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Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

We Were the Mulvaneys

1.After the rape, Marianne keeps repeating, "I am as much to blame as he is." Does the narrative back this assertion up in any way? How much does Oates actually reveal about what happened that night?

2.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?

3.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?

4. Why is it Patrick—the scientist, the cold rationalist—who acts to "execute justice" on Marianne's rapist?

5. 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? 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?

6. 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?

7. 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?

8. 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 Mulvaney?s lived in a big city instead of in a small town—would the rape have a different "meaning"?

9. 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?

10.Does Oates encourage a traditional good-and-evil reading of her novel? Or does she lead us to reexamine these very categories?

We Were the Mulvaneys
by Joyce Carol Oates

  • Publication Date: August 8, 2012
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Plume
  • ISBN-10: 0452282829
  • ISBN-13: 9780452282827