A Thesis Proposal on Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book

Formation of Nobody’s Identity in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book

  1. Introduction

The root of fantasy literature dates back before the inception of printed literature. The classical mythologies, like that of Homer and Virgil, had introduced supernatural elements. The world of such genre is imaginary and the characters possess supernatural qualities that are in no way accessible in reality. Coming to the modern and postmodern era, this genre has gained wider popularity. We can observe slight changes in the pattern of writing fantasy novels in recent years. Hence, the modern fantastic works are more relatable to reality than the earlier ones.

In the past, writers were considered to be the most gifted humans and they had an easy time convincing their readers to believe in the supernatural. However, it might be because of the growth of intellectual readership, modernist writers have shifted their approaches. Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is an excellent work of fantasy while at the same time it relates to reality. In spite of being a fantasy novel, this book evokes a sense that reality can never be neglected. The Saussurean notion of binary opposition (between fantasy and reality) is well executed.

Coming of age is a literary genre that focuses on the growth of a character, basically the protagonist, of the text. This growth constitutes both physical and psychological and the narrative’s time passes as per the requirement for natural growth. If a literary text is in the first person narrative, the narrator is, by and large, a teenager. When it is in the third person narrative, there is a great possibility of the story beginning from the subject’s childhood, for s/he is supposedly unable to express.

In the proposed thesis, the researcher will make an extensive analysis of identity formation of Nobody Owens in the English author Neil Gaiman’s children’s fantasy The Graveyard Book. This novel is set, especially, at a graveyard in an imaginary place called Old Town, in England – where the living and the dead and the in-between (neither alive nor dead) beings are living together. There are varieties of beings at the graveyard: the dead – who live a normal graveyard life; the Sleer – who guards the treasure (the brooch, the knife, and the bowl); the ghouls – who open graves to eat the dead bodies; the night-gaunts – who fly down from the sky to steal dead bodies from the ghouls.

The story begins when a couple and a daughter are brutally murdered by a mysterious man named Jack Frost, and an eighteen months’ orphan boy crawls up and reaches a graveyard. The inhabitants of the graveyard i.e. ghosts, christen him Nobody Owens, Bod for short, and all of them take him in.

The inhabitants unanimously give him the freedom of the graveyard that includes the ability to fading in front of other living humans, seeing in the darkness, fearlessness, etc. He is adopted by the Victorian ghosts of Mr. and Mrs. Owens as a son and is brought up there till his adolescence. Silas, a man who claims to be neither living nor dead, is the guardian who initiates Nobody into schooling by reading epitaphs. When he is away, Miss Lupescu takes Silas’ place. The child gradually excels in history. However, the more knowledge he gains and the older he gets the more he feels lonely.

He gradually loses the freedom of the graveyard. He also feels that he is different from other beings at the graveyard. Not only does he feel strange at the graveyard but the ghosts themselves tell him that he does not belong there. In a dramatic manner, Bod begins his life from the graveyard and ends up leaving there to finally start living in the real world. Unlike gothic novels which demonize the scenes of death and graveyard, fantasy novels, like The Graveyard Book, valorize the same issue to some extent, thereby proposing a neutral perspective. Gaiman explores the calm and peaceful attributes of the death and the graveyard but at the same time, he also shows the irrelevance of fantasy.

  1. Statement of the Problem

One of the basic tenets of fantasy literature is that the main character makes a circular journey – from reality to unreal and again back to reality. In the case of The Graveyard Book, Nobody Owens moves from reality (home) to fantasy (the graveyard) and again back to reality (the real world). At the center of The Graveyard Book is the problematization of human identity, epitomized by Nobody Owens. Because it is a fantasy novel, there is no mention of the word ‘identity’ but the whole story revolves around it. However, the writer’s take of human identity is quite interesting.

What is the intention behind bringing historical figures like Harry S. Truman, Victor Hugo, Jonathan Swift, Minister of Bath and Soul, etc. to the graveyard? What can be the reason behind Bod reading Dr. Seus’ The Cat in the Hat and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels? In spite of having all the qualities that the dead possess, Bod is more humane regarding the treatment of the witch named Liza Hemphstock. Why does the writer give sympathizing attribute to Bod when he is at the graveyard? Why is the protagonist compelled to leave the real world initially and to return during his adolescence? What is the reason behind using the third person point of view in the narrative?

