Joyce Carol Oates’ newest novel, The Gravedigger’s Daughter, reworks the story of a woman’s struggle for identity through the lead character, Rebecca Schwart. Born on a boat in New York Harbor in 1936, Rebecca was distinguished from birth from the rest of her family, who emigrated from Nazi Germany in hopes of American freedom. Instead, her father was forced to take a low-paying and humiliating job as the town gravedigger, a position that eventually drove the entire family into a spiral of destruction. Spared because of her American birth, Rebecca was forced to recreate herself apart from her violent past, first as the gravedigger’s daughter, and then as the battered wife of the controlling and deceptive Niles Tignor.
While the novel is imbued with elements of social injustice, especially regarding women, Oates does not speak out against them; instead, she assimilates her victimized character into an accepting, even perpetuating, member of such a society. Oates comments on the false charm of what is often called the “American dream,” demonstrating just what it is to make a life starting with nothing, and the limits of such a task. She takes on feminist themes of male violence and single motherhood, yet compellingly emphasizes her protagonist’s need to fit in effortlessly with the society that has only abused and discriminated against her.
Rebecca’s apparent triumph at immersing herself fully in her new identity as Hazel Jones is deceptive, for even at the end of her life, she continues to seek out love and acceptance from her family. Such failures contribute to the sincerity of Oates’ steely protagonistwho is further developed by the novel’s occasional change in perspective, stepping into the shoes of secondary characters in order to view Rebecca from the outside.
In Rebecca Schwart, Oates has constructed an epic character study of an American-born immigrant who, after 600 pages, almost seems to transcend fiction with its honest and subtle conclusion.
Joyce Carol Oates reads at Durham’s Regulator Bookshop 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 19, and at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books and Music 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 20.