Published in 2008, Neil Gaiman’s offbeat novel The Graveyard Book is a quirky tale about Nobody (Bod) Owens, a human boy who was raised in a graveyard. Bod came to the graveyard as a toddler, escaping his parents’ and sibling’s murderer, by the man Jack. Adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Owens, Bod is raised among an eccentric cast of characters, most of whom are dead and inhabit the graveyard. Tutored by the spirits and given Freedom of the Graveyard, he learns special talents like “fading” in order to live in the graveyard comfortably and undetected, safe from the man Jack, who is still searching for him.
On his journey through childhood and adolescence, he befriends a human girl, helps the spirit of a witch, opens and subsequently escapes a ghoul-gate, dances the Macabray (a dance of the dead), and even attends school outside of the graveyard, where he confronts the school bullies. The characters in Bod’s life are unique and influential. Silas, Bod’s guardian and teacher, exists between the worlds of the living and dead, and can move fluidly between the two in order to provide Bod with food and necessities to survive. Silas is a voice of wisdom and a mentor to Bod. Bod is also taught by Miss Lupescu, a wolf-woman who imparts some very important lessons that end up saving his life. Combined with friends like Liza Hempstock, the graveyard witch, and Scarlett Perkins, Bod’s human friend, Bod’s experiences are in part shaped by his friends and teachers.
The Graveyard Book can be compared to the Harry Potter series for its supernatural elements and orphaned protagonist. Bod’s family, like Harry Potter’s, was killed by a murderer who continues to antagonize the one member of the family they were unable to kill. While Bod’s biological family did not raise him, he has a collective, non-traditional family in the spirits of the graveyard. However, his adventures stem from his own choices, and not the guidance or direction of parental influence.
Themes of community, friendship, and family abound in this unconventional tale of growing up. The Graveyard Book upturns the traditional idea of home and safety. In a bit of twisted logic, for Bod, being among the dead in a graveyard is safer than residing among the living, because to reside among the living means a certain death. Although it is difficult to leave the safety of the “known life” behind, Bod must move ahead in order to truly live. Of all the gifts the graveyard gave him, the most valuable is the understanding that, in the words of Silas, “life is potential.”
The Childhood of Nobody Owens
The Graveyard Book begins as a woman, a man, and a child are murdered by a strange man called Jack. The baby of the family, a child who has just learned to walk, has no idea he is in danger. However, he wakes up and wants to explore. He climbs out of his crib, descends the stairs, and walks out the front door. He follows the road to a graveyard, and the murderer pursues him. A pair of ghosts named Mr. and Mrs. Owens decide to protect the little boy.
When the murderer is gone, Mr. and Mrs. Owens adopt the baby as their own son. They name him Nobody Owens, which is soon shortened to the nickname Bod. The Owenses cannot get food and such things for the baby, so a strange, dark character named Silas offers to be the boy’s guardian. Silas is neither alive nor dead, and unlike the Owenses he can leave the graveyard whenever he pleases. All the ghosts of the graveyard meet, and after a long argument they decide to give the child “the Freedom of the Graveyard.” As he grows older, this allows him to behave like a ghost, passing through walls and entering graves.
No new graves have been added to this graveyard for hundreds of years, so it is old and run-down. Today it is a historical site and nature preserve, so local families often go there for outings. When Bod is about four, he befriends one of these visitors, five-year-old Scarlett Amber Perkins. He tells her all about the ghosts, and together they search for the graveyard’s oldest inhabitant.
At the end of their search, Bod and Scarlet climb down a long staircase to an ancient barrow. There they encounter a creature called the Sleer, which tries to frighten them away from the barrow’s treasure. Bod, who is familiar with the ways of the dead, quickly realizes that the Sleer is an imaginary creature and not an actual person. He is not frightened, but he is not interested in the treasure the Sleer guards either. He and Scarlett return to the park, where Scarlett’s parents are looking for her frantically. They take her away, and soon afterward they decide to move to Scotland. Scarlett returns to the graveyard only once more to say good-bye.
The summer Bod is six, Silas goes away and leaves a strange, strict woman named Miss Lupescu to care for the boy. Bod dislikes Miss Lupescu’s cooking, and he resists the lessons she teaches, which seem superfluous to him. He already learns...
(The entire section is 2025 words.)
