Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 633
du Maurier, Daphne 1907-1989
English novelist, short story writer, playwright, biographer, and autobiographer.
The author of popular Gothic romance novels, including Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, du Maurier also wrote short stories variously described as mystery, suspense, and horror. Among the best known are "The Birds" and "Don't Look Now," which, like several other du Maurier works, have been popularized through film adaptations. Regarded as a talented storyteller, du Maurier used inventive details to animate formulaic plots, and she demonstrated a particular flair for evoking a suspenseful atmosphere in her short stories. Sarah Booth Conroy has commented that du Maurier's stories "have the quality of deja vu, legends half remembered, old wives' tales and episodes from epics, with the inevitable but always shocking 'Boo' at the end."
Du Maurier was born in London to a prominent family. Her mother was an actress and her father was a popular matinee idol and theater manager. Du Maurier was educated privately, and as a young woman rejected a career in acting in order to become a writer. Her first published works were short stories and articles printed mostly in women's magazines. In 1931 she gained notoriety with the publication of her first novel, The Loving Spirit, which she wrote during a ten-week stay at her parents' country home on the coast of Cornwall. The Loving Spirit became a best seller and gained a degree of critical acclaim. Her first collection of short stories, The Apple Tree: A Short Novel and Some Stories (1952), first revealed the writer's macabre side. Du Maurier lived most of her life in Cornwall with her husband and children; she produced more than twenty novels and several collections of short stories there and often used the Cornish coast as her setting. She died in 1989 at the age of eighty-one.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Du Maurier's short stories portray mysterious and fantastic events that intrude upon the lives of ordinary people, often having a catastrophic effect. In "The Birds," human assumptions about the natural order of the world are challenged when birds suddenly turn predatory toward humans. The main character of the piece cannot avoid being destroyed by this inexplicable phenomenon, and the story ends with him, barricaded in his home, listening to the birds peck and scratch their way through the windows and doors. "Don't Look Now" is the story of a husband and wife vacationing in Venice to recover from the recent death of their young daughter. The couple are drawn into further tragedy by a mysterious chain of events over which they seem to have no control. Du Maurier was interested in human psychology and the circumstances that push people toward mental breakdown. These concerns figure prominently in The Breaking Point (1959), which she described as a collection of stories in which "the link between emotion and reason is stretched to the limit of endurance, and sometimes snaps." One story in this collection, "The Alibi," portrays a middle-aged man who feels oppressed by his ordinary life and finds a sense of power and control in fantasizing about murder. His fantasy is realized, for better or for worse, when he is accused of a murder that he committed only in his mind.
Du Maurier's short stories have received mixed critical responses. While some critics have faulted them for what they perceive as contrived, unbelievable plots and shallow characters, others have argued that du Maurier's narratives are highly imaginative and that her skill as a writer lies in her ability to make compelling use of suspense, atmosphere, and surprising plot twists. John Barkham has commented: "In every case Miss du Maurier painstakingly creates her atmosphere before she begins spinning her web. No fleeting moods or impressions here: the style is deliberate, the pace leisurely, and the stories hold up as stories."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 181
The Apple Tree: A Short Novel and Some Stories 1952; also published as Kiss Me Again Stranger: A Collection of Eight Stories, Long and Short, 1953; and as The Birds, and Other Stories, 1977
The Breaking Point 1959; also published as The Blue Lenses, and Other Stories, 1970
Early Stories 1959
The Treasury of du Maurier Short Stories 1960
Don't Look Now 1971; also published as Not After Midnight, 1971
Echoes From the Macabre: Selected Stories 1976
The Rebecca Notebook, and Other Memories (notebook, short stories, and essays) 1980
The Rendezvous, and Other Stories 1980
Classics of the Macabre 1987
Other Major Works
The Loving Spirit (novel) 1931
I'll Never Be Young Again (novel) 1932
The Progress of Julius (novel) 1933
Gerald: A Portrait (biography) 1934
Jamaica Inn (novel) 1936
The du Maurier s (biography) 1937
Rebecca (novel) 1938
Frenchman's Creek (novel) 1942
Hungry Hill (novel) 1943
The King's General (novel) 1946
The Parasites (novel) 1949
My Cousin Rachel (novel) 1951
Mary Anne (novel) 1954
The Scapegoat (novel) 1957
The Glass-Blowers (novel) 1963
The Flight of the Falcon (novel) 1965
The House on the Strand (novel) 1969
Rule Britannia (novel) 1972
Myself When Young: The Shaping of a Writer (autobiography) 1977; also published as Growing Pains: The Shaping of a Writer, 1977
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 585
SOURCE: "The Macabre and the Unexpected," in The New York Times Book Review, March 8, 1953, p. 5.
[In the following review of Kiss Me Again, Stranger, Barkham lauds du Maurier's craftsmanship as a mystery writer.]
In her short stories, as in her novels, Daphne du Maurier is a firm believer in keeping her readers on tenterhooks. She cannot dazzle them with her prose or excite them with her imagination, but at least she baffles them with her mysteries. And baffle them she does, over and over again in this book. Guessing the identity of du Maurier murderers is still likely to remain a favorite indoor sport this spring.
These eight tales are the mixture as before. All lean to the macabre, the strange, the unexplained. None of them is bad, and several are very good indeed. No wraiths or clanking ghosts, you understand, but subtle emanations, like a dying tree that bursts ominously into bloom, or a wife who falls under the spell of the mountains. In every case Miss du Maurier painstakingly creates her atmosphere before she begins spinning her web. No fleeting moods or impressions here: the style is deliberate, the pace leisurely, and the stories hold up as stories.
One is a masterpiece of horror. Twenty years ago an Australian named Carl Stephenson wrote a superb short story, "Leningen and the Ants," in which he described a South American planter's epic struggle against a column of jungle ants. It was an adventure you could not forget. Miss du Maurier has matched it with a story in the same genre. "The Birds" is set on a peaceful English farm. Its theme? The birds of the world have suddenly and inexplicably turned predatory, and all over the earth have begun to peck, scratch and tear human beings to death. We watch the attack on the farm. Like Leningen, farmer Nat Hocken fights a hair-raising battle against the winged warriors that darken the sky.
Two of the tales are straight studies in crime. There is the elegant marquise who dallies with a young photographer and pushes him over a cliff, only to find herself trapped through a revealing portrait, a piece of very neat plotting. Better still is "The Motive," a skillful unraveling of a seemingly purposeless suicide. Here Miss du Maurier does what J. B. Priestley did so well in his "Dangerous Corner." She opens with a motiveless death, then gradually leads the reader deeper and deeper into the mystery, until at last all the jigsaw pieces fall into place. This kind of progressive revelation requires real craftsmanship.
Have you noticed how often the agent of mystery or evil in a du Maurier story is a woman? Du Maurier women have been bewitching and bewildering their simple-minded menfolk for years, and in these stories they are still at it. The girl who lures a youth into a cemetery, the marquise who kills her lover, the nagging wife who haunts by way of a tree—these are femmes fatales who toy with their men and then get them, one way or another. They also leave this reviewer with some interesting theories as to the author's artistic motivations.
In these days of shiny-knobbed science fiction, the oldfashioned story of the supernatural, which used to chill the kids and keep old men from the chimney corner, is becoming somthing of a rarity. More's the pity. Miss du Maurier can still write them in the grand tradition. Try these tales and see how they dwarf those rockets and bug-eyed monsters.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 906
SOURCE: "A Skilled Hand Weaves a Net of Horror," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, March 15, 1953, p. 4.
[In the following review, Berkman praises Kiss Me Again, Stranger for its insightful representation of painful and frightening human experiences.]
Daphne du Maurier is a specialist in horror. Her creative intelligence is resourceful, her command of eerie atmosphere persuasive and precise, her sense of shock-timing exceptionally skilled. In [Kiss Me Again, Stranger] she explores horror in a variety of forms; in the macabre, in the psychologically deranged, in the supernatural, in the fantastic, most painfully of all, in the sheer cruelty of human beings in interrelationship. Yet on the whole the volume offers absorbing rather than oppressive reading because chiefly one's intellect is engaged; the emotional content remains subordinate. Broadly speaking, for the most part these are stories of detection as well, with the contributing elements of excitation, suspense, and climax manipulated with a seasoned hand.
Miss du Maurier is most successful, I believe (as most of us are) when her intentions are unmixed. "Kiss Me Again, Stranger," the title story, adaptly marshals the ingredients best suited to her abilities. Here in a trim, fluently moving narrative she developed an incident in war-torn London, with no purpose beyond the immediate recounting of a sad and grisly tale. A young mechanic, a simple, sensitive, likable good chap, attracted by a pretty usherette at a cinema palace, joins her on her bus ride home, to be led, bewildered, into a cemetery, where her conduct baffles him, to say the least. The girl, so gentle, wistful, languorous, and sleepy, turns out to be psychopathically obsessed, with a vindicative animus against members of the R. A. F. The summary is unjust, for Miss du Maurier forcibly anchors her story in a strange lonely graveyard atmosphere, with night rain falling cold and dreary on the flat tombs, which both reflects and reinforces the mortal impairment of the young girl's nature and the destruction of the young man's hopes, in a charnel world dislocated by the larger horror of war.
