Daphne du Maurier Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1541

Daphne du Maurier’s first two novels, The Loving Spirit and I’ll Never Be Young Again (1932), began to kindle an interest in romances during a period when realism was still in vogue. Her next novel, The Progress of Julius (1933), was much bolder: It introduced the theme of incest between father and daughter. This work was followed by du Maurier’s biography of her father, in which she attempts to sort out her complex feelings about him, to gain a perspective on him that would allow her the freedom to develop her independence.

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Jamaica Inn

In Jamaica Inn, du Maurier combines the elements of her earlier popular romances with those of the gothic novel to create her first mystery. This haunting tale, set on the Bodmin moor around the year 1835, is the story of an assertive, independent woman named Mary Yellan. The twenty-three-year-old heroine (who appears to embody du Maurier’s own fantasies of love and adventure) goes to live with her aunt and uncle, who manage Jamaica Inn, an isolated tavern whose dreadful secrets have driven Mary’s aunt mad. Mary’s uncle, Joss, it turns out, is a vicious smuggler. He and his consorts make secret trips to the coast, where they use lights to lure ships to crash on the rocks. These “wreckers,” as they are called, then murder the survivors and steal their goods, which they store at Jamaica Inn.

A noteworthy psychological dimension separates Jamaica Inn from the conventional mystery romance: Du Maurier bifurcates the demon-lover father of The Progress of Julius into two characters for this novel. Mary’s uncle, Joss, a powerful, huge, older man, embodies pure malignancy; his young brother, Jem, is a handsome, arrogant, mysterious figure who, by the end of the novel, becomes Mary’s lover and presumed husband.

Jamaica Inn is the first of du Maurier’s novels to contain the main features of the gothic romance: the isolated, bleak landscape; a house filled with mystery and terror; violence and murders; mysterious strangers; villains larger than life; and a strong-minded woman who bravely withstands hardships and brutality and is rewarded with marriage and the promise of a full life. Du Maurier renders her material in a style remarkable for its simplicity. She rarely employs metaphoric language except in her descriptions of landscape and buildings—and then does so with restraint, allowing highly selective details to convey the spirit of the atmosphere.

Rebecca

Du Maurier’s masterpiece, Rebecca, combines features of the popular romance, the gothic novel, the psychological novel, and autobiography to create one of the most powerful tales of mystery and romance in the twentieth century. Following the tradition of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), du Maurier’s novel contains most of the trappings of the typical gothic romance: a mysterious, haunted mansion, violence, murder, a sinister villain, sexual passion, a spectacular fire, brooding landscapes, and a version of the madwoman in the attic. Du Maurier’s novel, however, is much more than a simple thriller or mystery. It is a profound and fascinating study of an obsessive personality, of sexual dominance, human identity, and the liberation of the hidden self. The real power of the work derives from du Maurier’s obsession with her father and her resolution of that obsession through the fantasy structure of the novel.

In this sophisticated version of the Cinderella story, the poor, plain, nameless narrator marries Maxim de Winter, a handsome, brooding, wealthy man twice her age, and moves into Manderley, a mansion haunted by secret memories of his first wife, Rebecca. The macabre housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, is dedicated to protecting the memory of Rebecca from the innocent new mistress of the house. Mrs. Danvers is the evil witch, the embodiment of Rececca’s sinister spirit, the Other Woman, who must be destroyed before the fairy tale can be happily concluded. Like Rebecca herself, Mrs. Danvers represents a powerful hold on Maxim that re-creates the Oedipal triangle in du Maurier’s own life. The nameless narrator must compete with and overcome the Other Woman to obtain her father-lover. When Maxim finally admits that he never loved the domineering Rebecca—indeed, that he hated and murdered her—the great mystery surrounding Maxim and Manderley is solved.

