The Gravedigger's Daughter
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 His job and his tiny home in the cemetery lead him to grow increasingly bitter and withdrawn from his wife and family.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.)