The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier (re-read) – #DDMReadingWeek

This week HeavenAli is hosting another of her Daphne du Maurier Reading Weeks, assisted by Liz who is collecting the links this year. As you may know, du Maurier is one of my favourite authors; I have now read all of her novels and short story collections at least once and some of her non-fiction (I attempted to rank them all in this post, just for fun). For this year’s Reading Week I’ve decided to re-read her 1957 novel The Scapegoat, which is one I particularly loved when I first read it back in 2011 (here’s my original review). I’ve wanted to read it again ever since, not just because I enjoyed it so much, but also because I formed a theory about what was actually happening in the book and I was curious to see whether I would feel the same way on a second read. I’ll discuss this later in this post, but don’t worry – I’ll include a spoiler warning for those of you who haven’t read the book yet.

The novel opens in Le Mans where our narrator, John, an English academic, is on holiday. When he meets a man who looks and sounds just like him at the station, he feels an instant connection with him and after spending the evening drinking and talking, he accompanies the other man back to his hotel room. He learns that his new friend is a French count, Jean de Gué, and that they have something else in common – they are both depressed and dissatisfied with life, John because he is lonely and has no family, Jean because he has a large family, all of whom are causing him problems. As the night wears on, John falls into a drunken stupor and when he wakes up the next day his companion has disappeared, taking all of John’s clothes and possessions with him and leaving his own in their place.

When Jean’s chauffeur arrives, ready to drive him home to his château in the French countryside, John begins to protest, explaining that there has been a mistake – but then, on an impulse, he decides to take this opportunity to leave his old life behind for a while and continue to impersonate Jean de Gué. On reaching Jean’s château, John finds that nobody suspects he is an impostor and he is able to take Jean’s place within the family. He also begins to understand why Jean had said his family life was so difficult – there are all sorts of tensions and conflicts between various members of the family and to make things worse, the de Gué glassworks is facing financial ruin. It’s up to John to put things right, if he can.

I enjoyed this read of The Scapegoat as much as my first. If you take everything at face value, of course, it requires a huge suspension of disbelief. Not only do John and Jean look completely identical, so much so that not even Jean’s mother, wife or daughter guess the truth, but they also sound exactly the same (and John’s French is so fluent that nobody suspects a thing). Is this likely? Of course not, but it provides du Maurier with her starting point for this fascinating novel and it’s perfectly possible to just accept the plot for what it is and enjoy the story. After all, it’s no more ridiculous than the book that apparently inspired this one – Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda. And as always with a du Maurier novel, you can expect beautiful descriptions, a strong sense of place and interesting, if not necessarily very likeable, characters.

*My Scapegoat theory (includes spoilers)*

When I first read this book in 2011, I found myself beginning to wonder – what if John and Jean weren’t doubles after all? What if there was only one man, with multiple personalities (now known as dissociative identity disorder)? It makes so much more sense to me that Jean, feeling that he has made a mess of his life, has created a new identity to deal with the problems he has caused for himself. At the end of the book, when everything has been resolved, he has no further need of John and although it’s not clear exactly how much Jean has learned and how he will manage his relationships and business affairs in the future, he feels that he can now cope on his own. He tells John that he has emptied John’s bank account, sold his flat and furniture in London and resigned John’s position as university lecturer – in other words, destroyed John altogether, because John never really existed and is no longer necessary.

After finishing the book on that first occasion, I remember looking at other reviews and being surprised that almost nobody else had mentioned that any of this had occurred to them too. I accepted that I must have misunderstood the whole book; however, the Daphne du Maurier website quotes a letter written by Daphne herself regarding The Scapegoat which seems to support my interpretation. Her reference to ‘that man’s nature’ doesn’t really make sense to me if there were actually two separate men in the book.

“Every one of us has his, or her, dark side. Which is to overcome the other? This is the purpose of the book. And it ends, as you know, with the problem unsolved, except that the suggestion there, when I finished it, was that the two sides of that man’s nature had to fuse together to give birth to a third, well balanced.”

On reading the book for a second time, I have been paying closer attention and looking for subtle clues and hints. There are just three main obstacles in the way of my theory. First, there’s Jean’s dog, César, who is hostile towards John and the only member of the household who seems to sense that something is wrong. However, when Jean and John meet up again at the end of the book, Jean explains that John hasn’t been whistling to César in the correct way and this is why he hasn’t been obeying his commands. Also, during a scene in a hospital, we are told that Jean is blood group O and John is blood group A – but as it’s John himself who tells us this I don’t think it can be taken as conclusive evidence of anything. The only thing I can’t manage to explain away is that when Jean calls the château to inform John that he’s coming home, it’s a servant who answers the phone and tells John that someone wants to speak to him. If it wasn’t for this one moment, I would have been nearly convinced that I was right!

I did find plenty of things to support my theory, including the fact that, when speaking to Jean’s family for the first time, John finds that the ‘tu‘ form of French comes naturally to him, although he’s never used it before; the way John muses that Jean’s ‘inner substance was part of my nature, part of my secret self’; and in particular, the whole conversation he has with Jean’s mistress, Béla, in Chapter 12.

‘You said something a while ago about taking stock of oneself,’ I said. ‘Perhaps that’s just what I’ve been doing, over a period of time, and it came to a head that evening in Le Mans. The self I knew had failed. The only way to escape responsibility for failure was to become someone else. Let another personality take charge.’

