Bruce's Reviews > The Gravedigger's Daughter

The Gravedigger's Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates
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's review
Dec 14, 2010

really liked it
Read in December, 2010

This novel is narrated by the main character, Rebecca, in the third person, primarily using free indirect discourse. Oates’ style is to make liberal use of sentence fragments, and these seem consistent with the FID approach. The initial section of the first of three parts of the book reveals Rebecca as a young woman of about 23, working in a sweatshop factory to support herself and her three-year-old son. Her husband, Niles Trignor, is often away from home at unknown locations for days and weeks at a time and is narcissistic and abusive, Rebecca accepting the passive role as her lot and making no attempt to challenge him or extricate herself from the situation. References are made to her hatred of her deceased father, who seems to have died violently.

The second major section of the novel jumps back to Rebecca’s childhood. Her parents were immigrants from Germany in 1936, settling in rural upstate New York. Her two older brothers traveled across the Atlantic with her parents, but she was actually born on the ship in NY Harbor, just as they arrived in the US. Her father, a university-educated high school math teacher in Germany (and the narrative suggests that the family is Jewish, although the parents deny and hate Judaism), is given the job of cemetery caretaker and gravedigger. Rebecca’s home life is very emotionally impoverished and physically abusive.

Oates’ use of dialogue is skillful; each character speaks distinctively, consistent with his or her personality, contributing to Oates’ development of psychology and plot.

Among other things, this novel is an exploration of the role and experience of the outsider, the “other.” And of the extent to which environment determines one’s character and fate. Rebecca’s family is accused of being Jewish, “Krauts,” Nazis, and their place as poor, uneducated, of marginal occupation make them perfect targets for the citizens of their small community. This part of the novel draws to a close as the mystery of what happened to Rebecca’s parents is revealed. After a few chapters outlining her life during the following few years, Niles Tignor enters the story. He and Rebecca eventually marry, largely because she will only submit to him sexually if they are married. Their relationship, which becomes physically abusive to her (she accepts that as “what she deserves”), is based on his intense sexual desire for her and her need to be needed and desired, there being little mutual sharing in any other way - she knows little about him and is not welcome to ask. One wonders how her background has driven this dynamic. Finally, after another severe beating from her “husband” (having learned that her marriage might not be valid), Rebecca flees with her son, thus ending Part I of three parts of the novel.

Oates has skillfully crafted an atmosphere that is oppressive and claustrophobic, the reader being powerfully drawn into Rebecca’s consciousness. The metaphors in this writing are sharp and effective, often passing subliminally in the reader’s own awareness.

In Part II, having changed her name and that of her son, Rebecca (now “Hazel”) works in a variety of menial jobs in a series of small towns in Upstate New York, always on the move, always providing little information about her background to those who ask. And increasingly the narrative moves into using free indirect discourse to explore the consciousness of “Zack,” her son. During the following few years, Hazel establishes a new identity, gradually becoming less vigilant about being found by Tignor. She is romantically pursued by Chet Gallagher, a well-to-do jazz pianist who is emotionally estranged from his wealthy family and very needy in his own right. Zack, in the meantime, is proving to be a musical prodigy, excelling at the piano. But Hazel continues to be wary, refusing to commit herself to a new relationship and hiding all aspects of her background. Eventually, though, she and Zack move in with Gallagher. Later, Hazel learns that Tignor is dead.

Part III, containing an Epilogue, is by far the shortest part of the novel. The denouement is as fitting as it is unexpected and thought-provoking.

This is a masterfully written novel, technically skillful and emotionally insightful, opening up new worlds and experiences to the reader and thus enlarging the reader’s own humanity, a privilege to have read and pondered.
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