In "Kiss Me Again, Stranger," all separate aspects of the narrative fuse. "The Birds," however, essentially a far more powerful story is marred by unresolved duality of intent. Slowly, with intensifying accurate detail. Miss du Maurier builds up her account of the massed attack of the starving winter birds on humankind, the familiar little land birds, the battalions of gulls bearing in rank upon rank from the sea, the murderous predatory birds of prey descending with ferocious beaks and talons to rip, rend, batter and kill. The struggle involved is the ancient struggle of man against the forces of nature, Robinson Crusoe's struggle to overcome an elemental adversary through cunning, logic, and wit. The turning of this material also into a political fable, with the overt references to control from Russia and aid from America, to my mind dissipates the full impact of a stark and terrifying tale.
Monte Verità also clothes parable in an outer aspect of realism, this time for the statement of philosophical axiom: that the residence of truth is harsh, lonely and austere, by an ascent granted only to few, but its attainment the attainment of richest beatitude, even though in the general community below the few spirits who achieve the lofty summit are persecuted through hatred and fear. Again Miss du Maurier is most successful in the establishment of other-worldly atmosphere, the creation of impressive scene, particularly of the clear symbolic peaks of Monte Verità rising pure and unadorned against the sky. Perhaps this kind of story requires a special attitude on the part of the author—E. M. Forster's confident asssumption that the dryad is in the tree, if only one looks hard enough; too heavy a grounding in realistic detail can arouse realistic questioning. Here the factual narration of events, in which Anna, forsaking worldly attachments enters the citadel on the heights of Monte Verità, and the subsequent development of the two men who love her, again imposes disunity. Yet Monte Verità contains an abundance of integrated incident to sustain the interest; one surely wants to know the end.
Equally, each of the stories exerts that claim: one surely wants to know the end. "The Split Second," with its investigation of the inter-temporal in the instant of death, represents the author at her most skillful, weaving a logical, firm, constantly tautening web of mystification and suspense. "The Little Photographer," recounting the divertissement of a bored, vain, beautiful marquise with a crippled shopkeeper, in part recalls Thomas Mann's "Little Herr Friedemann"; but Miss du Maurier has given the denouement a characteristic turn (M. Paul is not idly cast as a photographer; he had a way of snapping pictures of his lady after their dalliance in the bracken), and the story ends with a sinister good chill.
Miss du Maurier is not primarily concerned with character. Her figures are presented with swift unhesitating strokes; through them a fairly complicated history unfolds. Yet every account of human action contains its residue of human experience; and Miss du Maurier's main themes, if seriously regarded, are neither haphazard nor trivial: again and again she returns to the consideration of our human predicament, to frustration, destruction, loss, betrayal, and needless suffering, Joyce's themes of the Dubliners, conveyed through the obverse method of a decided emphasis on plot. In general in this volume complexities of plot disinfect horror to a pungent and provocative spice.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 734
SOURCE: "To a Moment of Truth," in The New York Times Book Review, October 25, 1959, p. 4.
[An English novelist and critic, Bradbury is best known as the author of such satiric novels as Eating People Is Wrong (1959) and Stepping Westward (1965). In the following review of The Breaking Point, he expresses several reservations about the individual pieces but calls du Maurier's short stories her best work.]
[The Breaking Point] is a curious and uneven affair. The stories are, claims the author in an introdučtory note, concerned with the moment of truth that comes in the life of each individual, the moment at which "it is as though the link between emotion and reason is stretched to the limit of endurance, and sometimes snaps." And her theme in the first three stories ("The Alibi," "The Blue Lenses" and "Ganymede") is the sudden perception of the reality and the horror that lie beneath the placid and rather dreary face of everyday life.
This is a perennial theme among English novelists, perhaps because English life is so much given over to the mannered and the conventional, and manners provide a cushion against the stricter problems of life. "Ganymede," the best story in the volume, is an exercise in the mode of Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice," about the mythically corrupt Italy which the North European races find a subject both for fascination and fear. The narrator of the story exercises, and suffers for, his corruption in the fetid atmosphere of Venice, but unlike Mann's hero he returns to England to live on, with his corruption. In "The Alibi" the hero escapes from the boredom of a conventional life into fantasies of murder, spending his afternoons painting pictures in a hidden basement, finally paying for his escape by being accused of a murder that he committed only in fantasy. These stories actually seem to me to be better than anything in Miss du Maurier's novels; it is as if the short-story form controls and orders her skill and vision.
Unfortunately this is not always true. Elsewhere, she is successful almost in spite of herself: her virtuosity takes her far beyond the banality of her material. An example in this vein is "The Archduchess," a fable about a mythical European state that has existed in perpetual bliss until it is destroyed by two naughty liberals fermenting revolution. Another is "The Menace," a story about an English film star in a thoroughly unrealized Hollywood—where studio executives worry because they have spent a thousand dollars entertaining a star and where ačtors eat porridge and go to bed at nine.
If "The Menace" is alarming because of the heaviness of the humor ("they jumped in the car and drove the five hundred yards to Barry's place"), "The Archduchess" is alarming because of its moral perspective. It is a criticism of skepticism and moral questioning; the Rondese have been a happy race because "all they asked for was life, and life was given them, and happiness, which springs from within," and this state is ruined by doubt. Rondo has a mysterious water of perpetual youth, which gives to those who drink it "that sense of perpetual well-being on waking which a child has before puberty; or perhaps it would be better to say a renewal of wonder."
It is to this glorious state that several of her stories, such as "The Pool," hark back. Even "The Alibi" can equally be the story of a man who is destroyed by the flatness of his environment, or the tale of a man who destroys himself by refusing to accept the dreary, the commonplace and the conventional.
In such a story, Miss du Maurier's native powers as a storyteller take over to make the tale a fine and satisfying one; but at times she forsakes her artist's role for polemic, and it is no accident that the stories in which she does this are technically the least successful. We see exposed the narrowness of her range, and what seemed in the better stories to be lapses of tone stand exposed as places where she has gone beyond her powers. In the lesser stories the breaking point of her title seems to be the state of selfdestruction that deservedly comes to those who meddle with newfangled Western doubt. When this pervasive conservatism becomes joined with lapses in skill, we find Miss du Maurier's own breaking point.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 440
SOURCE: "Behind the Curtain," in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. XLII, No. 45, November 7, 1959, p. 23.
[In the following review of The Breaking Point, Hurley commends du Maurier's talent as a suspense and horror writer, noting particularly her ability to create realistic settings and believable characters.]
Daphne du Maurier's collection of short stories The Breaking Point leaves no doubt as to the author's talent as a crackerjack raconteuse. Each selection is a masterpiece—sometimes of suspense, chicanery, insidious evil, in other instances of sensitivity and perception, as in the case of "The Pool," a heartrending story about the brink of adolescence. She takes the reader by the icy hand and leads him behind the curtain to view the characters on their ways to their own breaking points.
If you read a book of short stories as I do, starting at page one and proceeding in an orderly manner, you will be exposed to the experiences of compulsive murder and the horrors of base propaganda. Then the thought comes to mind: Miss du Maurier can conjure up a scene, an atmosphere; the suspense is shattering; she can make characters live and breathe; but where, oh where is her sense of humor? Any relief in sight? Or is this my breaking point?
Have another go at it. Turn the page to "The Menace." It is a cool breeze for a fevered brow—a hilarious story of the career of a Hollywood matinee idol whose greatest emotional excitement is evoked by the sight of a nice bowl of porridge. Tall, broad-shouldered, hipless, provocatively homely, completely deadpan, dumb beyond belief, this heart-throb leaves the fans writhing in their seats. His vast popularity might have gone on for years except for the "feelies"—a new movie technique by which the theatres are wired and audiences actually "feel" the personalities projected on the screen. Unfortunately, our hero's sawdust composition fails to register with the wiring apparatus. The ensuing efforts of his wife (yes, he has one—a mom type), his manager, his coach, his agent, and other partners interested in his career, to rouse "The Menace" to an emotional pitch sufficient to vibrate the sex-appeal detector are funny and rowdy in the extreme. His particular "breaking point" is a happy one.
The book closes with the "The Limpet," which is particularly satisfying because the main character is one familiar to everybody. You've known her and I've known her—a mean, selfish, devious, stupid creature who screens her puny schemes behind a façade of nauseating nice-Nellyisms.
