Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Book Review - Daphen Du Maurier's The Scapegoat

The Scapegoat by Daphne Du Maurier
Published by: Virago Press
Publication Date: 1957
Format: Paperback, 384 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

John has spent yet another holiday in France walking the history that is his passion and his reason for living. As he gets ready to return to England to teach yet another term at school he looks at all the people and wonders how apart he is from them and if his life of no connections is really a failed life. In the crowd he sees one face he didn't expect to see. His own. The two men, John and Jean, strike up a conversation based on their eerie similarities. They are true doppelgangers. The night is spent drinking and talking and come morning Jean is gone with John's identity, leaving the lonely Englishman an encumbered life filled with family and a failing business. Without really knowing what drives him to it John takes on Jean's life. The bachelor now has a pregnant wife, a daughter, a mother, mistresses, and a complicated life. But soon John doesn't want to leave this new life and if Jean were to decide to return, what would happen?

Daphne Du Maurier has always employed doubling and duality in her writing, but never so obviously as in The Scapegoat. Here she openly embraces the trope of people who have switched places. Though in lighter fare it is done willingly or comedically, as in The Prince and the Pauper, The Parent Trap, and Moon Over Parador. Here it is a situation thrust on John, combining the switching with a case of mistaken identity. Though in any other case mistaken identity would be easier to prove if you weren't the doppelganger of the man they think you are. By combining these two plot devices into one Du Maurier is able to delve into the darker aspects of who we are and what would happen if we tried to escape our life by taking up the mantle of someone else's. 

By having the opportunity of becoming someone else, someone known, what would you do? Seeing as Jean is the one who thrust this situation on John, it's pretty clear that he does this just to amuse himself, a humorous what if. But John, John is more complicated. By going along with Jean he is made complicit in this scheme he doesn't want. Yet being put in a situation where the repercussions fall on another's head means that for the first time in his life John is free of responsibility and guilt and is allowed to make mistakes and be taciturn or angry or whomever he chooses to think Jean is.

John's first embracing of the situation is the fact that he can't be held accountable. Du Maurier here is bringing up the darker nature of humans. What would we do if we could get away with it? For some people it would be anything and everything, theft to murder. Putting someone in this situation is testing their mettle. Given a free pass what would you do? It shows the goodness of John that after the initially heady response of being able to say what he really feels that he tries to better the lives of Jean's family. His deepest desires aren't dark and perverted, his deepest desires are to have connections, to have people to care for and love. At the start of his journey he can't come to terms with his driftless life. He wonders what does he do with failure. After spending time in the shoes of Jean he wonders what do you do with love.

John's question has changed, but the search for an answer is still there. That is what it is to be human. To always be questioning and searching. While John spends his time as Jean picturing him as this evil man who viewed the demands of family as the demands of his "captors" life is never this black and white. People aren't just good or evil, they are filled with grey areas. We have spent so much time with John that we see the world through his eyes now but it isn't till the end, that slight shift in perspective that makes us realize, John's point of view isn't the only one. Life is complicated and messy and we are left with questions, but it is never just black and white.

Speaking of someone living in the grey areas, Du Maurier spent most of her life, and a significant amount of her writing, not just dealing with these weighty issues of the nature of man but as an extended therapy session for herself. She viewed herself as two energies, male and female, which understandably makes her obsession with duality make sense. But there is another force that ruled her life and her work, and that is her father, the actor Sir Gerald Du Maurier. The relationship between Jean and his daughter Marie-Noel is a loving, yet odd and at times downright disturbing relationship. The scene where Marie-Noel asks her father to whip her... I defy you to find a more disturbing image then a grown man being asked by a small ten year old to be whipped for her imagined sins.

The question one is left with is how much did Daphne put of herself in her books? Her father was a dynamic and possessive man. They had a love hate relationship and he often wished that Daphne had been a boy, perhaps starting her duality issues. Incest was often hinted at. It is even believed that perhaps they shared a lover, Gertrude Lawrence. Whatever is and isn't true, one thing is certain, the creepy dynamic that they had is shared with Jean and Marie-Noel, further fanning the flames of what was real in Du Maurier's world and what was play acting.


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