It is not marriage (as in the typical romance) that brings du Maurier’s heroine happiness, but the symbolically significant death of Mrs. Danvers, the fiery destruction of Manderley, and the exorcism of the spirit of Rebecca, events that crown the narrator with her true and unique sense of identity as Mrs. de Winter and assure her that she is the solitary recipient of Maxim’s love and devotion.

My Cousin Rachel

My Cousin Rachel is du Maurier’s tour de force. In making her narrator, Philip Ashley, a man who is unaccustomed to the company of women, sexually naïve, and somewhat paranoid, she creates a wonderfully ambiguous storyteller. Philip suspects that the mysterious and seductive Rachel has poisoned his wealthy cousin and benefactor, Ambrose Ashley. He comes to see this beautiful half-English, half-Italian adversary as a femme fatale; nevertheless, he soon falls in love with her himself. Throughout the novel, his attitude toward her fluctuates between adoration and trust and fear and suspicion. Toward the end, though he apparently has come to view her as innocent, he allows her to walk across a bridge that he knows will not hold her weight, and she is killed.

Du Maurier’s technique is similar to that used by Robert Browning in his dramatic monologues, in which the narrators present the “facts” through their own limited and often-misguided perceptions, revealing their own characters more fully than those of the people they describe. Du Maurier thus captures the rich ambiguity of life itself, the hazy border between fact and fantasy, truth and illusion.

“The Birds”

In its depiction of horror, du Maurier’s short story “The Birds” far surpasses Alfred Hitchcock’s popular film adaptation with its intrusively added love story. She strictly limits the focus of her tale to a British farmer, Nat Hocken, and his family, tracing their developing panic as thousands of seagulls begin to menace the countryside. In this small world, humans have ceased to have dominion over the birds and beasts. The serenity of English village life and the wisdom and common sense of the inhabitants are displaced by terror and confusion in this sudden reversion to a Darwinian world of the survival of the fittest. Nat hears reports on his radio that birds in London are also becoming predators, but du Maurier continues to confine the sense of horror to the Hocken family, which becomes a microcosm of an apparently worldwide disaster. She concludes her tale with Nat listening to the birds as they attack his house, about to break through and destroy him and his family; the reader is left to conclude that civilization itself may be on the verge of extinction.

“Don’t Look Now”

The motion-picture version of du Maurier’s other great tale of mystery and horror, “Don’t Look Now,” has been described as “the fanciest, most carefully assembled Gothic enigma yet put on the screen.” Directed by Nicholas Roeg and starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, the film captures du Maurier’s suffocating sense of terror through its subtle and enigmatic imagery. The story centers on an English couple, John and Laura, on vacation in Venice in an attempt to distract themselves from the crushing memory of the recent death of their young daughter, Christine. They meet two strange sisters, one of whom is blind and, like Tiresias, has psychic powers. She tells Laura that Christine has contacted her to warn John that he is in danger in Venice.

Laura later returns to England to attend to her son, who has become ill at school; John becomes convinced that during her absence he has seen her in Venice riding a vaporetto in the company of the two weird sisters. At the end of the story it becomes clear that John has the power of precognition and that he did indeed see his wife and the two women. They were riding in the vaporetto carrying his corpse to the church. In his wife’s absence, John had come to the assistance of a person whom he assumed to be a small child, perhaps resembling Christine, who was running from some men. The pursuers prove, however, to be police, and the fugitive is a dwarf, a psychopathic killer who stabs John to death. John’s memories of Christine and his vision into the future thus blend into a horrifying clarity of understanding as he dies.

Du Maurier’s skillful presentation of the gothic setting of a decaying Venice, the mad dwarf, the recurring glimpses into the future, the suspense, and the violence makes this an innovative mystery. As in a Greek tragedy, the characters seem inextricably entangled in a fatalistic course of events. Like the blind sister, John is possessed of psychic powers, but he refuses to credit or understand his fatal foreknowledge. On a psychological level, the story suggests the hero’s guilt over the death of his daughter and how that emotion leads to his fatal compassion for the murderous dwarf.

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