Throughout these stories, Daphne du Maurier demonstrates her talent in ferrting out and describing the subtleties and foibles of human nature.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 360
SOURCE: "Du Maurier Collection: Polished but Shallow," in Chicago Tribune, Part 7, November 15, 1959, p. 7.
[Sullivan is an American novelist and critic. In the following negative review of The Breaking Point, he perceives du Maurier's approach to human interactions as shallow and calculated.]
The prose written by Daphne du Maurier is both grammatical and efficient. It is a prose well practiced in story telling, and over the years it has given pleasure to a multitude of readers. But perhaps—at least as exhibited in The Breaking Point—it is a deceptive prose, which conceals in a pleasant, experienced way the essential shallowness of its approach to human entanglements.
The stories which make up this collection may all be accurately summed up by the book's collective title. Each piece deals with a person brought, one way or another, to something like a breaking point; and then this person breaks, one way or the other.
There is a story about a man of business who turns artist and is ironically destroyed, after having plotted other destructions. There is one about a movie star, inept, inadequate, inarticulate, but the idol of millions. The irony of the one story is as obviously underlined as the intended satire of the other.
Several of the pieces are out and out fantasies; and the volume as a whole leans toward the fantastic. One excellent story, "The Blue Lenses," combines fantasy with insight to make a memorable little commentary upon human nature. But in general this is a book marked not by wisdom or insight but by crafty invention.
Invention itself is a great gift for a story teller. But unless it is backed up by a deep concern about people invention can degenerate to mere trickiness. And these stories are generally too tricky to be satisfying as accounts in words of people in action.
They seem, indeed, these polished stories, to rise not out of life or the contemplation of life but out of a careful calculation as to what cooked-up material may next be presented, efficiently and grammatically, to a multitude of readers. Even expert craftsmanship, when it stoops to calculation of this sort, can hardly be praised.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1036
SOURCE: A review of Don't Look Now, in The New York Times Book Review, October 17, 1971, pp. 56-7.
[A Canadian novelist and nonfiction writer, Millar is a critically acclaimed author of several mystery and suspense novels. In the following mixed review of Don't Look Now, she suggests that while du Maurier's stories are intriguing and entertaining, some have manipulative plots and unbelievable, superficial characters.]
[Don't Look Now] is a collection of five uneasy pieces. In each one the reader is given an intriguing situation, a series of neatly planted clues and a generous number of plot twists, the kind of thing that Bennett Cerf has lovingly referred to as shenanigans. His taste for shenanigans must be shared by a great many readers: Miss du Maurier has been a household word for more than 30 years, and the most famous Rebecca in the world today is not from Sunnybrook Farm or the Book of Genesis but from a lonely old English mansion called Manderley.
In the title story, "Don't Look Now," Laura and John return to Venice, the scene of their honeymoon 10 years previously. In a restaurant they meet elderly twin sisters from Scotland, one of whom is blind. She is also psychic, and she tells Laura that she has just seen her little daughter who had recently died at the age of 5. Laura is a ready believer. To her husband's alarm she contrives a further meeting with the twins. The psychic warns her of danger if she and John remain in Venice. When a telegram arrives from England with news of the illness of her other child, Laura makes arrangements to fly home immediately. John, who stays behind to take care of their car and baggage, escorts her as far as the landing launch.
That afternoon as he is thinking of Laura winging her way back to England he sees her on a tourist-filled ferry steaming down the Grand Canal. The twin sisters are close beside her and Laura is looking distressed. John assumes her flight was canceled, and she is returning to the hotel. But she fails to show up, and he doesn't know the name of the sisters or where they are staying. Here the plot begins to thicken when it should quicken.
Is Laura really dead? No. Are the sisters dead? No. Is the story dead? A bit. Miss du Maurier is not at her best writing in the third person. Her most effective prose is done in the first person, which keeps her from sprawling and gives her better emotional control of her characters. Laura and John are superficial and dull. Seen from another angle they might have come across as mysterious and cool.
While "Don't Look Now" is a tale of the supernatural, "The Breakthrough" combines the supernatural with superscience. At a secret Government installation on the northwest coast of England, experiments are being conducted on blast. The purpose is to transmit waves that will strike specific targets rather than destroy indiscriminately like sonic booms. The not-so-mad scientist, Maclean, is trying to apply the same principle to promote high-frequency response between individuals, in this case a young man dying of leukemia and an idiot child whose psychic energy is extra strong because her brain did not develop. Miss du Maurier put more genuine feeling into these two characters than in others in the book. As for the story, I guarantee you'll remember it every time you visit a secret experimental station on the northwest coast of England.
In "Not After Midnight" a British schoolteacher, Timothy Grey, is spending his holidays on the island of Crete. He rents a seaside chalet whose previous occupant, a young man writing a book on archeological finds and their connection with Greek mythology, had drowned during a midnight swim. Grey, interested only in his painting, tries to avoid the other hotel guests but finds himself unable to avoid a middle-aged American couple named Stoll. Stoll is a heavy drinker and a bully whose mousey wife tolerates his outbursts mainly because she is deaf.
Every day the Stolls rent a boat and go fishing, but they return to their chalet empty-handed, or at least without any fish. Then they suddenly leave the hotel after delivering a gift to Grey, an ancient jug decorated with the head of Silenos and three of his fellow satyrs.
Puzzled by the gift and the Stolls's mysterious actions, Grey rents the boat they'd been using and investigates. The investigation reveals a shocker of an ending which has little to do with either science or the supernatural.
In "A Border-Line Case," a young actress is bewildered by her father's dying words, which seem to indicate that she is at fault. Attempting to discover the source of her guilt, she sorts through the clues her father left behind: photographs, an address book and a scrap of paper with a list of dates on it and the name of the man who'd been best man at her parents' wedding: Nicolas Barry, Lough Torrah, Eire. So it's off to Ireland for our heroine.
The Irish complications that follow seem to have been inserted merely to throw readers off and keep them from guessing the ending, a legitimate ploy but one that should be kept under stricter control.
"The Way of the Cross" concerns six adults and a boy on a one-day guided tour of Jerusalem. Shenanigans in the Holy City are the same as those in Peoria, 111., but the Biblical names give them a little more class. Miss Dean, the spinster, almost drowns in the Pool of Bethesda; Lady Althea loses the caps on her front teeth outside the Church of All Nations; the young bride is seduced in the Garden of Gethsemane; her seducer, Foster, a plastics manufacturer, is mistaken for a thief on the Via Dolorosa; Mrs. Foster tells some straight truths in the Garden of Joseph of Arimathea, and the Rev. Mr. Babcock suffers an attack of turista in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Jerusalem, Jerusalem!
Only the 9-year-old boy and the 5,000-year-old city seem very real. The other characters used to flesh out the story are mainly flab. Some sort of message comes across about Christianity and humility but the vibes are weak.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7710
SOURCE: "The World of the Macabre: The Short Stories," in Daphne Du Maurier, Twayne Publishers, 1987, pp. 123-40.
[Kelly is an American critic and educator. In the following excerpt from his book-length biographical and critical study of du Maurier, he concludes that her characters often remain undefined and secondary to her formulaic plots, and that her best short stories are those that break out of this pattern, such as "Ganymede," "Don't Look Now, " and "The Birds. "]
Before she embarked on her career as a novelist du Maurier had published a few of her short stories in the Bystander, a magazine edited by her maternal uncle, William Comyns Beaumont. She continued writing short stories during the next five decades, many of which appeared in such women's magazines as the Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping. Most of these tales were later collected and published in The Apple Tree, 1952 (entitled Kiss Me Again, Stranger in the American edition), The Breaking Point, 1959, Not After Midnight, 1971 (entitled Don't Look Now in the American edition), and The Rendezvous and Other Stories, 1980. Echoes from the Macabre, published in 1976, is a composite of selected stories from the earlier collections. Finally, some of the stories that appeared in these earlier books are reprinted, along with a few previously uncollected essays and early tales, in The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories, 1980.
Although some of du Maurier's novels, such as The House on the Strand and The Flight of the Falcon, acknowledge the workings of the unconscious mind, most of her short stories focus upon this sixth sense and explore the region of the mind that borders upon reason and madness, the natural and the supernatural. In her preface to The Breaking Point, du Maurier writes, "There comes a moment in the life of every individual when reality must be faced. When this happens, it is as though a link between emotion and reason is stretched to the limit of endurance, and sometimes snaps." Two of her tales that study this breaking point, "The Birds," and "Don't Look Now," have been indelibly etched upon millions of minds through the enormously popular films by Alfred Hitchcock and Nicholas Roeg.
"The Birds" is an excellent short story that has been turned into a very bad motion picture. "On December the third the wind changed overnight and it was winter," the story opens. This sudden shift in the weather sets the tone for the catastrophic change in the natural order of things to follow. The tale focuses upon an English farmer, Nat Hocken, his wife and children. As the cold begins to bite into both the land and Nat's body, he notices that there are more birds than usual, both over the sea and land. That night he hears pecking at the windows of his home. The birds are trying to get in, and when he goes to investigate the noise one of them pecks at his eyes. Some fifty birds then fly through the open window in his children's room, and he manages to kill most of them amidst the hysterical cries of the children.