Chapter 1 Summary
The Graveyard Book begins as a creepy figure called “the man Jack” has just finished killing three people in a dark house. He moves silently, and he has successfully murdered a woman, a man, and an older child without even waking them. The only person left to kill is the baby, a little boy who has just learned to walk. The man Jack creeps toward the crib, but the baby is not there. The man sniffs the air and follows the smell of the child down the stairs and out the front door, which he left open when he came in.
The baby is a curious child, a wanderer. He finds the door open, so he goes out. Now he toddles up a hill through the fog, and he slips through the slats of a gate into a graveyard. Inside, he draws the attention of Mrs. Owen, a plump woman who is “only moonlight, mist, and shadow.” She calls her husband to look, and three other ghosts appear to them. They are the baby’s family, panicky figures who have not yet grown used to being dead. The mother begs Mrs. Owen to protect her son, and then she disappears.
When the murderer arrives in the graveyard, Mrs. Owens honors the mother’s wish. She picks the baby up and hides him in her ghostly form. An odd, dark figure named Silas approaches the murderer, claiming to be the caretaker of the graveyard. He asks what the man is doing inside a locked park at night, and the murderer tells him about the baby. He claims he is worried about the child and wants to return it to its family. Silas has the power to confuse people, so he makes the murderer think the baby went toward town.
When the man Jack is gone, three hundred ghosts convene for a meeting. Mrs. Owens says she should be able to keep the baby because the mother—who will shortly be confined to her own graveyard, as these ghosts are confined to theirs—asked her to protect him. She suggests giving the boy “the Freedom of the Graveyard,” which will allow him to live safely among them. The other ghosts object that Mrs. Owens will not be able to feed the boy, so Silas—who is neither alive nor dead—volunteers to bring food. The ghosts debate the issue until Death herself, who looks like a grey lady on a grey horse, appears. She says, “The dead should have charity.” Her advice is final, so the ghosts agree that the baby can stay. They name the child Nobody Owens.
(The entire section is 437 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary
As Nobody Owens grows older, the ghosts nickname him Bod. He learns to talk and often asks questions, but he does not think to question his strange abilities to see in the dark and to pass through the walls of graveyard buildings. The cemetery is old, and no new people are buried there any longer. However, the area is set aside as a nature preserve, and families sometimes come there for an afternoon. A little girl, Scarlett Amber Perkins, spots Bod one day as he is working on his letters by using paper and crayons—gifts from Silas—to copy the inscriptions on graves. The two children become friends.
Scarlett cannot see the ghosts of the graveyard, but Bod tells her all about them. She asks who the oldest is, and Bod says he thinks it is Caius Pompeius, who arrived in England about a hundred years after the Romans. Afterward, he asks Caius if he is indeed the oldest, and Caius says hesitantly that someone was buried there before him, a person who lived in the area long before the Celts. He explains that there is a barrow inside the hill, and that over the hundreds of years the graveyard has existed, two living people have gone inside looking for treasure. One emerged with his hair all white, and the other never emerged at all.
Intrigued, Bod tells Scarlett about the barrow, and the two of them climb down into the hill. Bod can see in the dark, so he leads the way. They see an odd figure of a man whose skin is painted or tattooed with purple markings. The man tries to scare them, but Bod knows what ghosts are like. He realizes that the figure is imaginary, put there to scare people who come after the treasure. He says so, and the figure disappears. Then a voice speaks, calling itself the Sleer, and says it is protecting the treasure for its master. Bod thinks the treasure is basically worthless, and he takes Scarlett back up to the surface. The police are up there, and they whisk Scarlett away. She returns only once more to say that her family is moving away.
(The entire section is 365 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
The summer Bod is six years old, Silas goes away for a while. He leaves a woman named Miss Lupescu to care for Bod, who dislikes her. He already receives schooling from two of the ghosts, so he does not understand why he has to memorize the lists Miss Lupescu teaches him. First she teaches him all the kinds of people:
There are the living and the dead, there are day-folk and night-folk, there are ghouls and mist-walkers, there are the high hunters and the Hounds of God. Also, there are solitary types.
She says that Silas is a solitary type, but she does not say what she is. Next she makes Bod memorize how to call for help in every language in the world.
