The Gravedigger's Daughter

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Joyce Carol Oates is a prolific writer with a special facility for language and the ability to use it masterfully to tell a compelling story. In this respect, her thirty-sixth novel is much like those that preceded it. Like her earlier works, The Gravedigger’s Daughter is compounded of dark and sometimes brutal adventures, which the heroine cannot seem entirely to evade. However, the courage, endurance, and ingenuity of the heroine finally pays off in that she lives to triumph over her somber and dangerous past.

Oates begins her story with Rebecca Tignor walking home from her factory job along a deserted path and noticing that a well-dressed man is walking behind her. The man seems benign enough, but it becomes clear that he is obviously intent on following her. She wishes that the love of her life, her husband Niles Tignor, were present to protect her from any danger. Finally, the man talks to her, and it seems that he has mistaken her for another person, a woman named Hazel Jones. Rebecca protests that she is not Hazel Jones, but the gentleman, Dr. Byron Hendricks, gives her his business card and asks that if she knows Hazel Jones, would she please be in touch with him. It seems that Rebecca Tignor has eluded what had seemed to be a dangerous situation. An even more dangerous situation will occur not much later when her brutal husband, in a drunken rage, accuses her of infidelity, beats his small son, Niley, into unconsciousness, and almost kills Rebecca. When Tignor falls asleep in a drunken stupor, Rebecca takes her son and her husband’s car and sets off on a long journey from small town to small town, hoping to elude Niles.

This lonely journey is not the first for Rebecca. Her Jewish parents were fleeing the Nazis when Rebecca was born, without medical help, on a refugee ship docked in New York harbor. She was thus the only one in her family born an American citizen. Rebecca’s father, Jacob Schwart, an educated and successful teacher in Germany, could get work in America only as a gravedigger and cemetery caretaker in the small town of Milburn in upstate New York. He sets his family up in the tiny gravedigger’s cottage located in the cemetery. His job and his tiny home in the cemetery lead him to grow increasingly bitter and withdrawn from his wife and family. In response to her husband’s bitterness, Rebecca’s mother, Anna, virtually ceases to exist as a sentient person.

Despite the problems at home, Rebecca proves a very bright child and actually wins a spelling contest in grade school. The dictionary, engraved with her name, that she wins as a prize remains with her throughout her life, reminding her of her intelligence and aptitude for hard work. Rebecca’s two older brothers, Herschel and August, do not do as well in school as Rebecca, and they finally leave home in their teens. Herschel leaves, fleeing police, after a terrible Halloween night when swastikas were painted all over the cemetery and the Schwart cottage. The emotional blow caused Herschel to seek out the young men he considered perpetrators, severely beating two of them. The third he knocked unconscious and cut a swastika into his forehead, mutilating him for life. Herschel then disappeared from town and never contacted his family again. Not long after, August left also, and only the thirteen-year-old Rebecca remained. She quit school to help her father, but Jacob Schwart could never recover from the awful Halloween. He grew more and more distraught and dark-minded, and, indeed, even his family name, Schwart, suggests the German word swartz, black, which sums up his final emotional state. Ultimately Jacob’s despair leads him to kill his wife and attempt to kill Rebecca. Failing in that, he turns the rifle upon himself, blowing his head into pieces all over his terrified daughter. The distraught Rebecca flees the cemetery and the catastrophic demise of her parents.

As a ward of the state, Rebecca is taken in by her former teacher, Miss Lutter, and for several years she becomes more and more dominated by the very pious and very Christian old maid. At seventeen, Rebecca can no longer endure the constraints of Miss Lutter’s house, and she moves in with two of her former schoolmates. She obtains a...

(The entire section is 1732 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A collection of critical essays on Oates with a fine introduction by one of the most prominent literary scholars of the twentieth century.

Cologne-Brookes, Gavin. Dark Eyes on America: The Novels of Joyce Carol Oates. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005. Presents analysis of selected significant works by Oates, with a focus on exposing her philosophical and cultural worldviews. Valuable addition to studies of Oates’s work.

Johnson, Greg. Understanding Joyce Carol Oates. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987. A good introduction to Oates for the general reader that examines both her early major novels and some of her best-known stories. Includes biographical material and a bibliography.

Oates, Joyce Carol. The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973-1982. Edited by Greg Johnson. New York: Ecco Press, 2007. A wide-ranging collection of thoughtful, reflective entries traces Oates’s life, including her work as a professor. Provides a record of her productivity as a writer as well as insight into her philosophical explorations and her views of the human condition.

Wagner, Linda, ed. Critical Essays on Joyce Carol Oates. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979. A collection of twenty-eight reviews and essays that includes discussions of particular works and analyses of Oates’s general themes and stylistic considerations. Supplemented with a chronology and a bibliography as well as a short, refreshing preface by Oates.

Wesley, Marilyn. Refusal and Transgression in Joyce Carol Oates’s Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. A feminist analysis that focuses on the family as portrayed in Oates’s fiction. Contends that the young protagonists of many of Oates’s stories and novels commit acts of transgression that serve as critiques of the American family.