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“We Were the Mulvaneys” by Joyce Carol Oates Essay

The book, “We Were the Mulvaneys” by Joyce Carol Oates, is the story of an “all American family” that falls apart after their daughter is raped. The father, who once had a successful roofing company, lets his business slide and devotes his life to alcohol and law suits, and the three brothers either abandon the family or try to find a method of gaining vengeance for their sister. This particular excerpt describes a scene by the brook, where the youngest Mulvaney (Judd) is contemplating life and the shortness of it. This episode occurs before the family initially fell apart. Oates uses several literary techniques, such as stream of consciousness, the writing perspective of a first person narrative, and the method of foreshadowing, to indirectly characterize Judd Mulvaney who is the narrator of the manuscript as a mature young man, very aware of situations surrounding his life, and a person who simply cares for his family.

Judd’s thoughts are predominantly known throughout this entire selection, and they mostly concern his own death that he feels is impending. The stream of consciousness technique becomes evident early on when Judd is by the brook. As he gazes into the water he goes over in his mind what he is thinking, not just what he’s assessing about the brook, but also he lets his mind wander to items that he must remember to tell his father and, unknowingly, the rationality of children. As he stares at the moving water his begins to focus his mind on his heartbeat, which it the catalyst that leads Judd’s thought process to focus on his life and eventual death.

Several times Judd thinks the exact same concept of: “Every heartbeat past and gone!”, as if each beat brings him and his family nearer to their ends. The context seems to reveal that Judd is afraid of death, yet he is also aware that there is nothing he can do about it, that one day he too will die. This method of characterization exposes the fact that Judd is resigned to the truth that he will pass away ultimately, which in turn shows that he is mature beyond his years. For an eleven to twelve year old boy to contemplate such a thing as his own death surely shows that he has experienced more in his life that has made him psychologically older.

The book is written in the first-person point of view as a narrative, which adds and deducts from the story itself. The pro of using such a perspective is that the reader can gain insight into the subject/narrator’s mind, which can provide helpful hints about underlying clues, but on the other hand the reader’s knowledge of events is limited to the narrator’s awareness of proceedings, basically: If the raconteur doesn’t know, then the reader doesn’t know. This literary technique is a good method of indirect characterization, it lets on to the character’s exact thoughts and emotional reactions, which allows one to form an opinion of the individual based on their own ideals and morals. Personally, one finds Judd to be a somewhat insecure boy who is aware of his surroundings and cares about the responses of his family. Judd’s insecurities are exposed as he constantly mulls over death, but his understanding is represented along with the previous trait, he is very acceptant of what is to come in the future.

There are several instances within this prose piece where foreshadowing occurs. One such occurrence transpires during lines 26 – 28: “…but it’s a fact when dry yellow leaves (like on the birches) don’t fall from a tree the tree is partly dead.” One interprets this quotation to be a hidden metaphor for Judd’s family and how they are slowly falling apart, or will soon fall apart. Foreshadowing is enhanced by repetition, especially during lines 34 and 35: “…on a farm living things are dying, dying, dying all the time…” This quote gives the impression that, at any given time, something is coming to an end in the Mulvaneys’ lives, whether it’s something substantial or not, it still has significance. Another such incident that reflected events to come in the story is inferred from: “They’d be passing so close my bike might snag in a fender so I grabbed it and hauled it to the side.”

This excerpt gives the indication that Judd is about to be “caught up in” a situation that is going to be beyond his control, and that he is going to try to avoid it if he can. At first thought, one might not perceive foreshadowing as a method of characterization, but in this circumstance it is. All of the foreshadowing is done by Judd. He is the one who feels the need to describe how life is constantly being drained from his and his family’s life as well as the farm. He is the one who perceives events before they happen, in hopes of correcting a mistake or avoiding a threat that looms on the horizon. This form of depiction shows that Judd is more attentive to his own and family’s circumstance than he is given credit for, and that he can correctly construe his own emotions.

Prose pieces such as this can be better interpreted if one knows the “whole story” (for lack of a better term). At first read one was confused at why a young boy would be so concerned with death and endings, but after knowing what was to come in his life one understands that this was just the author’s way of setting the scene. Judd is a character if many traits, he is psychologically adult, somewhat insecure with himself, one who is considerate for his family and their happiness, and acceptant of the future, these traits are emphasized with knowing what Judd if thinking, the story being written from a first-person narrative point of view, and the heavy detail when it came to foreshadowing.


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