  1. Hypothesis

The reason for introducing historical figures in the text might be to assure the readers that human identity lies in their contributions given to their world. Bod feels that it is a human responsibility to give a proper funeral and a headstone to the dead. The implicit meaning is that human identity is formed by the culture they follow.

Moreover, the reference of The Cat in the Hat and Gulliver’s Travels play very significant roles in making Bod think about his identity. These books, signifying education, are the tools that make him realize he actually belongs somewhere else beyond the graveyard.

From his early childhood, Bod is aware of his safety, for he merely survives a murder and leaves home in search of a safer place. By deploying the third person point of view in the narrative, Gaiman might be trying to give justice to his argument of the social identity of human beings. It is because a character cannot be defined solely by itself, rather it needs other associations. Hence, he is aspiring to give as much objectivity to human identity as possible by placing multiple perspectives.

  1. Methodology

The researcher, in the proposed thesis, will deploy Erik Erikson’s concept of psychosocial development as a theoretical tool in order to analyze the procedural formation of Nobody’s identity. Entitled as “Eight Ages of Man”, the seventh chapter of his book Childhood and Society is a discussion about the following stages of psychosocial development.

  • Trust vs. Mistrust (infancy),
  • Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt (early childhood),
  • Initiative vs. Guilt (preschool),
  • Industry vs. Inferiority (school age),
  • Identity vs. Role Confusion (adolescence),
  • Intimacy vs. Isolation (young adulthood),
  • Generativity vs. Stagnation (middle adulthood), and
  • Ego Integrity vs. Despair (maturity) (Erikson 222-243).

Erikson’s psychoanalytic theory observes eight stages that a person supposedly passes through while growing up from infancy to adulthood. By ‘psychosocial development’, Erikson means that psychological development and socialization process of a character go hand in hand. Changes do not take place out of the blue. Like physical growth, psychosocial development also takes place gradually at a certain pace. It seems a very common knowledge but Erikson has minutely studied what we have so far been avoiding.

Since the genre of this novel is coming of age, also roughly known as bildungsroman, and the protagonist, Bod, grows up only to become an adolescent, this research paper will strictly follow the first five of the above-mentioned stages and discard the remaining. Firstly, the researcher will explore the associability between Erikson’s theory and Gaiman’s narrative. By using this method, it will study how, in each successive stage, Nobody implicitly develops the consciousness of identity.

  1. Review of Literature

Western literary enthusiasts have carried out a wide variety of researches on Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. On the contrary, the eastern researchers have not produced many significant papers on the book.

Patrick Ness, in The Guardian, has written an article entitled “Ghost Stories,” naming the story as both ‘delightful’ and ‘scary’ at the same time. Ness is interested in the naming of Bod Owens and his successive growth by two years in each chapter. He also implicitly mentions about Bod’s feelings toward other human beings.

Bod also makes a human friend, the precocious Scarlett, who assumes Bod must be imaginary because her parents tell her so. She moves away and the young Bod is heartbroken. As the years pass, he longs for human company and finally convinces guardian Silas to allow him to attend the local school (Ness par. 5).

Monica Edinger, a teacher at the Dalton City School, has published an article “Raised by Ghosts” in The New York Times, mostly emphasizing the highs and lows of Nobody’s life during his stay at the graveyard. She says:

When he is 12 things change, and the novel’s momentum and tension pick up as he learns why he has been in the graveyard all this time and what he needs to do to leave” (par. 5).

She, definitely, is aware of the consciousness of Bod but her analysis is very shallow.

Aleesa Marie Millet, pursuing the degree of Master of Arts at the Eastern Michigan University, has written her thesis on The Graveyard Book. The title of her thesis is “Only a Body ‘Who nobody owns:’ Adolescent Identity in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.” Her thesis revolves around the concept of adolescent literature, of which struggle for identity is a major theme and a textual analysis of Gaiman’s novel. Furthermore, she introduces the concept of heterotopias in her analysis and claims:

the graveyard is as much of a character as Bod, creating a sort of heterotopias for him to escape ‘normal’ society (Millet 13).

