Jamaica Inn : A Reflection of Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall (V)

Ghosts in Jamaica Inn
Le dimanche 25 février 2007.

A biography

a Setting and plot
b Suspense and mystery
c Daphne du Maurier’s rewriting of Cornwall
d Fact versus fancy

a Ghosts in Jamaica Inn
b The "uncanny"
c Boundaries of the self

a Animal farm
b Escape
c Treasure island


It is open to debate what kind of literary trend she would have liked to have been associated with, but one thing is certain : Daphne du Maurier’s writing style borrows the language of the Gothic novel and Jamaica Inn obviously uses the devices of the Gothic tradition. There is no doubt that the Brontës’ works played a part in Daphne du Maurier’s career as a writer. The Brontës’ novels, including Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, became literary landmarks for the writer. About Wuthering Heights she once declared "it’s the most extraordinary book, miserable and very highly strung … it left me sleepless" [1]. Daphne du Maurier’s interest in the Brontës’ life and works was boundless. Daphne du Maurier wrote the preface for an edition of Wuthering Heights [2], she also dedicated a whole chapter to the three sisters entitled "The Brontë heritage" in Vanishing Cornwall, and her fascination for Branwell Brontë ended in the writing of his biography : The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë. Although the extent of the Brontë’s infuence on Daphne du Maurier’s novels is hard to define, the study of Jamaica Inn allows the reader to establish a certain number of connections with the Brontë sisters’ best known novels, notably in terms of gothic imagination.

From the central theme itself which, in M. Butler’s terms "[ … ] involves a frail protagonist in terrible danger", because "[s]he, (more commonly than he) is placed in a hostile, threatening, mysterious environment, usually so prodigiously large that it dwarfs her ; she is made prisoner, she is threatened by individuals who should protect her, parents and parent-figures" [3] ; to the choice of the inn which presents obvious similaritieswith the kind of architecture depicted in Gothic novels, there are many good reasons to consider Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn as being at least a gothic novel. Indeed Mary, the orphan who acts in accordance with her deceased mother’s last wish, becomes the perfect gothic heroine as she arrives at her uncle’s house and is threatened both by her parent-figures and by the frightening architecture of the inn. Jamaica Inn’s architecture is indeed partly representative of the Gothic setting par excellence, first depicted by Walpole in The Castle of Otranto, and later by Anne Radcliffe, notably in The mysteries of Udolpho as clearly explained by Lévy in his study, Le roman "gothique" Anglais 1764-1824 [4]. Although Jamaica Inn is not a ruined medieval castle like in the founding novels of the Gothic tradition, it has the architectural characteristics required to belong to the "conventional" Gothic setting. These characteristics are well described by Eugenia C. Delamotte : "This kind of architecture is the repository and embodiment of mystery. Specific secrets are hidden in it, and to discover them one must confront the mystery of the architecture itself : its darkness, labyrinthine passageways, unsuspected doors, secret staircases, sliding panels, forgotten rooms. The architecture is also a repository and embodiment of the past" [5].

It is not surprising, then, that possible ghosts haunt the "long passages and unexpected rooms" (31) of Jamaica Inn and that the young Mary Yellan trembles as she realizes that the very architecture of the inn invites her to meditate on the precarious frontier which divides past and present, life and death. And if the possible ghosts and other gothic devices are designed to frighten the heroine, they are also likely to carry another mystery, an underlying message, which we will try to decode.

