The Scapegoat by Daphne Du Maurier (1957)

The Scapegoat Daphne Du Maurier 1956

The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1957, was one of the British author’s successful mid-career novels, coming after Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, and My Cousin Rachel. In her skillful hands, this suspense novel makes an ingenious doppelgänger plot work on many levels.

In brief, it’s the story of a disaffected Englishman and an aristocratic Frenchman who meet by an accidental encounter and are at once struck by how much they resemble one another.

John, an English academic, is compelled by Count Jean de Gué into switching places with him. What ensues is how he is swept into the count’s complicated intrigues and family life. From the 1957 Doubleday edition:

“Someone jolted my elbow as I drank and said, ‘Je vous demande pardon,’ and as I moved to give him space he turned and stared at me and I at him, and I realized, with a strange sense of shock and fear and nausea all combined, that his face and voice were known to me too well. I was looking at myself.”

The Englishman and the Frenchman continue to inspect each other — astounded that they could look so alike and not have known of each other’s existence before this moment. The problems that each had considered so vital before that instant of uncanny recognition were forgotten as they began to talk …

It was not until the next day when he awoke that John, the Englishman, realized he had talked too much. His French companion was gone; John had been trapped into taking the place of the Comte de Gué, head of a large family — master of a château.

Not since Rebecca has Daphne du Maurier written a novel so full of the sense of mounting excitement,  of a “wanting to know what is going to happen.”

Loaded with suspense and crackling wit, The Scapegoat has a double fascination: John’s manipulations to escape detection by the Comte’s large family, his servants, his mistresses; and his constant and frustrating attempts to discover that enigmatic evil that dominates all who live within the Château — without asking the questions that would give him away.

Beneath the surface of this immensely exciting plot, Miss du Maurier has filled her novel with human significance. The Scapegoat is eminently readable and profoundly moving —a reading adventure you will long remember.

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The scapegoat by daphne du maurier

The Scapegoat by Daphne Du Maurier on Amazon*
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A 2010 review of The Scapegoat in Tor  is highly recommended. It whets the appetite without spoilers, writing in part:

“The story takes place over one very intense week, in which everything changes. The details are wonderful—daily life, the house and food, and the characters of Jean’s family, all of whom have secrets. This is a book about getting what you want and coping with it, about identity, about belonging. John is a colorless man forced to take on color and animation—a man forced into life.

But John deals better with Jean’s life than Jean has been dealing with it, while Jean—well, Jean had his own reasons for disappearing and leaving an imposter in his place. This is a character study of two men, of what you can learn through presence and absence, light and shadow, love and hate.”

However, if you do need a plot summary — and to the first-time reader there are indeed details that can be confusing — you can find one here (there are spoilers).

A 1957 review of The Scapegoat by Daphne Du Maurier

From the original review in the Akron Beacon Journal, February 17, 1957: It couldn’t actually happen in real life (or could it?) but Daphne du Maurier’s skill makes The Scapegoat a plausible perplexity.

The Scapegoat is the tale of one man who was trapped into impersonating another, living as husband of a saddened wife, father of a fanciful child, manager of a glass-making concern, and son of an aging, dope-addled mother.

All of the action takes place within one week, yet so much is learned of the past that the book seems to span a generation.

The tale opens in a French village. An Englishman, John, is slightly jostled, looks up, and finds himself “with a strange sense of shock and fear and nausea all combined … looking at myself.” The two men, equally startled, walk over to look into a mirror together.

“It was no chance resemblance — no superficial likeness — it was as though one man stood there.”

John then was mulling the idea of seeking a brief retreat in a monastery to learn how he should go on living. He was a casual lecturer on the French historic and literary past, without family or ties. He felt himself a failure. This lack of useful affection concerned him.

His alter ego, Jean de Gué, was a count with a castle he didn’t care for, a marriage he called a trap, “too many possessions — human ones.” The ate and drank together, the wily Frenchman feeling out his double.

The next morning, John woke in a hotel room, the valise of Count De Gué nearby, a solicitous chauffeur waiting to take “his master” home despite protestations. Evidently, Jean was unwilling to go home. There was no evidence that John was other than the count. He began to try to live the role.

Du Maurier’s skill creates as much suspense in The Scapegoat as it did in Rebecca. Her characters are linked by dependency, hostilely, old hatreds, and money. Carefully, John listens and digests remarks, cautious not to denounce the absent Jean and so reveal himself to this accepting family.

Time and again he finds himself in a position in which he can’t act, either from ignorance nor from temperament, as Jean would have. Ultimately, it’s a story of two opposites who are similar. It’s a fascinating premise and that the author succeeds at presenting in a most satisfying way.

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Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

See also: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
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Quotes from The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier

“My realisation that all I had ever done in life, not only in France but in England also, was to watch people, never to partake in their happiness or pain, brought such a sense of overwhelming depression, deepened by the rain stinging the windows of the car, that when I came to Le Mans, although I had not intended to stop there and lunch, I changed my mind, hoping to change my mood.”

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“I could not ask for forgiveness for something I had not done. As scapegoat, I could only bear the fault.”

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“Years of study, years of training, the fluency with which I spoke their language, taught their history, described their culture, had never brought me closer to the people themselves.”

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“Do you know so little about children, Monsieur Jean,’ she asked, ‘that you imagine, because they don’t cry, therefore they feel nothing? If so, you’re much mistaken.”

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“Gaston’s wife, who wept upon the instant, said to me, ‘Death is beautiful. Madame Jean might be an angel in the sky.’ I did not agree. Death was an executioner, lopping a flower before it bloomed. The sky had glories enough, but not the soil.”

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“The good monks are waiting upon eternity, they can wait a few more hours for you.”

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“One had no right to play about with people’s lives. One should not interfere with their emotions. A word, a look, a smile, a frown, did something to another human being, waking response or aversion, and a web was woven which had no beginning and no end, spreading outward and inward too, merging, entangling, so that the struggle of one depended upon the struggle of the other.”

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Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

You might also enjoy: Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier
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More about The Scapegoat

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