The Graveyard Book | Study Guide

Neil Gaiman

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The Graveyard Book | Themes

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Alienation

The Graveyard Book is full of the theme of alienation and applies the concept to many of its characters. Groups are divided against other groups and amongst themselves. Characters, cultures, and races are shown as being divided. The concept that a person or a group is shunned or divided from another group or activity is part of humanity no matter how sad and unfair it might be.

When Silas says "I have not danced it" in response to Bod asking if he's been part of the Danse Macabre, he is letting Bod know that he's not allowed to participate in the Danse Macabre. Silas is stressing how much this alienates him. The Danse Macabre is an event that comes around only a few times a century where the living and the dead dance together to celebrate life and death. Silas does not "fit" into either the group of the living or the group of the dead so he is not allowed to be a part of this amazing tradition. Silas is not depicted as an emotional character. He is stern and rather emotionless. When he tells Bod about the Danse Macabre, he feels sad that he cannot be a part of it. When Silas is hiding in the shadows to watch the dance he feels isolated and wants to be a part of the celebration. His feelings underscore the fact that anyone who is being left out feels isolated and alienated in some way.

Liza Hempstock is another example of someone who experiences alienation in the story. Liza has no headstone because she was drowned and burned as a witch so she did not receive a proper burial and the respect of getting a headstone. Bod asks Liza "Are any of them buried in the graveyard, then?" Liza responds by saying "Not a one" because everyone buried in the field where she was buried lacks a headstone. The field they are buried in can't be considered a graveyard.

This action taken by the living alienates her in death. The ghosts of the graveyard don't see her as a part of the graveyard community, and the rules of the graveyard don't even apply to her. While she might have more freedom to move about than the graveyard ghosts, she would rather have the restrictions and rules in place and feel like she is a part of that community.

Good vs. Evil

The concept of good versus evil in The Graveyard Book is turned upside down compared to the traditional version seen in so many stories from the past. So many stories revolve around the good guys versus the bad guys, but this story changes some of the players involved in that basic plot element.

Many stories that involve death, vampires, ghosts, and werewolves, cast those characters as the evil ones. Vampires hunt humans to drink their blood. Werewolves attack innocent victims during the full moon. Ghosts haunt their old houses and hide in children's closets. Graveyards are almost always viewed as scary places where no one should venture, especially at night. The Graveyard Book turns the scary graveyard image into a lively place. The ghosts are the kind saviors in the story. Bod, as a baby, crawls away from a murderous human named Jack and is protected by the ghosts in the graveyard. Bod spends his entire life in the graveyard knowing that the scary and dangerous place is outside the graveyard. The good place here is the bad place in most other stories.

Silas is assumed to be a vampire even though he is never described as one directly. He can fly, he can move in the world of the living, and his movements and demeanor hint toward that fact. Vampires are most often the villain in literature. The brave hunter that sets out to slay the vampire that is terrorizing the village is a common good versus evil theme. Humans versus the supernatural is another way that the theme manifests itself in the story. Silas is Bod's guardian in the story, and he spends his boyhood protecting Bod. Ironically Silas is protecting Bod from a human who wants to kill him and finish his job from years before. Silas implies at the end of the story that he used to be a bad guy but has changed his ways.

When Bod is being dragged toward the ghoul city of Ghulheim, he sees that a huge grey dog is following them. Initially Bod is fearful of the dog but learns soon after that the werewolf is a substitute guardian Miss Lupescu. The narrative is flipped again, and the scary supernatural being known as the werewolf is the savior of the human and not his enemy.

The real bad guys are human and Bod is being supported and saved by the supernatural beings even though the story contains some of the traditional "bad guys" like school bullies and unscrupulous shop owners.

Greed

The theme of greed is shown several times in the story and plays a vital role in the outcome. The first glimpse of greed appears at the pawnshop. Initially the owner doesn't want to buy from Bod, but when he sees the brooch the shop owner is enamored. He lures Bod in by saying "I've got a packet of chocolate chip cookies in the back room—and decide how much something like this is worth? Eh?" Instead of offering a low price, he locks Bod up in the back room with the intent of stealing the item. He calls in his friend to see the brooch, and they end up arguing to the point that one man tries to poison the other and they knock themselves unconscious in a brawl over who is going to get the brooch. The fact that they fight greedily over the brooch brings on the unintended consequence of losing the item and the boy altogether.

Jack, who is the man who killed Bod's family, has Scarlett who is Bod's living friend held at knifepoint in the tomb of the Sleer. He is holding all the cards. Bod is not armed, and Jack is much stronger and more skilled than Bod. Jack's greed gets in the way. Not only does he want to use the precious items in the tomb for a killing ritual, but he also cannot turn down the offer to be the master of the Sleer. As soon as he hears about the Sleer needing a master, Jack says, "It's been waiting for me. And yes. Obviously, I am its new master." The Sleer is the spirit living in the tomb and it wants a new master to protect. His oversized desire to want more and more leads Jack to his own demise. The concept of greed expands beyond the two most obvious characters as well. The Sleer itself is a true epitome of greed. The Sleer exclaims that it wants to wrap itself around its master and hold its master in its coils forever. It might seem on the surface that the Sleer is just loyal to its master, but looking deeper, the Sleer is greed itself. The Sleer has spent centuries in the tomb guarding a treasure and keeping others out. It has been there so long that it doesn't even remember who its master is and asks Bod to be its new master. If the Sleer were a symbol of loyalty, then it would have left the tomb and sought out its master. Instead it just looks for a new master.

Greed is almost always portrayed as a bad thing, and it is no different in The Graveyard Book. Each time a character acts upon their own desire for more, they end up hurting themselves and end up with nothing.

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