Bod dislikes the food Miss Lupescu gives him, and her prissy insistence on memorization as well. He wanders off to feel sorry for himself, and he meets three small figures “like full-size people who had shrunk in the sun.” These creatures call themselves the Duke of Westminster, the Honorable Archibald Fitzhugh, and the Bishop of Bath and Wells. Bod, who has never left the graveyard, asks if he can travel with them. The ghouls toss him down a grave and take him into a strange country. There he learns that they are ghouls, ghastly creatures who eat dead, rotten bodies. They tell Bod he will soon be one of them.
Bod no longer wants to go with the ghouls, but they give him no choice. They claim that they are ultra-powerful and afraid of “nuffink,” but they begin acting nervous when flying creatures called night-gaunts come near. Bod, remembering a lesson with Miss Lupescu, calls for help in the night-gaunts’ language.
Over the next several hours, a few ghouls disappear, and those that remain act increasingly nervous. A big grey dog begins to chase them. When the dog catches Bod, he thinks it will eat him, but it turns out to be Miss Lupescu. She is a Hound of God—a creature known to the living as a werewolf—and as such she is bound to “pursue an evildoer to the very gates of hell.” She returns Bod to his home with Mr. and Mrs. Owens with no injury worse than a sprained ankle.
After their adventure, Bod and Miss Lupescu get along better. When Silas returns at the end of a month, Bod says he has “learned a lot.” Miss Lupescu suggests that she return next summer to teach Bod a bit more, and Bod says he wants her to come.
(The entire section is 427 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
One day Bod fails at a lesson with one of his teachers, Mr. Pennyworth, who wants him to learn to Fade like a ghost. Afterward, Bod climbs an apple tree, trying to grab an apple that is out of reach. A branch breaks, and Bod falls into a corner of the graveyard he knows to be unconsecrated ground, a site where criminals, suicides, and witches are buried. There he meets an ugly girl, Liza Hempstock, who explains that she died by being both drowned and burned. He asks if she is a witch. She says yes and explains that she cursed her whole town as revenge for killing her.
Bod feels sorry for Liza because she does not have her own headstone, but he knows he does not have enough money to buy her one. He climbs down into the barrow of the Sleer and steals an old brooch, hoping it is worth money. He is still not allowed to go into town, but he breaks the rules and leaves the graveyard for the first time since he was a baby.
Abanazer Bolger, the man who runs the pawn shop, knows immediately that Bod’s brooch is valuable. He lures Bod into a back room and locks him in. He calls a friend, Tom Hustings, and Bod listens through the door as the two of them argue about the value of the find. The brooch can be sold legally, for quite a lot, or illegally for even more. They also have a card from the man Jack, and they suspect that Bod is the boy Jack is looking for. If they give him up to Jack, they may get a great deal of money—but they will not be able to force Bod to find them more treasure.
Bod cannot escape from the locked room, but the witch Liza Hemptsock appears and helps him Fade so that the evil men cannot see them. The men drink sloe gin and whisky and eventually fight each other over the brooch. When they are both passed out, Bod sneaks past them, taking back the brooch along with a paperweight and some paint. At Liza’s insistence, he also steals a creepy-looking black-rimmed card with the name Jack written on it, in order to give it to Silas.
Bod gets in trouble with his parents and Silas for his adventure, but afterward he is able to Fade as well as any ghost. He returns the brooch to the barrow, and he paints the paperweight to make a headstone for Liza. She is thankful, and the action seals their friendship.
(The entire section is 435 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
One morning, Bod wakes up in the Owens's tomb and hears Mrs. Owens singing a strange song. She tells him she is busy and sends him outside while she cleans up the cobwebs. Around the graveyard, all of the dead are refusing to speak to him. They sing a strange song, “All must dance the Macabray.” Only little Fortinbras Bartleby admits that tomorrow night is a special night, but his family whisks him away from Bod before he can say more.
Silas appears with a set of clothes for Bod to wear. He explains that, now that he is ten, Bod should stop wearing an old gray sheet and get in the habit of dressing like the living. Silas says he does not know about the dance: it is for the dead and the living, and he is neither. Hearing this, Bod wants to hug Silas, but hugging Silas is impossible.
The next morning, three living men and a living woman come into the Egyptian Walk in the graveyard and cut flowers. The men keep telling the woman, the Mayoress, that it is a tradition to cut the flowers and pass them out to the townspeople. She mutters that nobody ever told her about any such tradition. Bod forgets that he is not supposed to leave the graveyard, and he follows her into the town and watches her give the flowers to the people. He makes sure to get one for himself.