a Ghosts in Jamaica Inn

ln Jamaica Inn, ghostly images are everywhere and are mostly generated by the insistance on death. Jamaica Inn, which emits nothing but the smell of the "tomb" (76) for Squire Bassat and which is no more than the "house of the dead" (200) for Mary, takes the shape of the typical haunted house and logically harbours ghostly figures. Indeed, everything seems dead before changing into ghostly shadows. Death is in fact on every character’s lips as well as all over the place, and Joss Merlyn doesn’t need to confess ’’l’ve killed men with my own hands" (116) to make Mary see human beings almost transformed into living dead. For example, Aunt Patience (a recognizable gothic character), looks more like a "nervy, shattered creature" (4) with a "death’s head" (24) than a flesh and blood human ; Joss Merlyn’s eyes "glaz[e] and fi[x] like a dead man" (178), the vicar and his mount form "the pair of ghostly figures lacking reality in the dimlight" (86). The smugglers also "la[ck] substance, in the dim light" (40), their trade is perceived as "a funereal procession" (47), the "death waggons" (150) which deliver the goods "loo[k] ghostly … like hearses" (71) and the sound of the clock which gives rhythm to the macabre business echoes like "a dying man who cannot catch his breath" (47). Death even hangs around Mary and almost infects her while feeling "deadly sick" (118), her hands and feet become "icy cold" (118) and her features sink to express a "frozen horror in her face" (117). Joss Merlyn almost takes Mary for somebody belonging to the kingdom of the dead when he exclaims : "[D]on’t lean against the wall there like a ghost" (179), and she sometimes appears to be nothing more than "a phantom figure" (252). Even though Mary doesn’t die, she looks death in the face more than once, and the vocabulary used to create the image of death is sometimes harsh. For example, "the blood spout[s] jets like a fountain" (169), Joss Merlyn "smashe[s] [a woman’s] face with a stone", he "break[s] [the people’s] arms and legs" (116) to make them drown, and the dead finally haunt the murderer’s dreams with their "white green faces", "their eyes eaten by fish", their "flesh hanging on their bones in ribbons" (116). The violent image of death provided by the author is disconcerting, devastating for Mary. She is finally grappling with a universe in which mankind is reduced to the vulnerability of the most common of insects in the face of death, hence the author’s comparison of men with flies ("Just like flies they are" (118)) or with "little black dots" (167). Man is always a whisker away from death and the thin barrier which divides life from death is likely to collapse at any time. However, if the ghostly images permeate the whole story, they usually appear only because of the characters’ over stimulated mind and remain dreamlike creatures. So, what purpose do these ghosts serve other than to create a deep sense of the "Uncanny", so disturbing because situated at the edge of the supernatural ? And mightn’t the "Uncanny" finally be an ingenious representation of this otherness, this worrying presence which seems to disturb Mary’s sense of her own identity, caught between the oppressive landscape and the prison-like Jamaica Inn ? Indeed, the essential issue of Jamaica Inn seems to be the one raised by Delamotte "What distinguishes the "me" from the "not me ?" and "Where, if they exist at all, are the boundaries of the self ?" [6].

b The "uncanny"

ln his analysis on "the Uncanny", Sigmund Freud first suggests that "what is ’uncanny’ is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar" [7]. This definition of the uncanny, then, perfectly corresponds to the world of Jamaica Inn, because, as we are informed from the very beginning of the novel, every inch of this universe is unknown and unfamiliar to Mary. The uncanny effect, which is obtained by means of stressing all that belongs to the unknown, is indeed a recurrent feature of Daphne du Maurier’s novel. Any attempt to understand the writer’s intentions first requires an examination of the various devices which create the uncanny in Jamaica Inn. Previously in the chapter "fact and fancy", we noted that making the boundaries between reality and imagination shift and blur transmits a strong impression of instability. Now, in the light of the examples given by Freud, it becomes clear to the reader that Daphne du Maurier’s purpose is to achieve this uncanny effect "[…] an un canny effect is often and easily produced by effacing the distinction between imagination and reality" [8]. And the uncanny manifests itself in its most various forms, from the "recurrence of the same situations, things and events" to the overwhelming theme of "the double" (83). The recurrence of situations first becomes obvious with Mary’s repetitive outings in the countryside. The sentence "Mary decided to brave the moors again" (99) summarizes a part of the vicious circle which leads Mary to repeat the same actions several times. Moreover, she is also victim of repeated and various traps. Besides, as Delamotte underlines, "ln Gothic … , the focus is on the heroine’s repeatedly being trapped, brought back after the escape, and locked in once more" [9]. There are numerous examples of these successive entrapments, and the wrecking scene provides one of the most convincing examples : Mary is first locked in the coach, then escapes through the window, is caught outside by the pedlar, manages to escape from the pedlar’s clutches, is made prisoner of the sea-mist and darkness, avoids the danger of the "breakers", is then captured by one of her uncle’s bad company (159-166), finally to be locked in her bedroom at Jamaica Inn (187). The wrecking scene also conveys the same impression of uncanniness thanks to a most subtle repetition. The vicar’s "white eyes" (143) are indeed beautifully echoed in this scene, while the lights used by the wreckers to entice the boat onto the rocks of the the coast, progressively take the shape of two white eyes in the darkness : "At first she thought it was a star, piercing the last curtain of dissolving mist, but reason told her that no star was white, nor ever swayed with the wind on the surface of a cliff. She watched intently, and it moved again ; it was like a small white eye in the darkness […]. The new light drew nearer to the first. The one compelled the other. Soon they would merge and become two white eyes in the darkness" (165-166).