The next day the family discusses the bizarre occurrence. Nat explains that the east wind must have affected the behavior of the birds and caused them to seek shelter in his house. When his daughter, Jill, says that they tried to peck at her brother's eyes, Nat again offers a rational explanation. "Fright made them do that. They didn't know where they were, in the dark bedroom."
Later that day, Nat sees what he thinks are white caps out at sea, but they turn out to be hundreds of thousands of gulls: "They rose and fell in the trough of the seas, heads to the wind, like a mighty fleet at anchor, waiting on the tide." When he returns home his wife informs him that there was an announcement on the radio stating that "it's everywhere. In London, all over the country. Something has happened to the birds." A later bulletin says that "The flocks of birds have caused dislocation in all areas."
"Dislocation" is a key word in this story, for it identifies the fundamental disruption in the natural order of things. Man, who is ordained to have dominion over the birds and the beasts, suddenly has his authority threatened. There is not only a dislocation in the great chain of being but within people's minds. Reason and serenity are displaced by fear and panic in this unexpected reversion to a Darwinian world of the survival of the fittest.
Realizing that neither the government nor the military could do anything to help at this point, Nat assumes the thinking of a survivalist: "Each householder must look after his own." Life within his small farmhouse takes on the character of Londoners during the air raids: the family huddles together, food is carefully accounted for, windows and other openings are sealed up, as they prepare for the invasion. The next day the birds continue to gather ominously in the sky and in the fields. On his way home Nat is viciously attacked by a gull, and during his panic a dozen other gulls join in. "If he could only keep them from his eyes. They had not learnt yet how to cling to a shoulder, how to rip clothing, how to dive in mass upon the head, upon the body. But with each dive, with each attack, they became bolder."
Safe at home again, Nat has his wounds treated by his wife, and his children become terrified at the sight of the blood. The battle is now in earnest. The parents do their best to keep the children distracted, but their gut fear shows in their faces and in their actions. That night thousands of birds assault the house, breaking the windows, screaming down the chimney. Using all of his energy and resourcefulness, Nat manages to get his family through the harrowing hours. Daylight brings a degree of safety, for the birds seem to settle quietly in the fields.
Nat goes to the home of his neighbor, the Triggs, to see if he can get some food for his family and discovers the mutilated bodies of the couple. Mr. Trigg is lying next to his telephone, and his wife, an umbrella and a few dead birds at her side, is lying on her bedroom floor. Nat gathers up some food and returns home. This time he barricades his house with barbed wire around the boarded windows and chimney. He works feverishly as his wife and children sleep and then joins them in the hope that his small world is secure.
The story ends with Nat lighting up his last cigarette and listening to the attack of the birds:
The smaller birds were at the window now. He recognized the light taptapping of their beaks, and the soft brush of their wings. The hawks ignored the windows. They concentrated their attack upon the door. Nat listened to the tearing sound of splintering wood, and wondered how many millions of years were stored in those little brains, behind the stabbing beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.
By limiting the focus of her story upon Nat Hocken and his family du Maurier manages to convey the effect of a believable claustrophobic nightmare. The birds may be attacking people throughout the world, but du Maurier wisely keeps the story within the confines of one person's family (though, of course, Nat hears reports of the birds turning predatory in London). The Hocken family becomes a microcosm of an apparent world-wide disaster, and the conclusion of the story clearly suggests that the birds will destroy all the people on earth.
During recent years there have been stories and films featuring everything from rabbits to ants as man's final enemy. Du Maurier's story, however, was something of a shocker at the time, and her choice of birds as the destroyers was particularly effective. Birds have long been associated with peacefulness, beauty, freedom, spirituality, music, and poetry. Unlike ants, frogs, rats, bees, and the other assortments of creatures that go on the rampage in contemporary science fiction tales, birds are attractive and elusive creatures. By making them relentless, almost calculating predators, du Maurier revolutionizes the traditional symbolism of birds, and her story conjures up the nightmarish imagery of the paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, in which grotesque birds with stabbing beaks threaten the rational order of things. Du Maurier plays upon the archetypal fear of having one's eyes pierced by having Nat several times throughout the story exclaim in the midst of an attack that he must protect his eyes.
One other nice touch in the story is that du Maurier does not offer some pseudo-scientific explanation for the birds' behavior. Given an ordered and reasonable world, her characters attempt to explain the phenomena in terms they can understand—a shift in the weather or migration patterns. They gradually discover, however, that their lifelong assumptions about reason and order do not apply, that their world has suddenly become absurd, a bad dream in which rules of logic and common sense no longer work. The end result is that human beings are forced to act like animals themselves, with survival as their solitary goal.
Alfred Hitchcock became interested in du Maurier's story after he read the headlines of a Santa Cruz newspaper: "A Sea Bird Invasion Hits Coastal Homes." Realizing that there was no plot or character development in the short story, Hitchcock knew he would have to get someone, preferably a novelist, who could expand the story and make it suitable for a film. He turned to the novelist Evan Hunter.
Hunter's final story line is as follows: A rich San Francisco socialite named Melanie Daniels (played by Tippi Hedren) meets a brash young lawyer named Mitch Brenner (played by Rod Taylor) in a pet shop. Despite Mitch's arrogant manner, Melanie is attracted to him, and she travels by boat to his home in Bodega Bay to deliver a pair of love birds his young sister wanted. Returning to town, Melanie is attacked by a swooping gull that wounds her head. Later she accepts an invitation to Mitch's home for dinner, despite his mother's disapproval of her. The birds in the area, meantime, show signs of erratic behavior. Melanie goes to help out at the sister's birthday party the next day, and during the party a flock of gulls attacks the children. The school teacher, Annie Hayworth (played by Suzanne Pleshette), was formerly in love with Mitch and provides the love triangle.
The violence increases as a flock of sparrows pours into the house through the chimney. A neighboring farmer and his wife are pecked to death; another attack leads to an explosion of a gasoline tank; and Annie is killed while trying to protect her students. Finally, Melanie, Mitch, his mother and sister, barricade the house against a brutal onslaught of birds. During a lull the next day, Mitch gets his car, and he drives the terrified group away slowly down a road surrounded by birds.
Hitchcock did not want any stars in his film. He told Hunter, "I'm the star, the birds are the stars—and you're the star." Apart from the famous stage actress Jessica Tandy, who played the mother, there were no well-known actors in the film. Hitchcock chose Suzanne Pleshette, a newcomer, over Anne Bancroft for the role of the schoolteacher. He gave Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor their first leading roles. A great expense of time and money went into the birds themselves: mechanical birds, animated birds, and real birds. Two men, wearing protective gloves, threw live birds at Tippi Hedren during the climactic scene. Hours were spent in shooting this scene in a caged room as Hedren attempted to act under the constant bombardment of feathers and beaks. Once a frightened bird left a deep gash on her lower eye lid, and the terror in the cage became more than mere acting.
If a lesser figure than Hitchcock had produced this film it is doubtful that it would have received such enormous notoriety. It is without a doubt the worst film version of a du Maurier story. Evan Hunter's script is largely devoted to the dull and unbelievable love story between Mitch and Melanie. The audience must sit through over an hour of poor acting and vapid dialogue before the birds get their chance to star. The nightmare effect of du Maurier's story is diminished beyond recall, with the exception of one excellent scene in which Melanie sits outside the school house waiting for Mitch's sister. As she sits there smoking a cigarette, a jungle-gym set in the background ominously fills up with large blackbirds.
Brendal Gill, in the New Yorker, observes that the film "doesn't arouse suspense, which is, of course, what justifies and transforms the sadism that lies at the heart of every thriller. Here the sadism is all too nakedly, repellently present. . . . If this picture is a hit, the Audubon Society has an ugly public-relations problem on its hands." Most of the major newspapers and magazines attacked this film with the vehemence of the predatory birds themselves. Before long, the critics were busily attacking each other. Gary Arnold in Moviegoer ridicules the opinions of Peter Bogdanovich and Andrew Sarris, who contend that The Birds is Hitchcock's greatest artistic achievement. Arnold observes that Evan Hunter's script lies at the heart of the film's failure: "Since the people in the film are so shallow, so lacking in the qualities and complexities of human beings, the birds themselves lose a good deal of force both as terrorizers and possible symbols. Assaulting vacant, passive, cardboard figures proves very little, I think, about what men are like or what they may have in store for themselves."
In a prefatory note to The Breaking Point, du Maurier writes that "In this collection of stories, men, women, children, and a nation are brought to the breaking point. Whether the link [between emotion and reason] snaps, the reader must judge for himself." The two most memorable tales in this volume are "The Alibi" and "Ganymede."
