The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman
Nobody "Bod" Owens
Bod is the most Goth kid you’ll ever meet – he lives in a graveyard and is raised by ghosts, a vampire, and a werewolf, for Pete’s sake. He has Freedom of the Graveyard, which means he can communicate with the dead, move through walls, and is invisible to most humans (so long as he’s in the graveyard).
For most of the story, readers know more about Bod than he knows himself. (Your teacher would call this “dramatic irony,” which means that the reader understands more about what's going on than the character does.) We are there when Bod’s parents and sister are killed, but Bod doesn’t even know he’s an orphan until he’s about ten years old. Knowing what Bod doesn’t know makes his life seem sadder. As with the graveyard folks, this knowledge makes us feel very protective toward Bod.
Even though we get to see many sides of Bod, his character is always mysterious. Think of it like this: Bod has to remain hidden from most of the living, and most of his companions are ghosts or supernatural creatures. Plus, Bod, because he hasn’t had enough interaction with living people, hasn’t had a chance to develop his character in the same way that other kids his age do. We think that a lot of his character is still in development – it will only reveal itself (to readers and to Bod) when Bod begins to live his life outside the graveyard. (Hey, Neil Gaiman! You better write that sequel you promised.)
Bod the Student
Even though Bod lives in a graveyard and is raised by ghosts, he's a student, just like a normal kid. Does that mean he's learning about spelling, long division, and the parts of a plant cell? Well, not exactly. Bod learns stuff like reading, writing, geography, and everything else in Mr. Pennyworth's Compleat Education System for Younger Gentlemen with Additional Material for Those Post-Mortem. But his most important lessons are about other things.
Like other fantasy book heroes, Bod has to learn the skills he needs to survive in his world. Harry Potter learns Defense Against the Dark Arts, Potions, and Transfiguration. Percy Jackson learns Greek mythology, sword fighting, and how to kill monsters. Tom Ward learns how to bind boggarts and catch witches with a silver chain.
What does Bod Owens learn? Let's make a quick list. (You can add more to the list yourself.)
- Slipping and Fading. These skills let Bod "Slip through shadows. Fade from awareness" (4.35). They help him avoid the Jacks and anyone else who might hurt him.
- The nine types of people (the living, the dead, the day-folk, the night-folk, ghouls, mist-walkers, high hunters, Hounds of God, and solitary types). Miss Lupescu's lessons on the types of "people" in the world help Bod understand the ghouls, Hounds of God (like Miss Lupescu), and solitary types (like Silas), in particular.
- How to call for help in every language of the world (including Night-Gaunt). When Bod learn these languages from Miss Lupescu, he's thinks they're useless. But he's totally wrong. Knowing how to ask for help in Night-Gaunt keeps him from becoming ghoul-food. When ghouls have kidnapped Bod, he's able to call to the night-gaunts and get help.
- Dreamwalk. Bod master the skilling of Dreamwalking in order to frighten Nick Farthing out of ever bullying another kid again.
Bod has always been curious, and has always asked Silas, the Owenses, and everyone else in the graveyard tons and tons of questions. But he hasn't always been a great student. You know, at first he's horribly bored by Miss Lupescu and all. Later, when he finds out that his lessons are practical (they're useful in his daily life), he becomes more interested in his studies.
Bod becomes especially interested in his education when he finds out that his family was murdered by an evil man, and that man wants Bod dead too. When Silas tell him this, Bod instantly wants revenge, and Bod’s approach to revenge is to learn as much as he can. When Mrs. Owens tells him “there’s nothing [he] can do” (7.31), Bod disagrees:
"I can learn everything I need to know, all I can. I learned about ghoul-gates. I learned to Dreamwalk. Miss Lupescu taught me how to watch the stars. Silas taught me silence. I can Haunt. I can Fade. I know every inch of this graveyard." (7.31)
We can’t forget the importance of Silas’s role in motivating Bod’s thirst for knowledge, and making Bod believe that knowledge is important. For example, Silas tells Bod,
“You’re alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you change the world, the world will change. Potential. Once you’re dead it’s gone. Over.” (6.39)
Wow. Maybe when he's not in the graveyard Silas secretly works as a motivational speaker.