Strange music starts, and all the people with their flowers march around the Old Town. When the clock strikes midnight, the dead march down the hill and join them. Everyone dances, the dead and the living, and the Lady on the Gray appears and dances with Bod. He asks if he can ride her horse, and she promises he will do so someday in the future. Then the clock strikes twelve again, and the dead are gone. The living drop their flowers and wander home as if sleepwalking.
The next day, nobody in the graveyard—not even Bod’s parents—will admit what happened the night before. Bod loses his temper with the venerable Josiah Worthington, who says:
The dead and the living do not mingle, boy…If it happened that we danced the danse macabre with them, the dance of death, then we would not speak of it, and we certainly would not speak of it to the living.
This makes Bod realize that he danced on the side of the living, whom he does not know, and not with the dead, who are his friends and family. He seeks out Silas to ask why people refuse to talk about the dance, and Silas...
(The entire section is 499 words.)
Far away, in a conference room at a hotel, about a hundred men gather for some kind of “private function.” A sign announces this fact, but it does not include any other information about the group that is gathered there.
Passersby who happen to look into the room cannot figure out who belongs to this group or what they do. It is possible to see that the people inside the room are all men and that they are all wearing black suits. Otherwise they look and sound nothing alike. They have every skin color, every color of hair, every kind of face. They speak English, but their accents reveal that they come from every continent of the world.
At the front of the room, a man lists off accomplishments the men have supposedly achieved. He says they have sent poor children on vacation and purchased a bus for transporting disadvantaged people to places they need to go. The other men sit at round tables, clapping politely whenever he names another such work. But this does not seem to be the reason the men are gathered.
At the front table, the man Jack sits waiting for coffee. A man with silver hair criticizes him:
You failed, Jack. You were meant to take care of them all. That included the baby. Especially the baby.
As the silver-haired man talks, the other men at the table pretend to ignore the conversation. They keep their eyes on the front of the room, where the speaker goes on talking. They clap at appropriate moments, but something about their manner makes it seem they are listening to Jack and the silver-haired man.
The silver-haired man says that ten years have passed, and he asks what will happen when the boy grows up. Jack says that he still has time and that he has clues to follow. He says he is convinced that a certain incident that happened in San Francisco four years ago is connected to the boy. The silver-haired man asks if Jack has brought this up with the secretary, the man at the front of the room, who is currently announcing the purchase of three kidney machines. Jack says the secretary does not care about anything but results. Hearing this, the silver-haired man dismisses the suspicion as well. He says they no longer have time on their side, and the other men at the table appear to agree. They all want to get rid of that boy.
(The entire section is 413 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
One rainy afternoon when Bod is twelve, Silas explains why he lives so differently than most of the living. When Bod learns that his parents’ murderer still wants to kill him, he is not scared. He points out that his friends and family are dead, too. Silas agrees but says:
And they are, for the most part, done with the world. You are not. You’re alive, Bod....If you change the world, the world will change. Potential. Once you’re dead, it’s gone.
Bod asks if the man who killed his family is really still alive. Silas says yes but does not explain how he knows. Bod thinks this over and announces that he wants to go to school. He knows all about the dead, about how to Fade and Haunt and open a ghoul-gate. Now he wants to know about the living. At first, Silas refuses to let Bod go. He says Bod has to stay where he is safe. Bod reminds Silas of “the potential thing.” He says that if a man is out there who killed his family, then nobody should worry about keeping Bod safe from him. Instead, they should worry about keeping the man safe from Bod.
So Bod enrolls in the local school. He does well in all his classes, but he stays partly Faded so that nobody notices him. One day he confronts two bullies, Nick and Mo, and after school they follow him. Bod notices them and leads them into a nearby graveyard and says, “Stop hurting people.” Nick tries to punch Bod, but Bod Fades, and Nick’s fist slams into a gravestone. Then Bod uses a skill he learned in the graveyard, performing a Frightening that scares them so badly they run away home. They do not forget him, however, and in school Bod can tell that he has lost his invisibility.
When Silas finds out that Bod called attention to himself in school, he is furious. He insists that Bod stay in the graveyard, but Bod says, “What would you do to keep me here? Kill me?” He stalks out the gates and into the town, which is dark and quiet for the night. He finds Nick’s house and performs a Dreamwalk, turning Nick’s dream to a nightmare to scare him out of bullying other kids. Afterward Bod plans to run away for good, but Liza Hempstock appears and convinces him not to run off, at least not without saying good-bye to his friends and family.
