patrick—the scientist, the cold rationalist—who acts to "execute justice" on Marianne's rapist?
  3. Animals are 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? Does their connection with the animals change after Marianne is raped?
  4. 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?
  5. Marianne is a Christian and Patrick is a rationalist—yet theirs is a bond that remains most intact after the rape. Are their worldviews more closely related than either of them believes? Or does the rape and its consequences somehow reconcile them not only emotionally but intellectually and spiritually as well?
  6. If Marianne's rape happened today instead of in the mid-1970s, would the impact on the family and on her life have been very different? What if the Mulvaneys lived in a big city instead of in a small town?
  7. Does the novel's ending in a joyous family reunion come as a shock after so much misery and heartbreak? Is this meant to be a lasting redemption?
  8. Does Oates encourage a traditional good-and-evil reading of her novel? Or does she lead us to reexamine these very categories?


Adapted from the publisher’s website.