Joyce Carol Oates, one of the most respected American writers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, is not easy to read. She engages readers fully, asking them to immerse themselves in her works—to reconstruct, interpret, and reconsider the circumstances of her characters and their environments. One of her popular themes is identity and the power to restructure who one is, to design oneself, to persevere, to prevail, to survive, and to reconfigure what fate has handed out.
Another theme predominates in Oates’s stories: the violent capabilities of men to destroy the women they profess to love. Oates spares nothing when writing of abusive situations. Her women are defiled in multiple ways; they are often convinced by their husbands or lovers that they are deserving of ill treatment. Many of her stories, extremely graphic, come right from the news headlines.
The Gravedigger’s Daughter plays with both themes—identity and violence against women. The novel’s female characters are demeaned, resilient only with great effort, and they are victims of unscrupulous men who see them as sexual objects or objects for rage. Rebecca Schwart, however, has the strength of character to become someone else, saving her son and herself in the process. Her identity change brings a lightness to a novel that is heavy in despair, injustice, and hatred.
The plot of the novel is multilayered and complex. It does not unfold chronologically, beginning instead in media res, in the middle of the action; the main character recalls the past events that had brought her to given stages in her life. The plot works as the mind does, with shifting time frames and points of view. Readers meet the nearly grown Rebecca, already a mother, before learning the circumstances of her background. This approach can be confusing to some readers, but...
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