Daphne du Maurier World Literature Analysis - Essay

Daphne du Maurier World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Daphne du Maurier was a storyteller who had good stories to tell and knew how to tell them. It is this union of good plot and good style that accounts for her enormous success as a writer of popular fiction. Her stories are products of a fertile imagination fueled by her love of history and her sense of place. She also brought to her writing the keen psychological insights necessary to develop believable characters and to explore human conflicts, especially those between the sexes. Such tension helps build suspense, but the element of mystery in a du Maurier story depends even more on her fascination with the deceptiveness of appearances. In most of her works, things are never quite what they seem, and no one is above suspicion.

Du Maurier’s ability to tell a story is evident in the technique she uses to set the mood in the beginning lines. In deceptively simple language she moves quickly into the story, not only establishing atmosphere but also creating suspense. Often she achieves this effect by using a first-person narrator to give the story greater credibility. In The House on the Strand, Dick Kilmarth is transported back to medieval times by a drug he has found in the basement of the family’s ancestral home on the coast of Cornwall. “The first thing I noticed,” he says, “was the clarity of the air, and then the sharp green color of the land.” He then remarks on the lack of softness in the landscape and the way the hills do not blend with the sky but stand out “like rocks, so close that I could almost touch them.” It seems that all his senses have been “in some way sharpened” except for the sense of touch. “I could not feel the ground beneath my feet,” he says, adding, “Magnus had warned me of this.” It is an ominous remark that raises a number of questions. Just where is Dick Kilmarth, and how did he get wherever he is? Why is his sense of touch dulled? Who is Magnus? As du Maurier proceeds to answer these questions, she raises even more, until Dick’s experiences seem to be taking place even as she writes. This technique of mixing answers with new questions is one she uses throughout to keep readers turning the pages.

The opening lines of Rebecca establish the atmosphere so palpably that when Hitchcock made the film, he felt compelled to use a voice-over to achieve the same effect. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” the narrator says. “It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me. . . . Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me.” Du Maurier was actually describing the first time she stumbled upon Menabilly, the neglected, old country house in Cornwall that inspired Rebecca and in which du Maurier later lived for many years. So intense was her feeling for Cornwall that she charmed language into making that feeling almost tangible.

“The Birds,” another story filmed by Hitchcock, opens with a line that, though innocent enough, sounds a chilling note: “On December the third the wind changed overnight and it was winter.” This is followed by a brief glimpse of the mellow autumn that had just ended and then a hint of something troubling ahead: “The birds had been more restless than ever this fall of the year, the agitation more marked because the days were still . . . [and] there were many more [birds] than usual.” Bit by bit du Maurier builds the suspense until there is no escaping the horrible realization of just how threatening the birds really are.

The theme of the deceptiveness of appearances haunts the pages of My Cousin Rachel, in which Philip Ashley is never sure whether his seductive cousin is a murderess or simply a charming flirt. In Rebecca, the young, new wife suffers throughout the novel because she misreads her husband’s moods and motives. No one seems to know Rebecca, not even Mrs. Danvers, who is obsessed with her. In “Don’t Look Now,” the bereaved parents, visiting Venice to forget the death of their daughter, are enmeshed in a web of deception to a point where they can no longer trust their own senses. In The House on the Strand, Dick Kilmarth reaches the point at which hallucination becomes more real than reality. Like him, many of du Maurier’s characters are as deceived about themselves as they are about others.

Du Maurier’s interest in the tension between the sexes stemmed from turbulent and confused feelings that characterized her own relationships. Her writings on this conflict also mirrored many of the concerns of women of her day, especially women who had achieved independence without feeling quite comfortable with it. Her heroines frequently want to assert themselves but are afraid to take the risk. They defer to men whom they then resent.

The narrator of Rebecca is an example. Her lack of self-esteem is reflected in the fact that throughout the book she is known only as Mrs. de Winter, a name she shares with the first Mrs. de Winter, the legendary Rebecca. The second Mrs. de Winter is half her husband’s age and thoroughly uncomfortable in his world. He is the wealthy, dashing lord of the manor while she is the shy, penniless orphan afraid of her own shadow. Here du Maurier is exploring the turmoil within a young girl who longs to feel liberated and equal but who cannot escape feeling trapped and inferior.

Other characteristics that account for du Maurier’s enormous popularity are those commonly associated with the gothic novel, a term used to describe a type of novel that reached its peak in the novels of the Brontë sisters, especially Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). The common ingredients include a remote country house, a poor innocent young girl (usually a governess), a brooding and mysterious older man, and a sinister presence of some sort or other lurking in a remote part of the house. Although only Rebecca fits this mold, du Maurier makes use of the gothic atmosphere in so many of her other novels (Jamaica Inn, Frenchman’s Creek, The King’s...

(The entire section is 2542 words.)