The Gravedigger’s Daughter

By Joyce Carol Oates
Genre: Literary Fiction
Buy Now This book is on reading list for November 2011

Why We Like This Book

Interestingly enough, Gore Vidal told Christopher Hitchens that the three most dispiriting words in the English language were “Joyce Carol Oates”? You have to wonder if Oates’ dark view of men and her perpetual theme of the exploitation of women inspired Vidal’s remark. However, Oates generates much discussion and is not a universally loved writer of fiction.

But, you have to admire a writer who has won almost every major prize, including the National Book Award. She has a job — she teaches at Princeton University, where young Jonathan Safran Foer was her student. She makes speaking appearances, and she contributes short pieces to magazines, including Narrative and the New Yorker. She’s very busy — and she produces more work (I think more than 37 novels to date) than seems humanly possible. (LA Times).


And, who is more adept at describing the dark undercurrents of adolescent sexuality than Joyce Carol Oates? Her 2007 novel, The Gravedigger’s Daughter, centers on Rebecca, who is thrust into the world after her deranged father kills her mother and then himself with a shotgun. Rebecca’s two older brothers abandoned the family before the murder-suicide, leaving Rebecca alone in the world. Although she is taken in by her teacher who tries desperately to make a Christian out of her, the sixteen year old Rebecca winds up cleaning rooms at the George Washington Hotel. It is here that she meets Niles Tignor, a stranger that Rebecca innocently believes will marry her and carry her to a better life. Sadly, more violence awaits poor Rebecca, from which she seems unable to escape.

In her much anthologized story with a similar theme “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Joyce Carol Oates explores the turmoil that characterizes the life of an adolescent girl. The main character, a typically rebellious teenager named Connie, is contemptuous of adult authority who decided to forego a family outing to stay home and wash her hair. Now vulnerable to danger lurking in the adult world, Arnold Friend shows up at her front door. He taunts her and threatens to kill her family if she doesn’t leave her home with him. In the end, she joins him, and the reader is all too aware of the fate that awaits her in this dark story.

So, why should women read Joyce Carol Oates? In the end, is the draw of her fiction much like that of a bad car acccident–it’s just too hard not to look? This is surely an oversimplification of a woman writer who has a guaranteed place in the canon of American literature. What do you think? What novels or short stories have you read and how did you react to them? Let other smart women hear your opinion on the writer that led Vidal to make such a wicked statement.

Discussion Questions

1. The prologue of The Gravedigger’s Daughter begins and ends with the chilling statement, “In animal life the weak are quickly disposed of.” This quote is repeated throughout the novel, and it is even included in the epistolary section at the very end (572). What does this motif suggest about the theme of the novel? Are humans subject to the same rules of the wild as animals? And, if this is true, what is Oates trying to say about the Schwarts, and Jacob Schwart in particular?

2. Rebecca is stalked throughout the novel. Her brothers stalk her, a murderer (Byron Hendricks) stalks her, Tignor stalks her, and even the men who care for her feel like stalkers. And, she has to live with the knowledge that her father killed her mother and then himself. What do you make of Oates’ use of violence and, more importantly, the central character as the victim?

3. In the end, Hazel Jones (aka Rebecca Tignor/Rebecca Schwart), finds herself living a bourgeois life. Did she intentionally seek this out for herself and her son? Is she comfortable in this world? Why does she, in the end, go to the hotel kitchen and play cards with the staff?

4. Is The Gravedigger’s Daughter a novel about identity? Is Hazel defined by this title or is she able to shape her own destiny? How does the appearance of Freyda at the end tie into this theme of identity? Freyda also makes comments about the nature of identity, “No more would I wish to meet you than I would wish to meet myself” (573). Is Hazel ever able ‘to be herself’?

5. What do you make of the three-part structure of the novel: “In the Chautauqua Valley,” “In the World,” and “Beyond”?

6. How does sexuality function in the novel? In what way is it tied to Rebecca’s journey to adulthood and self-awareness?

Comment on“The Gravedigger’s Daughter”

  1. Reply Phyllis says:

    The book has everything a reader could want: complex plot, fine sense of place, interesting characters, and beautiful writing. It seemed overly long, but I kept reading it. However, I was less than pleased with the end: it seemed to go out with a whimper.

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