"The Alibi" is the story of a homicidal personality. Middleaged, married, and bored with the routine of his life, James Fenton feels that he has become a puppet, constrained by social customs and manners. Then, one day, he suddenly becomes aware of a sense of power within himself: "His was the master-hand that set the puppets jiggling." He looks at the quiet, apathetic houses along the street and begins to express his new-found power in psychopathic terms: "They don't know, those people inside, how one gesture of mine, now, at this minute, might alter their world. A knock on the door, and someone answers—a woman yawning, an old man in carpet slippers, a child sent by its parents in irritation; and according to what I will, what I decide, their whole future will be decided. Faces smashed in. Sudden murder. Theft. Fire. It was as simple as that."
Pretending he is an artist, Fenton rents a basement room in a rundown section of the city, "the air of poverty and decay" presenting "a contrast to the houses in his own small Regency square." As in Victorian pornography, the victim of the upper-class manipulator is the lower-class woman. The only tenants in this slum dwelling are an Austrian woman named Anna Kaufman and her young boy Johnnie. Fenton plans to murder them both, believing that this act will demonstrate both his power and freedom as a human being.
Spending several hours in these lodgings each day (he tells his wife that he is working late at the office), Fenton becomes intensely interested in his paintings, first done as part of his charade but later taken seriously. Meanwhile, Anna has become very dependent upon him for companionship and money, and, when he says that he is going to take another apartment where he hopes to finish up his series of paintings, she becomes morose. He gathers up his materials and is about to leave when she asks him if he would throw away a package that she gives him. A policeman sees him drop the package into a trashcan and shows up at his home later to arrest him for disposing of a dead fetus.
Fenton confesses to the police and to his wife that indeed he was keeping this apartment where he painted nearly every day but that his relationship with Anna was an innocent one, all of which is true. When the police take him to the lodgings he discovers that Anna has turned on the gas and killed herself and Johnnie. Both the police and his wife believe that he murdered them, and Fenton, in an act of ironic despair, cries out, "All right, I'll confess everything. I was her lover, of course, and the child was mine. I turned on the gas this evening before I left the house. I killed them all." The story ends with Fenton's false confession, a confession to a crime he had committed only in his imagination. His fantasy of power and freedom thus brings about his destruction.
Fenton's dissatisfaction with the routines and customs of middle-class life proves to be his undoing. Although the focus of this story is upon the melodrama of potential murder, its structure argues for the acceptance of conventional values. If one ventures out to become a sort of Nietzschean superman, imposing his own will upon events and becoming a law unto himself, then he is destroyed. In this case, the hero plants the seeds of self-destruction by merely fantasizing his plan for gratuitous murder. Of course, if one is a writer, like du Maurier, she may commit fictional murders with impunity and still retain her firm belief in the conventional manners and customs that hold her world so firmly together.
Influenced by Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice," du Maurier constructs a very compelling story in "Ganymede." The narrator is a classics scholar from England on holiday in Venice. Fired from his teaching position for "unsavoury practices," this sad and rather lonely man falls in love with a handsome young Italian waiter whom he christens "Ganymede." The middle-aged scholar imagines himself as Zeus being served by this young cupbearer, and the fantasy provides him intense happiness during his stay in the hotel. Before long, however, he becomes involved with the boy's family and promises to get the young man a good-paying job in England. It becomes clear that there is a great gap between the scholar's and the boy's interests. The narrator considered giving him his prized collection of Shakespeare's plays but decides not to when he discovers that the boy really would like to have an Elvis Presley record. Their relationship develops, and the scholar's fantasy continues to grow when suddenly tragedy brings his homosexual dream to an end. While the boy is water-skiing, the narrator mishandles the tow line, and the boy is dragged under the propeller of the boat and killed. The narrator pays for all of the funeral expenses, and his life, as he says, "has become rather different." With no living relative except his sister, whom he sees occasionally, he is once again facing the void. He concludes his tale by announcing that he has a little present for the fifteen-year-old boy training to be a waiter. He bought him a Perry Como record.
Du Maurier seems to be at her best in her more commonplace tales, such as this one and The Parasites, where she is not seeking melodramatic or supernatural effects. Like the Reverend Davey, the narrator is one of her "freaks," a social outcast who attempts to manipulate other people to satisfy his loneliness and unhappiness. Like Davey, who pays homage to the Druidical gods, Fenton identifies himself with the Greek god, Zeus. He is a sympathetic character until the end of the story where we learn that he is about to engage another young boy for his pleasure. Du Maurier's choice of first-person point of view is especially effective here, since it disallows any judgmental statements by an omniscient narrator. As far as the scholar is concerned, he is living a normal life, unwittingly revealing his selfishness, his pitiful loneliness, and his corruption. Above all else, he is guilty of hubris, an arrogant pride bred from sexual passion. When he first sees his "Ganymede" he remarks: "I myself was above him, did not exist in his time; and this self who was non-existent knew with every nerve fibre, every brain cell, every blood corpuscle that he was indeed Zeus, the giver of life and death, the immortal one, the lover; and that the boy who came towards him was his own beloved, his cup-bearer, his slave, his Ganymede." Having inadvertently brought about the death of his first cupbearer, this would-be-Zeus descends from his classical heaven to the lowly world again, with a Perry Como record under his arm, to seduce his next young boy. Du Maurier's grotesque sense of humor here is brilliant.
It often happens that a novel or short story is overshadowed by the film upon which it is based. Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and Rebecca are cases in point. "Don't Look Now," the first story in Not After Midnight, may not be as well known as Rebecca but Nicholas Roeg's translation of the tale into film is one of the happiest marriages between fiction and film in recent years.
Du Maurier opens her story with a compellingly suspenseful sentence: '"Don't look now,' John said to his wife, 'but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotise me.'" John and Laura, an English couple, are on vacation in Venice in an attempt to distract themselves from the memory of the recent death of their young daughter, Christine, who died of meningitis. The two women sitting in the restaurant behind them are identical twins, only one of them is blind. They are wearing mannish clothes, and John jokingly speculates that they are lesbians or male twins in drag or hermaphrodites. Laura goes to the restroom, and when she returns she tells John that the blind twin told her that she saw their daughter Christine sitting between them and that she was laughing. Laura learned that one sister is a retired doctor from Edinburgh and that the other one has studied the occult all her life and was very psychic. "It's only since going blind," she tells John, "that she has really seen things, like a medium."
John is an unbeliever, but upon seeing the blind sister's sightless eyes fixed upon him, "He felt himself held, unable to move, and an impending sense of doom, of tragedy, came upon him. His whole being sagged, as it were, in apathy, and he thought, This is the end, there is no escape, no future.'" These thoughts prove to be prophetic. A believer in such psychic forces as precognition and spirit communication, du Maurier allows the Tiresias-like sister to set the stage for the psychic drama to follow.
While John and Laura later roam through the back alleys of Venice in search of a restaurant they hear a scream. John catches a fleeting glimpse of a small figure that suddenly creeps from a cellar entrance below one of the houses opposite him and jumps into a boat below. "It was a child," he tells Laura, "a little girl—she couldn't have been more than five or six—wearing a short coat over her minute skirt, a pixie hood covering her head."
When they get to the restaurant they run into the twin sisters again. This time the blind woman tells Laura that Christine is trying to tell their parents that they are in danger in Venice, that they should leave as soon as possible. Laura reports the warning to John and adds, "the extraordinary thing is that the blind sister says you're psychic and don't know it. You are somehow en rapport with the unknown, and I'm not." John, as it turns out, is indeed psychic, and his refusal to believe in the supernatural eventually leads to his death.
A telephone call from London informs John and Laura that their son, Johnnie, is ill. Laura leaves Venice on a boat to catch a plane back home, and John is supposed to drive home the next day. John boards a ferry to fetch his car, and when another ferry passes him he thinks he sees Laura on it: "Laura, in her scarlet coat, the twin sisters by her side, the active sister with her hand on Laura's arm, talking earnestly, and Laura herself, her hair blowing in the wind, gesticulating, on her face a look of distress." John returns to his hotel to wait for her, but when she fails to show up he tries to track down the sisters. When he checks at the restaurant, the proprietor informs him of a murderer at large: "A grizzly business. One woman found with her throat slit last week—a tourist too—and some old chap discovered with the same sort of knife wound this morning. They seem to think it must be a maniac, because there doesn't seem to be any motive."
John reports his missing wife to the police, but soon afterwards he receives a call from London informing him that his son's appendicitis operation was successful and that his wife would like to speak to him. John has no explanation for his vision earlier in the day: "The point was he had seen all three of them on the vaporetto. It was not another woman in a red coat. The women had been there, with Laura. So what was the explanation? That he was going off his head? Or something more sinister?" He tries desperately to convince himself that the whole business was a mistake, an hallucination. What he is unable to recognize at this point is that his vision is perfectly clear, only what he saw was a scene in the immediate future, namely that of Laura and the two sisters riding the ferry to his funeral.