‘The other Jean de Gué,’ she said, ‘the one who’s been hidden for so long beneath the surface gaiety and charm, I’ve often wondered if he existed. If he’s going to emerge, he’d better do so now. Time’s getting on.’

What do you think?

*End of spoilers*

Overall, after finishing my second read of the book, I think probably the way everyone else has interpreted it is the correct way, but du Maurier does like to be ambiguous and I enjoyed looking below the surface and dissecting the different layers! It really is a fascinating novel and still one of my favourites by du Maurier. Now I just need to find time to revisit some of her others!

33 thoughts on “The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier (re-read) – #DDMReadingWeek

  1. Shellie says:

    What a great review! I love how you thought through the book so deeply, that’s the mark of a great reviewer! I have only read Rebecca and have always loved the movie. Jamaica Inn is on my Classics Club list and you’ve got me thinking I need to read it for May.

  2. Margaret Quiett says:

    So happy to see your column today about “The Scapegoat” by Daphne du Maurier, one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors! I also read the link to your previous column where you rated all her books. I haven’t read all her novels, but each time I take up a new one, I do enjoy it. Your list gives me good ideas for my future reading of this marvelous writer—thank you! Of your top five, I agree “Rebecca” is her absolute best, but I also loved “The House on the Strand”, “My Cousin Rachel” and “ The King’s General”, in addition to “The Scapegoat.”

    • Helen says:

      Rebecca has been one of my favourite books since I was a teenager and none of her others have surpassed it, although the others in my top five have come close. I’m glad you found my list helpful. I think all of her books are worth reading, except maybe Castle Dor.

  3. whatmeread says:

    I’m not so sure your theory is correct. I think du Maurier was probably taking that idea of a dark side and making it two different people. However, I can see what you mean. My memory of this one is hazy, but I’ve always thought you couldn’t hide being another person to a lover, and isn’t there a scene where his mistress figures it out? Or maybe I’m dreaming. It’s either that or that’s the part I didn’t believe. Again, hazy.

    • Helen says:

      It’s probably not correct, but once it had occurred to me I couldn’t get it out of my head! His mistress does tell him that she had noticed a difference because he was more gentle and tender, but I thought that could be interpreted either as a different person or just a different personality.

  4. Lisa of Hopewell says:

    Good review. This is the only Daphne book left for me on audio–I’ve enjoyed the others. I thought this one might get confusing on audio, plus I never see how those “twins switch places” things ever could truly work. Now, after your review, I’ll try it next year.

  5. tracybham says:

    I often have a problem with two characters that look identical and can fool even family members. but The Scapegoat is still one of the du Maurier books I most want to read. This is a great review and I am glad you enjoyed it the second time around.

    TracyK at Bitter Tea and Mystery

    • Helen says:

      Thanks, Tracy. As long as you can accept the premise, it’s a very enjoyable book and still in my top three or four du Maurier novels.

  6. margaret21 says:

    I haven’t read any DDM since – oh, probably my 20s. I don’t know why, because I certainly had enjoyed everything I’d read. Thanks for encouraging me to plug a big gap inmy reading.

  7. lark says:

    This isn’t one I’ve read…yet. Your review has me very curious about it. And so many people saying it’s one of their favorite du Maurier novels tells me I definitely need to put it on my list. 😀

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I would recommend putting it on your list! I’ve loved a lot of du Maurier’s books, but this is one of my absolute favourites.

  8. Calmgrove says:

    This sounds, from what you say, really intriguing, Helen. And I seem to have missed the post where you ranked all her fiction in order of merit, but now I’ve read it it’s incredibly helpful, so thank you! As it happens, I have a copy of Rule Britannia which I think I’ll give a go before too long! By the way, despite being curious about another take on Arthurian legend I couldn’t get in with Castle Dor, but it may simply be that it was Quiller-Couch’s style I could not abide.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you’ve found my list helpful. Rule Britannia is a fascinating book with a lot of new relevance due to Brexit and the only reason I didn’t give it a higher ranking is because it’s very different from her others and not as much to my taste. Castle Dor, though, is not a good example of her work and more of an Arthur Quiller-Couch book than a du Maurier one, I think.

  9. heavenali says:

    What an interesting theory, it could almost be correct but as you say there are a couple of things that don’t quite fit. It would have made sense though. I loved The Scapegoat when I read it a couple of years ago. Great review.

    • Helen says:

      I love this book and am so pleased I found time to re-read it for your Reading Week. I couldn’t quite make my theory fit all the facts, but I still think there’s a good argument to be made for it!

  10. Lory says:

    Very ingenious idea – and it could almost work. But if it were the case, maybe it would have come out in the denouement? I think that in fiction (as in dreams), different sides of what in real life can be part of a single personality become characterized as separate people. Du Maurier always plays with such psychological ideas and sometimes the lines get blurry. Anyway, it is a great book and you make me want to read it again.

    • Helen says:

      I’m not sure she would have revealed it in the denouement even if my theory was correct – she loved her ambiguous endings! But yes, it does get very blurred and I think could probably be interpreted in several different ways. I would definitely recommend re-reading this one – it’s such a fascinating book!

  11. thecontentreader says:

    This sounds like a really great read. I think this has to be my next read by DDM. I did not read the spoilers, but enjoyed your review until then. So curious how it will all turn out.

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