Study Guide

The Graveyard Book Memory and the Past

By Neil Gaiman

Memory and the Past

“Where did you hear about the Romans,” asked her father.

“Everybody know,” replied Scarlett, with withering scorn.

“There were Celts,” said her mother. “They were here first. They go back before the Romans.

They were the people the Romans conquered.” (2.88-2.90)

Nice. Talk about a quick and dirty history lesson! We love this conversation between five-year-old Scarlett and her parents. Of course, if you’ve barely heard of Celts and Romans, all this might be rather confusing at first. Want to learn more? Check out this website.

“So were you the first to be buried here?” [asked Bod].

[…] “Almost the first,” said Caius Pompeius. “Before the Celts there were other people on this island. One of them was buried here.” (2.102-2.103)

Yep. Caius is talking about the Sleer. According to Caius, what is now the three-headed snake creature, was, thousands of years ago, some kind of person. Take that with the description of the Sleer in Chapter 7, and the novel asks more questions than it answers. For example, if the Sleer was a person at one time, how did it manage to turn into the Sleer?

“Are any of them buried in the graveyard, then?” asked Bod.

“Not a one,” said the girl, with a twinkle. “The Saturday after they drowned and toasted me, a carpet was delivered to Master Porringer, and it was a fine carpet. But it turned out […] it carried the plague in its patter, and by Monday the five of them were coughing blood, and their skins were gone as black as mine when they hauled me from the fire.” (4.81-4.82)

In Chapter 4, Bod meets Liza Hempstock, a witch who’s buried outside the graveyard. Bod and Liza’s conversation is about two sad parts of history – witch burning and the plagues that were sweeping the land at the time, killing lots of people. Do you think Liza <em>really</em> gave her killers the plague, or is she just trying to impress Bod with her extreme witch powers?

“Just giving you a helping hand,” [Liza] said. I may be dead, but I’m a dead witch, remember. And we don’t forget.” (4.233)

Remember, Chapter 4 was written before the other chapters in the novel. Liza bragging about her perfect memory in this chapter shows us how important memory and the past has always been to this book. This quote also shows us the beginnings of Liza’s loyalty to Bod. When she says she doesn’t forget, she means she won’t <em>ever</em> forget that he, in 500 years, is the first person to care enough about her to get her a headstone for her grave.

“You had parents. An older sister. They were killed. And I believe you were to have been killed as well […] (6.35)

When Bod is twelve years old, Silas tells him about his past. Bod doesn’t question it because he doesn't remember anything before his graveyard life.  His world is turned upside down when he learns about his past. Do you think there are secrets from your past – things you don’t remember – that would change your life if found out about them?

The first class was History – a subject Bod mostly enjoyed, although he often had to resist the urge to say that it happened like that, at least not according to the people who had been there anyway […] (6.170)

History is all about who tells the story. Each person who experiences an event, or who researches an event, will have some different opinion of it. We need to read about history from the point of view of many people to get a well-rounded view of it. The history you learn in school is a jumping off point for further research, not the end of the story.

“How could you make her forget me?” (7.789)

“People want to forget the impossible. It makes their world safer.” (7.790)

Like Bod, we have a really hard time with Silas wiping Scarlett’s memory of him. It seems cruel to both Scarlett and Bod. Knowing how precious his own memory is to him, Bod will probably question the wisdom of Silas’s decision for a long time to come.

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