John talks to the blind sister, and she explains that he had looked into the future but he naturally refuses to credit that explanation. He then proceeds to walk along the back alleys and suddenly sees the little girl with the pixie hood again "running as if her life depended upon it. . . . She was sobbing as she ran, not the ordinary cry of a frightened child, but the panic-stricken intake of breath of a helpless being in despair." He hears someone pursuing her and, thinking that they are both in danger of the homicidal maniac, he follows the child up the stairs within a courtyard and into a room leading off a small landing. He slams the door shut and bolts it, unwittingly sealing his fate: "The child struggled to her feet and stood before him, the pixie-hood falling from her head on to the floor. He stared at her, incredulity turning to horror, to fear. It was not a child at all but a little thick-set woman dwarf, about three feet high, with a great square adult head too big for her body, grey locks hanging shoulder-length, and she wasn't sobbing anymore, she was grinning at him, nodding her head up and down."
He hears the police banging on the door. Suddenly the details of the past few days come together to form a horrifyingly clear picture: the figure he mistook for a child is the psychopathic killer, the blind sister was correct in the warning she conveyed to him through his dead daughter—his life was in danger, and the vision he had of the twin sisters with Laura was in fact an image of the future, as they will now proceed in such fashion to his funeral.
The dwarf withdraws a knife from her sleeve and hurls it at him with hideous strength piercing his throat. The creature begins gibbering in the corner, the police continue hammering on the door, and the sounds gradually grow fainter for him as he thinks, "Oh, God, what a bloody silly way to die."
The gothic setting of a decaying Venice, the mad dwarf, the recurring glimpses into the future, the suspense, and the violence all go to make up an exciting story. Characteristically, du Maurier does not develop her characters to the point where we can have any strong feelings of sympathy for them. Instead, we watch with curiosity what happens to them. Life in a du Maurier tale is not so much depth of feeling as it is a sequence of events that eventually spell out the characters' fates. On a psychological level there is a suggestion here that John feels guilty for the death of his daughter, a feeling that makes him sensitive to the distress of the creature in the pixie hood, but du Maurier seems more concerned with his precognition than with his memories and how they affect his future.
The film Don't Look Now appeared in 1973, directed by Nicholas Roeg and starring Donald Sutherland as John, Julie Christie as Laura, Hilary Mason as the blind sister, and Clelia Matania as the other sister. In the picture John is an architect. After Christine accidentally drowns, the bereaved parents leave England and go to Venice, where John works at repairing the statuary and mosaics of a church.
Roeg uses the imagery of the film to draw events together. Christine, for example, is wearing a red slicker when she drowns. The malicious dwarf is also wearing a red slicker, making John's concern for her safety more compelling. When the film opens John is examining a slide of a church interior, and the top of the dwarf's red hood shows over one of the benches towards the rear of the church. A bleeding-red stain appears across the slide shortly before John has a premonition that something is wrong. He runs outside and sees the body of his daughter floating in the pond.
Another image is established at the opening of the film. Christine is riding her bicycle, and the camera focuses upon the front wheel going over a pane of glass, shattering it. When John is stabbed at the end of the film, all of the imagery comes together in his mind. He sees Laura and the sisters on the funeral boat, the bleeding stains across the slide, and in his death agony he kicks out a pane of glass with his foot. The sights and sounds associated with Christine's death close in upon him as his blood pumps from the large wound in his neck staining the floor.
Roeg also develops a nice contrast between pagan and Christian imagery in the film, something only vaguely hinted at in du Maurier's story. In Catholic Venice John earns his livelihood restoring the Christian images. Though we do not get the impression that either he or Laura are devout Christians, there is a scene in which Laura lights a votive candle for Christine. Set against the traditional Catholic images are those of a pagan world: the blind seer (Tiresias), the séance, and the malignant dwarf of folklore.
All of these images are timeless, floating between and connecting future, present, and past. The long scene of John and Laura's love-making is also consistent with the premonitory theme of the film. Throughout their passionate interlude there are frequent images of their getting dressed—flash-forwards. Pauline Kael observes that this scene "relates to the way eroticism is displaced throughout; dressing is splintered and sensualized, like fear and death—death most of all, with splashes of red." The film itself, she contends, is a mosaic of premonitions, and the dislocations are eroticized: "rotting Venice, the labyrinthine city of pleasure, with its crumbling, leering gargoyles, is obscurely, frighteningly sensual" ["Labyrinths," New Yorker 49, December 24, 1973].
Du Maurier's cool indifference to her characters, her clinical observation of their movements through the fate she has predestined for them, allows Roeg to flesh out this tale with a rich elegance and sensuality to create what Kael calls a "Bor-gesian setting—the ruins tokens of a mysteriously indifferent universe. . . . the romanticism isn't of the traditional Gothic variety but a coolly enigmatic sexiness." Things are not what they seem in this dislocated world. A child in a red raincoat becomes a murderer. John's pursuit of the image of his daughter leads to his death, which is ironical in that her spirit warned him to leave Venice. The weird sisters—reminiscent of the ancient fates—are sometimes seen snickering together. Are they charlatans or seers? The erotic is not found in bed but in dressing and in the sinister streets of a deserted Venice and in the upper room in which John is alone with the grotesque dwarf. In short, Roeg turns du Maurier's gothic thriller into an erotic nightmare. As Kael says, "the picture is the fanciest, most carefully assembled Gothic enigma yet put on the screen."
"A Border-Line Case" is a curious story of romantic incest. The narrator is a young actress named Shelagh Money. She attempts to amuse her ailing father by showing him some photographs from the family album. She will soon play the role of Cesario in Twelfth Night and pushes her hair behind her head to ape the character. Upon seeing this, her father suddenly stares at her with a look of horror and disbelief on his face and then dies. The tale then takes on the character of a detective story as Shelagh attempts to discover why her assumed appearance triggered her father's death.
After considerable digging for information, Shelagh tracks down her father's old friend, Nick Barry. Despite the fact that he is an older man, she falls in love with him and discovers that he is an Irish sympathizer who has organized a terrorist group in an attempt to unify Ireland. She soon enjoys a sexual interlude with him in the back of a grocery truck as he and his men head towards a terrorist attack on the border of Northern Ireland.
More probing leads to an amazing discovery. Nick was once ungraciously received by her mother and to seek revenge he "had a rough-and-tumble with her on the sofa." Knowing all of this, Shelagh comments: "He's deceived my father, deceived my mother (serves her right), deceived the England he fought for for so many years, tarnished the uniform he wore, degraded his rank, spends his time now, and has done so for the past twenty years, trying to split this country wider apart than ever." His reckless, adventuresome spirit, however, overwhelms her, and she confesses she loves him and is willing to throw over her theatrical career in order to "come and throw bombs with you."
She returns to London and to the stage and soon receives a letter from Nick informing her that he is going to America to work on a book. He encloses a photograph of himself with a note written across the back: "Nick Barry as Cesario in Twelfth Night." She realizes then that Nick is her father and that her presumed father, upon seeing her in a similar pose, had awakened "from a dream that had lasted twenty years. Dying, he discovered truth." The story ends with Shelagh planning to leave the theater in order to dedicate herself to a life as a terrorist, "for only by hating can you purge away love, only by sword, by fire."
The chief interest in this preposterous story is the oedipal feelings of the narrator. Incest comes into play here as Shelagh enjoys a sexual encounter with her father during a dangerous trip to the Irish border. The likelihood of being caught or killed adds to the thrill of the relationship. Shelagh does not at the time realize that the older man is her father. Her pleasure lies in being sexually dominated by a person long associated with her parent. When she discovers that Nick is indeed her father, she expresses no feelings of guilt or anguish but rather a strong determination to follow in his radical, violent ways. The adolescent and shrill tone of the story makes it unbelievable. It is compelling only as a youthful female fantasy of a sexually frustrated young woman.
"The Way of the Cross" is an entertaining account of an ill-sorted group of English pilgrims in Jerusalem. After the vicar of Little Bletford succumbs to an attack of influenza, the Reverend Edward Babcock is assigned the task of guiding the interesting group of tourists around the holy city. Lady Althea Mason, the most prominent of the party, is a vain, stuffy, wealthy woman whose mind is preoccupied with her looks and with social status. Her husband is a retired army colonel who sees everything from the military perspective of the 1940s. Jim Forster is the managing director of an up-and-coming plastics firm. A lecher, he later seduces Jill Smith, a young woman on her honeymoon. His wife, Kate Forster, expresses concern mainly for such topics as world poverty and starvation. Bob Smith and his bride, Jill, are attempting to come to terms with their new relationship. Miss Dean is a seventy-year-old spinster, perhaps the only member of the group actually interested in the historical tour. She is strongly attached to the vicar of Little Bletford, and Reverend Babcock's sudden replacement of her pastor spoils her idyll. Robin is the nine-year-old grandson of the Masons. Reminiscent of Browning's Pippa (in Pippa Passes), he is free, outspoken, intelligent, precocious, and unaffected by the mad constraints of those around him.
