Review: The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier

The Scapegoat [1957] – ★★★★1/2

In The Scapegoat, two complete look-alikes switch places and we follow the Englishman John as he reluctantly takes the place of seemingly wealthy but troubled Frenchman Jean de Gué. Previously somewhat shy and leading an uneventful life, John is unexpectedly thrust into the very limelight of life, acquiring a big family overnight, but also overbearing responsibilities and a failing business. As this is a Daphne du Maurier book, this is no ordinary tale of switched identities. In this tale, we step into an atmosphere that is haunting and unsettling, into a strange château peopled by still stranger people whose complex relationships and buried secrets first puzzle and then “liberate” our protagonist. Blending wonderfully the surreal and the realist, Daphne du Maurier created a fascinating psychological situation, a deep and intricate central character study and vivid minor characters, while touching on such themes as the nature of identity, the unpredictability of the human nature, the meaning of a family and the importance of forgiveness. With du Maurier, readers know that they are in the safe and confident hands of a master who will deliver something subtle, unsettling and over and above their expectations.

In this story, Englishman John is a Lecturer in French History when he travels to France for a holiday. There, he sees his doppelgänger Jean de Gué and the latter quickly decides to change places with the “free” Englishman. John finds himself mistaken for Jean de Gué, first by Jean’s chauffeur and then by Jean’s entire family. In a nightmarish scenario that follows, John finds himself overwhelmed by his “new” family members’ attention and, in some cases, hostility. John finds that he has to pacify a demanding wife, sooth a domineering mother, evade a hostile sister, reassure an unwanted lover, grow tactful with an indifferent brother and dote on a hyperactive daughter, while also try to manage a glass foundry almost in ruins. John soon feels he is out of his depth: “I had plunged into this unknown world like a reckless walker into a morass, each step taking him deeper, each wild flounder committing him more inescapably” [Daphne du Maurier, 1957: 203].

On top of that, John finds that he is received into a family that is full of secrets and that maintains an uneasy and complex interrelationship between its members. John slowly realises who Jean was and how he should now “act” in front of others. However, as time passes, John starts to change the pre-determined script and acts out of character (as he is clearly not Jean). Will family members suspect fraud? There is something unbelievably exciting and psychologically fascinating in a situation that du Maurier portrays, and that situation is all about a complete stranger penetrating the very depths of a family in crisis and playing a leading role inside. John gets himself entangled in a play of another’s making and is becoming both an actor and a director: “As a stranger I was like a spectator at a play, but I was also in a sense a producer too: circumstances were forcing them to follow my lead, and upon my actions would depend their own” [du Maurier, 1957: 236]. Everyone is an actor in the Jean’s household, everyone except maybe the daughter of JeanMarie-Noel. She is a mere child but she is wise beyond her years and always speaks the “truth”.

Other characters in this play that is called “real life” become to John paradoxically both – puzzling strangers and most intimate blood relatives. The family in the story is being exposed from a unique position – that of a stranger and an intimate confidant both at the same time. This is an ingenious concept that other authors would have given anything to write about, if only it did not sound so very bizarre. But, this is Daphne du Maurier, and she alone seemed to have possessed the necessary talent and skill to bring even the most unpromising scenario to the heights of realism. The sheer theatricality of life is on display in The Scapegoat, as Jean is torn between a surreal nightmare and a comedy, between a farce and realism of a tragedy. The author showcases the absurdity of people’s everyday actions, and we, the readers, almost play the part of John’s accomplices in this melodrama of life since we, unlike other characters in the story, are aware of the “truth”.

The Scapegoat has more similarities with du Maurier’s Rebecca [1938] than initially meets the eye. Like the second Mrs de Winter in Rebecca, John is relatively solitary, shy and wants desperately to live the life to the fullest and to connect to others. Like the second Mrs de Winter, he is relatively naïve and is removed from the “real life” initially, going later on both the physical and on the spiritual journey to get to know the depths of life, changing himself in the process. If the second Mrs de Winter gets an “identity crisis” and is subconsciously mistaken for another, with one person allegedly wanting to believe she is another person, John in The Scapegoat also finds himself in a position where people around him take him for someone else, imposing their identity perception on him. As in Rebecca, the “absent presence” is felt everywhere. In Rebecca the most powerful presence in the house is that of one absent person – the first Mrs de Winter. Similarly, in The Scapegoat, the most powerful presence is that of one complete absentee – Jean de Gué. Also, in both Rebecca and in The Scapegoat, people who committed terrible deeds in the past are haunted by their actions and try to use a naïve complete stranger to “get away” from their trauma.

