Daphne du Maurier du Maurier, Daphne - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

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

John Barkham (essay date 1953)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 585 words.)

Sylvia Berkman (essay date 1953)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 906 words.)

Malcolm Bradbury (essay date 1959)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 734 words.)

Margaret Hurley (essay date 1959)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Richard Sullivan (essay date 1959)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 360 words.)

Margaret Millar (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1036 words.)

Richard Kelly (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7710 words.)

Margaret Forster (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1737 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 425 words.)