Colonel Mason comes to realize during the tour that the military has consumed his entire life. He tells Babcock that he would have been given command of his regiment but that he had to leave the army due to Althea's illness. Robin reports this conversation to Althea, who is overcome by doubt, guilt, and bewilderment. She had always thought that her husband was content in his garden and in arranging his military papers and books in the library.
Althea's complacency is further shocked when she loses the caps from her front teeth after biting into a piece of hard bread. She looks into a mirror: "The woman who stared back at her had two small filed pegs stuck in her upper gums where the teeth should have been. They looked like broken matchsticks, discoloured, black. All trace of beauty had gone. She might have been some peasant who, old before her time, stood begging at a street corner."
Jill Smith, who had allowed Jim Foster to make love to her the previous day, begins to feel guilty for deceiving her husband during their honeymoon, especially since they are in the Holy Land. Jim, meanwhile, gets caught up in a mob when he is chased by the police for refusing to pay for a cheap medallion from a street merchant. Miss Dean wanders off to the Pool of Bethesda to gather some of its miraculous waters into a vial. She plans to bring the water back to the vicar in hopes of winning his continued approval. She slips on a damp stone, however, falls into the pool and almost drowns in the holy water. Even the Reverend Babcock manages to humiliate himself when, at the Chapel of Golgotha, he has an attack of diarrhea from some bad chicken he ate and passes out and fouls himself lying on the church floor. Like Jonathan Swift, du Maurier takes especial delight in focusing upon the repulsiveness of the human body (the description of Lady Althea's mouth) and upon fecal humor.
In the last scene we see most of the principals sitting together, physically or emotionally changed from what they were twenty-four hours earlier. Miss Dean sits silently with a blanket over her knees. Lady Althea is also silent, a chiffon scarf masking the lower part of her face. She, too, has a blanket over her knees, and the Colonel holds her hand beneath it. The Smiths more openly hold hands. The Forsters sit on either side of Miss Dean, and Reverend Babcock, in a change of clothes, sits next to Robin. The story ends with Robin saying that he wishes he could have stayed two more days. Babcock asks why and Robin replies, "Well, you never know. Of course it's not very probable in this day and age, but we might have seen the Resurrection."
The central theme of this story is that one must know the truth before he or she can be free. A Jewish workman tells Robin that tomorrow is the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, "the Festival of our Freedom," and that "everyone, everywhere, wanted freedom from something." Babcock learns humility; the Forsters are separated; the Masons are closer together; and Miss Dean is chastened.
Unlike most of du Maurier's short stories, which are terribly earnest and usually dependent upon the supernatural for their effect, this one is remarkably simple. The light, mocking tone of the narrator, the quickly but deftly drawn characters, and the clever setting that contrasts their personal concerns with great moments in Christianity give this tale a charm and cogency lacking in her other stories.
Although The Rendezvous and Other Stories was published in 1980, all of the stories were written between 1930 and 1950. Why du Maurier chose to resurrect them is not clear, for they clearly do not further her reputation as a writer. Only her most die-hard fans, with minds clouded by her past success, could celebrate the publication of this collection. Paul Ableman, a reviewer for the Spectator, cleverly reviews this book by con-structing an inner debate between his sentimental and rational mind. The rational mind, which prevails in the end, offers some of the following damning observations: the characters in the stories are wooden and unconvincing; the plots creak and depend upon outrageous coincidence; the prose is sloppy and chaotic "and the whole volume hardly contains a shapely sentence"; the dialogue consists of "rent-a-line prefabricated units"; there is an absence of "exact observation, authority over language, convincing motivation, significant plot or, to be brief, any evidence whatsoever of true literary ability."
"The Rendezvous" is one of the better stories in this volume. Robert Scrivener, a well-known English novelist, lives a lonely life until he begins corresponding with a young woman from Geneva named Annette Limoges. She flatters him in her letters, and soon the author becomes infatuated with his unseen correspondent. Scheduled to give a lecture in Geneva, he arranges to meet Annette there. He is dazzled by her beauty and longs to make love to her. It turns out, however, that she has fallen in love with a local bathing attendant named Alberto, a handsome fellow half Scrivener's age. Desperate to declare his love for her but too proud to be rejected in favor of the youth, Scrivener goes along with their joyful company, even to the point of tolerating their making love in his room when he is away from the hotel. He comes to the realization that his fame may win a beautiful young woman's attention but that it cannot compete with the sexual attraction of a younger man.
There are some interesting aspects of this story that suggest that du Maurier is constructing a rationalization and a defense for the sort of popular fiction she writes. One of Scrivener's friends, a popular novelist whose works sell in "ridiculous numbers," implies that Scrivener is "a fake, without the wide experience of life that his novels appeared to possess" because he has never been married or had a lover. Scrivener is an elitist, careful to praise books that are unlikely to sell but that show some constructive approach to world problems. He "did not permit himself to be spoilt by his success, and he was careful to tell his friends that he would never be tempted by offers from Hollywood to prostitute his work upon the screen. As a matter of fact, no such offers came, but this was beside the point." Obviously believing that she herself has had a wide experience of life, du Maurier uses Scrivener as an example of the limited literary purist, a strawman to be devastated by his private needs, which, ironically, are depicted in a Hollywood motion picture.
After his lecture in Geneva Scrivener receives a note from Annette telling him that she and Alberto will be using his apartment that evening. In despair, Scrivener goes to a theater where he sees a movie about a middle-aged man whose life turns sour and who murders his wife and falls in love with his step-daughter. Identifying with the hero, Scrivener weeps uncontrollably and sees the works he has written as lost to him "across the wasted years of his own dull, empty life." When the film credits are run he suddenly realizes that the picture was based upon his writer friend's best-selling novel that he had always despised.
The autobiographical fable embedded within this tale, then, argues that du Maurier's wide experience, her best-selling novels, and her concessions to Hollywood are all meritorious. The elitist writers may have the adulation of the snobbish literary establishment but real life moves on a lower, more powerful plane, and the elitist will one day come to realize that.
In most of her short fiction du Maurier is primarily interested in conclusions and in the events that lead to those conclusions. Character, atmosphere, language, social commentary—all are of secondary interest to her as she plunges her undefined characters into a sequence of events that inextricably lead them to a predestined, usually surprising, fate. Her stories present life in neat, tidy little packages. Her characters are manipulated by their contrived future, their every gesture and word leading to a preconceived conclusion. Du Maurier's best stories avoid this easy pattern in favor of a more complex, ambiguous view of life. "The Birds," "Don't Look Now," "The Way of the Cross," and "Ganymede" are four of her most convincing and entertaining stories. Like Rebecca and The Parasites, two of her best novels, they convey a cogent sense of the terror and comedy of ordinary human life.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1737
SOURCE: "The Breaking Point 1946-1960" and "Death of the Writer 1960-1989," in Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller, Doubleday, 1993, pp. 205-312, 313-416.
[Forster is an English novelist, biographer, and critic. In the following excerpt from her authorized biography of du Maurier, she examines the stories collected in The Apple Tree.]
[In the winter of 1949, Daphne] wrote a new collection of short stories [The Apple Tree] which were a completely new departure. These were strange, morbid stories, in which deep undercurrents of resentment and even hatred revealed far more about Daphne's inner fantasy life than any novel had ever done. ('All those stories have inner significance for problems of that time,' she later wrote.) They included a novella, Monte Verita, which completely bewildered Victor Gollancz [du Maurier's publisher], who commented: 'I don't understand the slight implication that there is something wrong with sex.' This novella is about a woman, Anna, who is mesmerized by a mysterious sect who live in a secret world in the mountains in Central Europe. She joins them and disappears. The whole point of the story is that in her 'Monte Verita' Anna has found a spiritual happiness she could never find with her husband or any man. Sexual love between a man and a woman no longer means anything to her, and all the young women who became part of her sect are now saved from 'the turmoil of a brief romance turning to humdrum married life'. What disturbed Victor most was that in the first version Anna, once she is safe in her Monte Verita, turns into a man. At Victor's insistence, Daphne changed this and Anna remains a woman but, as he had picked up, the general drift of this highly metaphorical story is that there is something wrong with sex between men and women—it spoils relationships, it drains energy, it gets in the way of self-fulfilment. Written by a woman who was in the middle of her first love-affair with another woman for twenty years, it seems strikingly significant.