Talking about the identity of Bod Owens, she only explores a need of the normalcy. Nobody is an abnormal being at the graveyard so he does not belong there.

  1. Research Gap

Approaching the primary text in a different manner, the researcher will emphasize the gradual growth of Bod Owens’ consciousness about his identity. When I approach it with the theoretical tool of Erik Erikson’s psychosocial development, my research will delve deeper into the psyche of the protagonist.

Apart from analyzing the apparent features, this research paper will be digging out what is in the mind of the protagonist by using the first five of Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development as the key. Unlike Sigmund Freud, who propounded the theory of psychosexual development, Erikson proposed the theory of psychosocial development. Erikson believes that personality develops in a series of stages (222). The socialization and the identity formation of Gaiman’s protagonist take a similar process.

Hence, this research will depart from other researches by thoroughly studying the psychosocial development Nobody Owens.

Works Cited

Edinger, Monica. “Raised by Ghosts.” The New York Times. 13 February 2009, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/2009/02/15/books/review/Edinger-t.html.

Erikson, Erik H. “Eight Ages of Man.” Childhood and Society. 6th edition, Paladin Crafton Books, 1987, pp. 222-247.

Gaiman, Neil. The Graveyard Book. Bloomsbury, 2008..

Millet, Aleesa Marie. “Only a Body ‘who nobody owns:’ Adolescent Identity in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.” Master’s Theses and Doctoral Dissertations. Eastern Michigan University, 2015.

Ness, Patrick. “Ghost stories.” The Guardian. 25 October 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/oct/25/booksforchildrenandteenagers-neilgaiman.

Annotated Bibliography

Edinger, Monica. “Raised by Ghosts.” The New York Times. 13 February 2009, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/2009/02/15/books/review/Edinger-t.html.

Edinger is a teacher at New York-based Dalton City School. She succinctly summarizes the plot and further argues that in spite of the novel being about murder, death, and graveyard, it is not horrific. Hence, children can enjoy this gothic novel while having no fear at all.

Erikson, Erik H. “Eight Ages of Man.” Childhood and Society. 6th edition, Paladin Crafton Books, 1987, pp. 222-247.

In this chapter of his book, Erikson asserts that the given eight stages are the procedural requirements for a healthy growth of an individual from infancy to adulthood. Erikson’s theoretical proposition can be spotted through Nobody Owens in Gaiman’s novel.

Gaiman, Neil. The Graveyard Book. Bloomsbury, 2008.

Gaiman is one of the most famous living fantasy authors. His The Graveyard Book is the primary text of the proposed thesis. The researcher will carry out his thesis by bringing several theoretical and critical resources.

Hall, Stuart. “The Spectacle of the Other”. Representation: Cultural Studies and Signifying Practices. SAGE Publications Ltd., 1997, pp. 223-290.

In this essay, Hall, a renowned cultural critic, succinctly analyses how the ‘difference’ is represented. In this thesis, Nobody Owens is the different one due to the minority of his kind of being. Moreover, Hall’s argument also has an important role while dealing with the representation of the ghosts.

Millet, Aleesa Marie. “Only a Body ‘who nobody owns:’ Adolescent Identity in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.” Master’s Theses and Doctoral Dissertations. Eastern Michigan University, 2015.

In her thesis, Millet’s emphasis is upon the symbolism of The Graveyard Book. Her thesis revolves around the adolescent identity of Nobody Owens. In contrast, this proposed thesis will deal with the coming of age of the protagonist.

Ness, Patrick. “Ghost stories.” The Guardian. 25 October 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/oct/25/booksforchildrenandteenagers-neilgaiman.

Ness, an author himself, briefly summarizes Gaiman’s novel. In the article, he contextualizes the given novel. He describes the novel as both crypt and deathly delight which sounds quite ironic. The researcher agrees that this novel stands out and hence has chosen it for the thesis.

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