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!