Being at a crossroads is another situation which can produce the uncanny effect because, lost in an unfamiliar world, no one is supposed to know which path to choose as each path leads to an uknown destination. ln any case, it is the kind of uncanny feeling aroused while Mary is in this very tricky situation, just before the arrival of the vicar puts paid to Mary’s hesitancy : "The track broadened now, and was crossed in turn by another running left and right, and Mary stood uncertainly for a few moments, wondering which to take" (85-86). If the vicar momentarily makes Mary’s hesitation cease, he himself generates a most powerful feeling of strangeness. Described as somebody inhabiting some border line between human and superhuman, almost between mortal and immortal, the vicar appears as a shadow, is omnipresent, and even seems to be omniscient, when his "penetrating stare" (89) pierces Mary’s deepest thoughts ("as though her very thoughts couldn’t be hidden" (87)). He, by contrast, is "inscrutable" (252), "expressionless" (144), so that Mary can’t "read [any]thing from his eyes" (92). This character is therefore extremely distanced from any existing type of human, both physically and geographically. First, his kingdom is that of far-off lands, in his own words he does "not belong here" (243) and, he lives "in the past" (243). Second, his physical appearance is deeply enigmatic as he is even "different from any man [Mary] had ever seen before" (95). ln order to highlight his strangeness, he is, for example, described in terms of contrast : " [ … ] his white hair and his eyes [ … ] were such a direct contrast to his voice, and his black clerical dress made them the more remarkable" (89). Moreover, and in keeping with Lévy’s argument, a monk’s habit which generally partly hides the facial expression, has in itself enough to intrigue [10]35. Thus, topped with a "black shovel hat" the vicar’s white face establishes a strong and disturbing contrast, so that his eyes appear pale "in the colourless face" (91). His voice is also enigmatic, for it seems to contradict his masculine characteristics. It is nor deep nor high-pitched but "gentle", "soft and low, like the voice of a woman" (144). Finally, his age is difficult to determine. Mary only notices that his face is "unlined" and that his voice is "not that of an elderly man" (87). As a consequence, Mary considers that "his physical departure from normality [is] a barrier between him and the rest of the world" (148). And here again the concept of boundaries and barriers reappears, this time directly in Mary’s words. But is the vicar’s physical appearance the only element which really distinguishes him from "the rest of the world" ? And above all, what is hidden behind Mary’s attraction for "her strange Vicar of Altarnun" (99) ? Indeed, if the vicar provokes an intense feeling of uncanniness, he also exerts a powerful attraction on Mary, his strangeness is both "disturbing and pleasant" (129), whereas the other characters inspire disgust or pity in Mary or also repulse her. Without really knowing why, Mary is literally fascinated by the vicar. ln fact, confronted by identities which have every possible vice, like her uncle Joss Merlyn, spoilt by the greed for money, like her aunt Patience, devastated by submission, like the pedlar and other members of the trade, whose savagery spread terror, Mary seems comforted by the vicar’s abnormality. It is significant that while each character is an abject stereotype which Mary entirely rejects, the vicar corresponds to no stereotype and above all, he destabilizes all kinds of boundaries. The vicar, then, could well represent a way to escape the traps which threaten the heroine, if we consider that these traps are to be read in connection wi th Mary’s sense of her self. Indeed, every character and barrier in the novel seems intended to confuse Mary’s sense of herself. This at least is what we will try to demonstrate, through the study of the images of mirroring which typify another gothic device used to create the uncanny effect, and are significantly present in the novel.

Copyright : Ombeline Belkadi (odalavie@wanadoo.fr).

À suivre…

[1] Foster, Margaret. Daphne du Maurier, London, Chatto and Windus, 1993 (306).

[2] Letters from Menabilly. Portrait of a friendship, ed Oriel Malet, London : Orion Books Ltd, 1994 (40).

[3] Françoise Grellet et Marie-Hélène Valentin. An introduction to English Literature (extract of Romantics. Rebels and Reactionaries. Oxford University Press.) Paris : Hachette Superieur, 1993 (186).

[4] Lévy, Maurice. Le roman "gothique" anglais 1764-1824, Paris : Editions Albin Michel, 1995 (209).

[5] Eugénia C. Delamotte, Perils of the Night. A Feminist study of Nineteenth Century Gothic. 1990. Oxford University Press (15).

[6] Eugénia C. Delamotte, Perils of the Night. A Feminist study of Nineteenth Century Gothic. 1990. Oxford University Press (23).

[7] Freud, Sigmund. The "Uncanny" in The Gothic novel, Sage, Victor. Casebook series, 1990 (77-87).

[8] Freud, Sigmund. The "Uncanny" in The Gothic novel, Sage, Victor. Case book series, 1990 (77-87).

[9] Eugénia C. Delamotte, Perils of the Night. A Feminist study of Nineteenth Century Gothic. 1990. Oxford University Press (180).

[10] Lévy, Maurice. Le roman "gothique" anglais 1764-1824. Paris : Editions Albin Michel, 1995 (259).

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