When we get to Chapter 7, we see all of Bod’s lessons coming together. When Bod fights the Jacks, everything he has learned prepares him for that moment. We get the sense that fighting the Jacks is just one (major) episode with many more heroic episodes to come. And his training has served him well. What do you think his most important educational experience is and why?
Is Bod a World Hero?
Bod's education allows him to defeat the Jacks, but he also seems to be fated to destroy them. We get hints that destroying the Jacks is part of Bod's destiny. We know that from what Jack Dandy says in Chapter 7:
“Long time ago, one of our people – that was back in Egypt, in pyramid days – he foresaw that one day, there would be a child born would walk the borderland of the living and the dead. That if this child grew to adulthood it would mean the end of our order and all that we stand for.” (7.605)
This sure sounds like it's about Bod, right? Bod definitely is in "the borderland of the living and the dead," and he certainly seems to have ended the Jacks' organization.
Jack Dandy shares that the Jacks get their power from killing others, though it’s not really clear how all that works. In the Interlude we get a peek at the meeting of the Jacks. One important thing we learn from this chapter is that the Jacks are pretending to be a group of men who focus on doing good deeds (right…). Another important thing is that there are Jacks all over the world. We can put all that together and guess that the Jacks are part of what keeps evil alive in the world. By stopping the last of the Jacks, Bod has probably helped make the world a much better place.
Of course, one of the Jacks – Jack Ketch – is still alive when Chapter 7 ends. Chapter 8, the last chapter of the novel, doesn’t tell us what Silas does with him. If Jack Ketch is still alive, Bod might have to battle him in the future. What we wonder, though, is if things in the world are beginning to change now that the Jacks no longer exist. Without knowing this, it’s hard to say how much Bod’s actions affect the world as a whole.
Is Bod a Monster?
“You aren’t a person. People don’t behave like you. You’re as bad as he was. You’re a monster.” (7.772)
This is what Scarlett says to Bod when he feeds one of the Jacks to the Sleer. He doesn't seem to understand what she's saying, but we do. Scarlett is horrified by the way Bod has treated the Jacks. Sure the Jacks are evil, but did Bod have to treat them with cruelty in return? Does that make Bod evil too?
This is where a discussion of Fate and Free Will becomes really important, so listen up. Even if Bod was intended, or fated, to destroy the Jacks, he’s the one who chooses the way he gets rid of them. Granted, Bod is fighting for his life, and for Scarlett’s. It’s not like Bod can sit down and reason with Jacks, or call the cops, or something. So what should he have done? And was he treating the Jacks cruelly?
Come to think of it, Bod might have a bit of a mean streak that he needs to work on. Remember how he treated Maureen (“Mo”) Quilling and Nick Farthing? Terrifying them in their dreams and all? Yes, like the Jacks, they’re terrible bullies. Yes, like the Jacks, they can’t be reasoned with. Yes, like the Jacks, they have no regard for the feelings of others. But, they’re just young kids. We wonder what Bod would have found if he looked deeper into their lives. Perhaps Mo and Nick are being bullied by someone and taking it out on their peers. Yet, Bod seems to be really proud with how he deals with them.
This is a typical quality in a hero – audiences like to see the bad people get doses of their own medicine. But Scarlett asks us if this is the best way we can be. She thinks that Bod could have dealt with Jack in a way other than feeding him to the nasty Sleer. She thinks that Bod enjoyed Jack’s suffering, and that revenge made his actions that much less heroic. What do you think? If you had to rewrite that section of The Graveyard Book to make things happen in a way that Scarlett would approve of, what would you write?
Bod might be relieved to know he’s in good company. Many of our heroes wouldn’t stand up to Scarlett’s standards. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars are two examples of teens who battle evil in much the same way Bod does. Like Bod, they use a combination of violence and smarts to foil their enemies. In Veronica Mars, teen-detective Veronica’s father Keith prevents her from being too cruel. Other than Scarlett, no one in the graveyard has questioned Bod’s methods. These types of heroes are fascinating because of how they can act on both sides of the good and bad. They’re successful at what they do often because they have some quality that someone like Scarlett would consider evil.Timeline