Joyce Oates: The Gravedigger’s Daughter

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Joyce Oates The Gravedigger’s Daughter
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    The Gravedigger’s Daughter
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In 1936 the Schwarts, an immigrant family desperate to escape Nazi Germany, settle in a small town in upstate New York, where the father, a former high school teacher, is demeaned by the only job he can get: gravedigger and cemetery caretaker. After local prejudice and the family's own emotional frailty result in unspeakable tragedy, the gravedigger's daughter, Rebecca, begins her astonishing pilgrimage into America, an odyssey of erotic risk and imaginative daring, ingenious self-invention, and, in the end, a bittersweet-but very "American"-triumph. "You are born here, they will not hurt you"-so the gravedigger has predicted for his daughter, which will turn out to be true. In The Gravedigger's Daughter, Oates has created a masterpiece of domestic yet mythic realism, at once emotionally engaging and intellectually provocative: an intimately observed testimony to the resilience of the individual to set beside such predecessors as The Falls, Blonde, and We Were the Mulvaneys.

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Joyce Carol Oates

The Gravedigger’s Daughter



“In animal life the weak are quickly disposed of.”

He’d been dead for ten years. Buried in his mangled parts for ten years. Unmourned for ten years. You would think that she, his adult daughter, a man’s wife now and the mother of her own child, would be rid of him by now. God damn she had tried! She hated him. His kerosene eyes, his boiled-tomato face. She gnawed her lips raw hating him. Where she was most vulnerable, at work. On the assembly line at Niagara Fiber Tubing where the noise lulled her into a trance she heard him. Where her teeth rattled from the conveyor belt vibrations she heard him. Where her mouth tasted like dried cow shit she heard him. Hated him! Turning in a crouch thinking it might be a joke, a crude trick, one of her asshole co-workers shouting into her ear. Like some guy’s fingers poking her breasts through the coveralls or digging into her crotch and she’s paralyzed unable to turn her attention away from the strips of tubing on the rubber belt moving jerkily along and always faster than you wanted. Damned steamed-up goggles hurting her face. Shutting her eyes breathing the foul dusty air through her mouth which she knew better than to do. An instant of shame, soul-withering, live-or-die-what-the-hell that came over her sometimes in moments of exhaustion or sorrow and she groped for the object on the belt that in that instant had no name, no identity, and no purpose, risking her hand being hooked by the stamping machine and half the fingers smashed before she could shake her head free and clear of him who spoke calmly knowing he would be heard above the machine clatter. “So you must hide your weak ness, Rebecca.” His face close to hers as if they were conspirators. They were not, they had nothing in common. They looked in no way alike. She hated the sour smell of his mouth. That face that was a boiled, burst tomato. She’d seen that face exploding in blood, gristle, brains. She’d wiped that face off her bare forearms. She’d wiped that face off her own damn face! She’d picked that face out of her hair. Ten years ago. Ten years and almost four months to the day. For never would she forget that day. She was not his. She had never been his. Nor had she belonged to her mother. You could discern no resemblance among them. She was an adult woman now twenty-three years old which astonished her, she had lived so long. She had survived them. She was not a terrified child now. She was the wife of a man who was a true man and not a sniveling coward and a murderer, and this man had given her a baby, a son, whom he, her dead father, would never see. What pleasure that gave her, he would never see his grandson. Never utter his poison-words into the child’s ears. Yet still he approached her. He knew her weakness. When she was exhausted, when her soul shrank to the size of a wizened grape. In this clamorous place where his words had acquired a powerful machine rhythm and authority that beat beat beat her into stunned submission.

“In animal life the weak are quickly disposed of. So you must hide your weakness, Rebecca. We must.”

Chautauqua Falls, New York


One afternoon in September 1959 a young woman factory worker was walking home on the towpath of the Erie Barge Canal, east of the small city of Chautauqua Falls, when she began to notice that she was being followed, at a distance of about thirty feet, by a man in a panama hat.

A panama hat! And strange light-colored clothes, of a kind not commonly seen in Chautauqua Falls.

The young woman’s name was Rebecca Tignor. She was married, her husband’s name Tignor was one of which she was terribly vain.


So in love, and so childish in her vanity, though not a girl any longer, a married woman a mother. Still she uttered “Tignor” a dozen times a day.

Thinking now as she began to walk faster He better not be following me, Tignor won’t like it.

To discourage the man in the panama hat from wishing to catch up with her and talk to her as men sometimes, not often but sometimes, did, Rebecca dug the heels of her work shoes into the towpath, gracelessly. She was nerved-up anyway, irritable as a horse tormented by flies.

She’d almost smashed her hand in a press, that day. God damn she’d been distracted!

And now this. This guy! Sent him a mean look over her shoulder, not to be encouraged.

No one she knew?

Didn’t look like he belonged here.

In Chautauqua Falls, men followed her sometimes. At least, with their eyes. Most times Rebecca tried not to notice. She’d lived with brothers, she knew “men.” She wasn’t the shy fearful little-girl type. She was strong, fleshy. Wanting to think she could take care of herself.

But this afternoon felt different, somehow. One of those wan warm sepia-tinted days. A day to make you feel like crying, Christ knew why.

Not that Rebecca Tignor cried. Never.

And: the towpath was deserted. If she shouted for help…

This stretch of towpath she knew like the back of her hand. A forty-minute walk home, little under two miles. Five days a week Rebecca hiked the towpath to Chautauqua Falls, and five days a week she hiked back home. Quick as she could manage in her damn clumsy work shoes.

Sometimes a barge passed her on the canal. Livening things up a little. Exchanging greetings, wisecracks with guys on the barges. Got to know a few of them.

But the canal was empty now, both directions.

God damn she was nervous! Nape of her neck sweating. And inside her clothes, armpits leaking. And her heart beating in that way that hurt like something sharp was caught between her ribs.

“Tignor. Where the hell are you.”

She didn’t blame him, really. Oh but hell she blamed him.

Tignor had brought her here to live. In late summer 1956. First thing Rebecca read in the Chautauqua Falls newspaper was so nasty she could not believe it: a local man who’d murdered his wife, beat her and threw her into the canal somewhere along this very-same deserted stretch, and threw rocks at her until she drowned. Rocks! It had taken maybe ten minutes, the man told police. He had not boasted but he had not been ashamed, either.

Bitch was tryin to leave me, he said.

Wantin to take my son.

Such a nasty story, Rebecca wished she’d never read it. The worst thing was, every guy who read it, including Niles Tignor, shook his head, made a sniggering noise with his mouth.

Rebecca asked Tignor what the hell that meant: laughing?

“You make your bed, now lay in it.”

That’s what Tignor said.

Rebecca had a theory, every female in the Chautauqua Valley knew that story, or one like it. What to do if a man throws you into the canal. (Could be the river, too. Same difference.) So when she’d started working in town, hiking the towpath, Rebecca dreamt up a way of saving herself if/when the time came.

Her thoughts were so bright and vivid she’d soon come to imagine it had already happened to her, or almost. Somebody (no face, no name, a guy bigger than she was) shoved her into the muddy-looking water, and she had to struggle to save her life. Right away pry off your left shoe with the toe of your right shoe then the other quick! And then-She’d have only a few seconds, the heavy work shoes would sink her like anvils. Once the shoes were off she’d have a chance at least, tearing at her jacket, getting it off before it was soaked through. Damn work pants would be hard to get off, with a fly front, and buttons, and the legs kind of tight at the thighs, Oh shit she’d have to be swimming, too, in the direction the opposite of her murderer…

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