3 References You May Have Missed in “The Graveyard Book”
“The Graveyard Book” is a beloved 2008 young adult novel by acclaimed author Neil Gaiman. Here are some allusions, or elements which seem to be allusions, which you may have missed in it. This post includes spoilers for “A Tale of Two Cities” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four”.
The first allusion in the book is buried in the title. As noted by Shmoop, “The Graveyard Book” is a reference to Kipling’s “The Jungle Book”.
The second allusion has to do with the book’s main antagonists, the “Jacks of All Trades”. The Jacks of All Trades may have been inspired by the revolutionaries in Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”. In Gaiman’s narrative, the Jacks are a clandestine network of like-minded people who address each other by the name “Jack” and variations on it. This is reminiscent of the conspirators against the French ancien régime in “A Tale of Two Cities”, who all use the codename “Jacques”. There are even a few more parallels. Dickens casts the French Revolution in a light of moral ambiguity: although it rightly seeks to overthrow a corrupt and oppressive social order, it gives rise to horrific cruelty and butchery. Likewise, the Jacks of All Trades, despite being their story’s antagonists, seem not wholly bad: during the “Interlude” between Chapters Five and Six, we read the following:
Mr. Dandy indicated the man at the podium, who was, at that moment, telling them about hospital equipment bought in the previous year from their generosity. (“Not one, not two, but three kidney machines,” he was saying. The men in the room applauded themselves and their generosity politely.)(p.77).
The theme of being marked for death due to an accident of birth also recurs, with the Jacks wanting main character Bod Owens dead from his early childhood on because of a prophecy and Madame Defarge’s attempt to have Charles Darnay executed because she holds a grudge against his family. There is even a curious similarity in the characterisation of each secret society’s operations: both “The Graveyard Book” and “A Tale of Two Cities” have a passage describing a knife used as a murder weapon with special emphasis. The latter gives us this:
[A face made of stone] lay back on the pillow of monsieur the marquis. It was like a fine mask, suddenly startled, made angry, and petrified. Driven home into the heart of the stone figure attached to it, was a knife. Round its hilt was a frill of paper, on which was scrawled —
“Drive him fast to his tomb. This, from Jacques.” (p.153).
Gaiman has, among other things, this to offer:
There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.
The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.
The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet. (p.5).
The Jacks of All Trades also appear to be based on the Freemasons, or maybe the Freemasons as seen by conspiracy theorists. Note the ominous line: “There was nothing official about the Jacks of All Trades, although there had been Jacks in governments and in police forces and in other places besides” (p.115). It also appears that the Jacks are an all-male organisation (see p.75), like the Freemasons. Combined with the previous point, this may be a subtle reference to the conspiracy theory that the Freemasons had launched the French Revolution. According to J. M. Roberts (1971),
The idea that freemasonry or freemasons ‘caused’ the French Revolution, has long been set aside by professional historians (78).
Roberts further states that the notion dates back to 1792, at least according to the received wisdom (ibid.).
Considering the sinister and disturbing tone of some of Gaiman’s other writings, for instance, the ones anthologised in “Smoke and Mirrors” (1998), it is not very surprising that he may have surreptitiously delved into the subject of conspiracy theories in “The Graveyard Book”.
Another possible allusion can be found in Chapter Four. There, we meet a character named Abanazer Bolger. His name sounds like an obvious reference to Ebenezer Scrooge, but that is not the allusion I have in mind for this point. We read that Bolger runs a
shop, in the warrens of streets in the Old Town — a little bit antiques shop, a little bit junk shop, a little bit pawnbroker’s (and not even Abanazer himself was entirely certain which bit was which)[…]. (p.54).
Bolger tricks Bod Owens and locks him into a room in the shop (pp.55–56). Then he invites an associate named Tom Hustings to come over, and they discuss whether they should report Bod to one of the Jacks of All Trades. This prompts the following exchange. Hustings asks what will happen if Bod is the boy the Jack wants.
Abanazer Bolger picked up the card again, by the edge, and waved it back and forth, slowly, as if running the edge along an imaginary flame. “Here comes a candle to light you to bed…” he began.
“…and here comes a chopper to chop off your head,” concluded Tom Hustings, thoughtfully. (p.58).
The whole situation seems to be inspired by Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. In that novel, an operative of the secret police posing as the owner of an antiques shop lulls the main character into a false sense of security, leading to his arrest. Even the rhyme the deceiver recites is the same:
“You may as well say good-by,” said the voice. And then another quite different voice, a thin, cultivated voice which Winston had the impression of having heard before, struck in: “And by the way, while we are on the subject, Here comes a candle to light you to bed, here comes a chopper to chop off your head!” (p.297).
As an added commonality, Gaiman remarks that “Abanazer Bolger had thick spectacles” (p.54). The supposed store owner in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is also described as wearing “thick spectacles” (p.174).
From using his interpretations of deities from some of the world’s popular traditions in “American Gods” to retelling Norse myths wholesale in “Norse Mythology”, Neil Gaiman has shown a fondness for drawing on preexisting stories for his own works. While there seems to be less of this going on in “The Graveyard Book” — and in “Coraline”, for that matter — the book certainly contains some references, and the one to “Nineteen Eighty-Four” feels almost oddly obvious. I could probably come up with more, but it seems best to leave it at this list, at least for the present post.
Gaiman, Neil. Illustrated by Dave McKean. 2008. The Graveyard Book. HarperCollins e-books.
Dickens, Charles. 1962 . A Tale of Two Cities. London and Glasgow: Collins.
Orwell, George. 2003 . “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” In Animal Farm and 1984. San Diego: Harcourt.
Roberts, J. M.. 1971. “The Origins of a Mythology: Freemasons, Protestants and the French Revolution.” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 44 (109): 78–97.
Shmoop article: https://www.shmoop.com/study-guides/literature/graveyard-book/analysis/title. Archived at this URL: https://web.archive.org/web/20211207194043/https://www.shmoop.com/study-guides/literature/graveyard-book/analysis/title.