Since The Scapegoat is du Maurier’s creation, there is an atmosphere of unease in the story which is connected to one house. Similar to the estate Manderley in Rebecca, the château in St. Gilles is a terrain which is both haunting and mesmerising to behold. It has those unmistakably macabre contours that get us intrigued: “the chateau, graceful and serene, protected from the outside world by the mellow walls guarding the sunken moat, might have been an island, separated as it was from village and church, lime avenue and sand road; an island whose way of life went back to centuries long past…” [Daphne du Maurier, 1957: 79]. The château is both forbidding and inviting, a shadow of its former glory, and the people inside are almost caricatures of their former happy selves, bitter about themselves and distrustful of others. Du Maurier paints us the image of old times still being relived: modern developments wound people who refuse to face up to reality. In this vein, the characters in the story lost all sense of time, and John finds himself in a dream-state where time as we know it almost ceases to matter. In one week happen the events that years could not have brought about: “the strangeness of a dream is always natural to the dreamer, and I began to move with ease amongst my phantoms, who talked to me, smiled at me, or ignored me” [du Maurier, 1957: 133].

The weaknesses of the novel are that the resolution is too slow in coming, and, as in Rebecca, realism suffers. The concept of the book may prove to be too fantastical and surreal for some readers. There is a bit of an anticlimax at the end, and du Maurier did not quite manage to suspend our disbelief completely regarding this situation of two compete look alikes, who speak different languages, not only meeting but then one’s family mistaking a stranger for its own family member, inviting him home. On the other hand, Daphne du Maurier took her fantastic concept to great literary depths and psychological insights that few other books could have managed. It is precisely the book’s surreal qualities that give the novel its own peculiar dreamy charm instantly recognisable as du Maurier very own. All the fantastical elements are paradoxically grounded in almost too painful a reality.

Like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel [1951], The Scapegoat puts that haunting spell on the reader with its penetrating character study, its delicious suspense and its brooding atmosphere. Daphne du Maurier’s under-read novel deserves much more attention and recognition that it has got so far.

25 thoughts on “Review: The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier

    1. Thank you! Doppelgängers is probably my favourite theme to read about and I even previously published a list: “Mirror Image”: 7 Books That Focus on Doppelgängers/Doubles. I am always on a lookout for a good “doppelgänger” book!

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      1. Just checked out that post! I must have missed it at the time. I’ll have to follow up some of your suggestions (except for The Prince and the Pauper and The Return of Martin Guerre, which I’ve already read). Have you read The Likeness by Tana French? Another doppleganger novel.

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  1. Oh yes, this was such an interesting psychological study! The premise was not exactly realistic, but she managed to make me overlook that. I agree it should be better known.

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    1. Exactly! Somehow du Maurier manages to present this unrealistic situation so cleverly and convincingly. Since her goals re it lies elsewhere, e.g. to show disturbed morality, build suspense, etc. we hardly think about the unrealism when John gets to the castle.

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  2. I seriously doubt a stranger could step into someone else’s shoes without being discovered, but it does sound like a fascinating premise. Don’t think, I’ve ever heard of this one before, but I’ve enjoyed Rebecca and in particular My Cousin Rachel and just read The Birds for the first time.

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    1. I was sceptical about the premise too, but when the main character got to the castle as someone else in the story, I was just so impressed by all the psychological insight, detail, atmosphere, suspense and character development. It was all subtle, nuanced, engrossing. Even the fantastical situation seemed to be part of that exaggerated overall design intended by the author, like a play so many characters engage in too. It was all fitting somehow. And, I loved “Rebecca” and “My Cousin Rachel” too. I haven’t read “The Birds” (only watched Hitchcock’s very loose adaptation), but her short story “Don’t Look Now” is on my TBR list and I expect a lot from it.

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  3. Great review! I’ve barely scratched the surface of du Maurier’s work, but I don’t want to run out of du Maurier books to read so I’m taking it slow- I love her atmospheric writing. This one sounds pretty appealing, and your high rating is very encouraging; also, as I loved Rebecca, I’m happy to see there are perhaps some similarities between the two! I’ll look forward to picking this one up.

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    1. Thank you! That’s a good idea to read du Maurier’s works slowly because she has a number of good books and it is best to savour them! I was really impressed with The Scapegoat and I hope you like it! Though I do now think that the title hurt this book’s potential. If it were titled The Doppelgänger or something more mysterious maybe it would have been more appealing. These are just my random thoughts.

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  4. This is a wonderful review! I really enjoyed Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel but I’d never heard of The Scapegoat before so thank you for sharing! It sounds like a bit of a strange premise, but I agree with you that du Maurier is probably the best placed author to pull it off 📚❤️ X x x

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  5. Despite having read several of du Maurier’s books, I’ve never heard of this one. I do love books (like The Prince and the Pauper) where two people switch and interest ensues. It’s a pity this suffers from the slow ending as Rebecca does, because that was one of my biggest critiques of Rebecca, but I’m really curious to read this book after reading your review.

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    1. It is definitely worth reading and should be much better known. The ending is slow in coming, but the characters, the atmosphere and the writing more than make up for any weaknesses!

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