The title story, 'The Apple Tree', seems even more so. It tells of a man who, after his wife has died, notices an apple tree, which has never borne blossom or fruit, suddenly flourishing. He becomes convinced that the tree represents his wife, whom he never really loved because 'she always seemed to put a blight on everything' and because they had lived 'in different worlds . . . their minds not meeting'. All his efforts go into trying to destroy the tree, but in the end, when finally he has hacked it into logs and given it away, he trips over its root and is trapped in the snow. It is very hard to decide quite how Daphne intended this story to be read: is the hatred of the man for his dead wife justified, or does he get his deserts? Or is the whole story meant to damn marriages in which true minds do not meet—as in her own. . . . Whatever the origin of 'The Apple Tree', it was all of a piece with the volume's general theme of sex as trouble, in one way or another, of the sexual urge causing violence and even murder.
Two of the other four stories very forcibly emphasized this and have a distinctly nasty tone to them. 'The Little Photographer' tells of a rich woman on holiday who has everything she wants except a lover (her husband is not with her). She finds herself wanting to have a love-affair, as long as it can be 'a thing of silence' with a stranger, so that it is just sex and nothing more. She sets her sights on a crippled photographer whom she meets while working on a cliff. She asks him, 'Why don't you kiss me?' and he does, which gives her a delicious furtive sense of excitement—'What she did was without emotion of any sort, her mind and affections quite untouched.' But eventually sex with the photographer becomes a boring ritual. One day she doesn't turn up. He is distraught and says she is his life, he cannot do without her. He tells her she is wicked when she offers him money to go away, and she pushes him over the cliff. Her husband arrives to take her home and she thinks she has got away with both the love-affair (in which there was no love) and the murder, but on the last page it is made clear that she will not do so and will be condemned to a future life of guilt and blackmail.
All the details of the plot in this unpleasant story are incredible, but the atmosphere is convincing. The coldness of the woman, her contempt for the poor photographer, her ruthlessness—all these repel but fascinate. The woman's ideal, 'passion between strangers', sex as something to discard, is ugly but argued with such conviction that the attempt at the end to make her pay some sort of price seems weak. Another story, 'Kiss Me Again, Stranger', has an even more brutal view of sex. A young mechanic picks up a cinema usherette. They go into a cemetery and she tells him to kiss her but that she likes him silent. He feels himself falling in love with her and starts fantasizing about their future together. He leaves her reluctantly and goes home. Next day he reads about the murder of an RAF man and realizes that the murderess was his girl. The plot is totally unbelievable, but once again the atmosphere is not.
After such macabre happenings, the other two stories in this collection come as a relief, although here again, in one of them at least, there are autobiographical connections freely acknowledged by the author. 'The Old Man' is a simply told story which turns out to be a spoof. The old man is described as big and strong. He lives by a lake with his wife but has driven his children away, so he can be alone with her, 'which is what he has always wanted'. In the last three lines it is revealed that the old man is, in fact, a swan. Often, after she had written this story, Daphne would refer to Tommy [her husband] as 'just like "The Old Man'"—wanting her to himself, jealous, she believed, of the attention she gave her children, especially Kits [their son]. 'But that is not the whole significance of the story,' she commented. 'The real significance is that Moper [Tommy] must not kill his only begotten son but kill the petty jealous self which is his hidden nature, and so rise again.' This, she thought, 'is the truth behind Christianity and all the religions'. But the story she liked best, and which 'just came bubbling out', fitted into no pattern. 'The Birds' is a wholly atmospheric story, beautifully paced and unmarred by the intricacies of plot which sometimes spoiled Daphne's original ideas. The tension of birds attacking humans in hordes is sustained throughout. The birds themselves, shuttling on window-sills, pecking at glass panes, swooping in from the sea in millions, are horrifyingly real. ' "The Birds", wrote Victor Gollancz, elated, 'is a masterpiece.'
The whole collection thrilled him, but he was firm in telling Daphne that he did not at all like two other stories she added—'No Motive' and 'Split Second'. She was, he told her, 'one of the few authors . . . with whom I can be frank'. 'No Motive' jarred on him and 'Split Second' was poor. Daphne, as ever, accepted his judgement and dropped these two stories. She told him he really was 'the only publisher in the world' even though she was 'a tinge sorry' about 'Split Second'. He was 'dynamic, exuberant, tender, intolerant and the only publisher for me'. Victor responded that she was 'beautiful, adorable, gracious, charming and good'. This was indeed the high-water mark of their relationship as author and publisher. But Victor warned her that even though he loved the stories she must brace herself for shocked reviews—the violence in them would be noted and probably found abhorrent coming from the pen of the 'romantic' writer she was supposed to be. He was, on the whole, right. Nancy Spain in the Daily Express in particular was revolted by the stories and attacked the author. Victor replied to her in a storming letter . . . , only to be soundly told off by Nancy Spain in turn. Her review, which he had called 'low-down', was, she wrote, perfectly accurate—the stories were 'all concerned with malformation, hatred, blackmail, cruelty and murder' and he shouldn't object to her saying so. Anyone writing such stories was surely sick.
Daphne's own response was to ask who Nancy Spain was and then to dismiss all the reviewers as 'nearly always indifferent writers who can't make a living from their own books and are forced to make a living through shoddy journalism . . . kicking at writers more successful than themselves is probably the only thrill they ever get'. Victor was, in fact, doing her no favours by encouraging her to take this attitude, so that soon she was no longer able to detect genuine and potentially helpful criticism. But it was a pity this collection did not merit more attention, and that it was 'The Birds' which monopolized any attention it did get, because it was a huge improvement on Daphne's previous short stories of her early years.
Not only were these new stories better written, they also showed a shift in the balance of power between the sexes which she had been working out for some twenty years now in her novels. The women were no longer pathetic and exploited, the men no longer always powerful and dominant. Now, women were often in control and making men suffer. Women had become quite vicious creatures, perfectly capable of tricking, and even killing, men as they had been tricked and killed in the early stories. Daphne's friends and family were rather taken aback at this strain of brutality she displayed, but she was unrepentant and talked cheerfully of 'my macabre tastes' without seeming to fear any significance being read into them. But this collection was highly important: it represented a change not only in Daphne's style but in her subject-matter—her 'macabre tastes' at last were acknowledged and given an outlet, reflecting the confusion of her inner self.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 425
Cook, Judith. Daphne: A Portrait of Daphne du Maurier. London: Bantam Press, 1991, 321 p.
Study of du Maurier's life and work. Cook describes du Maurier as "a strange, self-contained and introverted woman, a woman who had suffered an emotional onslaught in her early years, the blighting effect of which never left her."
Forster, Margaret. Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller. New York: Doubleday, 1993, 457 p.
Detailed account of du Maurier's life and career, including critical analysis and biographical interpretation of her works. Forster provides many previously unknown details about du Maurier's life, which she gathered from the letters and personal recollections of du Maurier's family, particularly her children, and her close friends.
Leng, Flavia. Daphne du Maurier: A Daughter's Memoir. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 1994, 206 p.
Childhood reminiscence focusing on family relationships and life at Menabilly.
Malet, Oriel, ed. Daphne du Maurier: Letters from Menabilly, Portrait of a Friendship. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1993, 303 p.
Collection of letters from du Maimer to her close friend and fellow author Oriel Malet. The letters, dating from the early 1950s to January 1981, discuss family and friends, the craft of writing, and books.
Bleiler, E. F. "More Words and Pictures." The Washington Post Book World (December 27, 1987): 8.
Appreciates du Maurier's stories in Classics of the Macabre but finds the collection overall "an overproduced coffee-table book."
D'Ammassa, Don. Review of Classics of the Macabre. Science Fiction Chronicle 9, No. 5 (February 1988): 42.
Praises du Maurier's sense of timing and suspense and, noting the illustrations by Michael Foreman, calls it "a beautiful collection."
Ross, Mary. "Stories of Lives in Crisis." New York Herald Tribune Book Review (October 25, 1959): 13.
Favorable review of The Breaking Point in which Ross compliments du Maurier's storytelling ability.
Shallcross, Martyn. "Sinister Stories." In his The Private World of Daphne du Maurier, pp. 135-55. London: Robson Books, 1991.
Discusses the film adaptations of two of du Maurier's most famous short stories, "The Birds" and "Don't Look Now."
Siaulys, Anthony. Review of Don't Look Now. Best Sellers 31, No. 15 (November 1971): 353-54.
Positive assessment of Don't Look Now, noting that du Maurier has "the mark of a great suspense writer."
Smith, Harrison. 'The Anatomy of Terror." The Saturday Review, New York (March 14, 1953): 29, 52.
Review of Kiss Me Again, Stranger, in which Smith finds that du Maurier "has the gift of making believable the unbelievable."
Additional coverage of du Maurier's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8 (rev. ed.), 128; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 6; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 6, 11, 59; Major 20th-century Writers; and Something about the Author, Vols. 27, 60.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support