Bod heads home to a graveyard, but a police car stops him. The officers, one of whom turns out to be Mo’s uncle, take him to her house. She tells...
(The entire section is 622 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
When Bod is fourteen, Silas begins disappearing for long periods. Nobody knows where he goes, and the Owenses are upset when he leaves Bod behind without a guardian to provide food. While Silas is away, Scarlett Amber Perkins moves back to Bod’s town. She remembers little of her childhood there until one day she gets lost and finds the graveyard. She meets a nice man, Mr. Frost, who drives her home and befriends her mother. Slowly Scarlett remembers Bod again, and on another trip to the graveyard she spots him, seeing him even though he is Faded.
Although Bod is a little nervous around Scarlett, she is a welcome change from his ghost friends, who never grow older or change. He tells her about the murder of his family, and she studies the microfiche records at the library to find a report about the event. The murder took place in the house where Mr. Frost now lives, so she tells him about it, too. He is a historian, so he looks up the details and finds out that the murder was somehow hushed up. He tells Scarlett that one member of the family, a baby, belonged to the family and was never seen again after the event. When he learns all this, Bod realizes that he is at a crossroads in his life. Silas is not around to advise him, so he seeks the advice of the Sleer instead. The Sleer asks him to be its master. When Bod refuses, the Sleer encourages him to go after the murderer and find out his real name.
While Bod is learning about his history, Silas and Miss Lupescu are in Krakow with some allies. One dies in a magical spell involving mirrors. Later, a mysterious group of attackers pursues them. Miss Lupescu gets injured and cannot go on, so they all stand their ground and fight together.
Bod goes with Scarlett to speak with Mr. Frost, who tells them he has found a letter concerning the murdered family in the attic room of his house. He takes Bod into the room alone and pulls out a knife, revealing himself to be the man Jack who almost killed him fourteen years ago. Bod Fades and gets himself and Scarlett out of the house just as four men knock on the door. Before they leave, Scarlett learns that all the Jacks are Mr. Frost's friends.
Bod and Scarlett run back to the graveyard, where Bod hides Scarlett with the Sleer and turns to fight the Jacks. He tricks one man Jack into falling into a grave. He confronts three others by the ghoul-gate and learns from them that they are part of an organization, the...
(The entire section is 723 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
As Bod grows older, he finds it increasingly difficult to see the ghosts that are his friends and family. One day he goes to visit Alonso Jones, a dead adventurer who tells great stories about visits to Moscow and Alaska, but he does not come out of his grave. Bod is used to having “the Freedom of the Graveyard” and being able to enter and exit graves at will. He tries to stick his head into Alonso’s grave, but he ends up hurting his forehead on a gravestone.
He goes home, and on his way he meets a ghost named Mother Slaughter. She retells the story of Bod’s adoption, which he has heard many times before. Then she makes mysterious comments about growing older, and she says she is glad Bod came to the graveyard. When he moves on, she tells him to keep safe. It makes Bod nervous.
Bod’s nervousness gets worse when he finds Mr. and Mrs. Owens standing formally to await him at their grave. Mr. Owens says he cannot imagine “a better young man than you, Bod,” and Mrs. Owens weeps and disappears. Mr. Owens refuses to tell Bod what is wrong. Instead he sends him to see Silas.
Silas tells Bod that his time in the graveyard is finished, and that he now has to go out and face the world alone. Silas himself is going away, to a home far away that Bod never even knew existed:
All the people here have had their lives, Bod, even if they were short ones. Now it’s your turn. You need to live.
He gives Bod a suitcase, a wallet full of money, and a passport made out in the name of Nobody Owens. At first, Bod is upset. Soon, however, he grows excited, asking Silas if he can go out and see the world he has heard about from Alonso and other ghosts. He says:
I want to see life. I want to hold it in my hands. I want to leave a footprint on the sand of a desert island. I want to play football with people I want....I want everything.
Bod offers to help Silas if he ever gets in trouble, although they both know Silas never does. Then Bod walks to the cemetery gates and says good-bye to Mrs. Owens. He tells her that he is going to go out and explore, meet people, get into and out of trouble. He steps out of the graveyard and goes to meet his life.
(The entire section is 424 words.)