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

Le lundi 16 juillet 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

c Boundaries of the self

ln a letter to Oriel Malet, Daphne du Maurier wrote "How close hunger is to greed, how difficult not to be confused, how close one’s better nature to one’s worst, and finally, how the self must be stripped of everything before it can understand love. But one can’t tell that to the ordinary reader" [1].

ln fact, Daphne du Maurier’s use of images of mirroring in the novel seems to echo her latter statement. Because of their resemblance to each other and because of the controversial reactions they provoke in Mary, Jem and Joss Merlyn are at the root of Mary’s confusion, as illustrated in this extract :

"These fingers attracted her ; the others repelled her. She realized for the first time that aversion and attraction ran side by side ; that the boundary- line was thin between them." (126)

Mary’s confusion towards the two brothers is unquestionably an important element of the novel. This confusion could possibly result from Mary’s own sense of her identity, itself confused, because the characters which surround her, each more revolting than the previous one, force the main character to adapt her behaviour.

Consequently, this "chameleon-like" behaviour makes the choice between feminity and masculinity almost impossible. It is essential to examine each identity represented in the novel in terms of the danger they imply for Mary, and to analyse the way these identities merge among themselves, before putting foward any hypothesis about Mary’s sense of her own identity.

The striking resemblance between the two brothers is primarily underlined when Mary encounters Jem Merlyn for the first time :

"He had Joss Merlyn’s eyes, without the blood-flecked lines and without the pouches, and he had Joss Merlyn’s mouth, firm though, where the landlord’s was weak […]" (63)

However, in this example, Mary still focuses her attention on the brothers’ differences, and it is only a few pages later that these differences entirely vanish ("[Jem] looked exactly like his brother" (67)), taking Mary’s confusion to its extreme :

"[Joss Merlyn’s] mouth, so like his brother’s, hovered an instant on hers, the illusion was horrible and complete […]" (175)

ln addition, these similarities are not restricted to the brothers’ faces. Their fingers, too, are identical : Joss Merlyn’ s fingers are "long", "powerful", "hideous in their strength and grace" (59) ; Jem Merlyn’s fingers are "long and slim" with "the same strength, the same grace, as his brother’s" (126). If Mary’s attention is systematically turned to the brothers’ fingers, it is maybe because fingers, unlike other parts of the body, have the power to touch, to immobilize, and to threaten sexually. As Joss Merlyn underlines, the strings of the world can be held between two fingers (25). As a female, Mary is exposed to male brutality, both verbally and physically. This sexual threat is, for instance, implied several times by Joss Merlyn’s behaviour. ln fact, Joss Merlyn plays the role of the pervert, who would have no scruples about taking advantage of his niece’s situation to satisfy his sexual desire. Many examples illustrate this point and Joss Merlyn’s doubtful intentions (which will however remain intentions) are alluded to by himself as well as by his brother. For example, Joss declares : "I could have had you your first week at Jamaica Inn if l’d wanted you. You are a woman after all" (175).

Jem confuses Mary with his brother’s "fancy lady" (65). Then, mentioning Aunt Patience, he also adds : "Do you turn her out on the floor, or do you sleep all three abreast ?" (63).

Worst of all, these allusions frequently turn out to be direct humiliations, as Mary is compared to "a woman of the streets" (145), or to "nothing but a common slut" (155). The sexual threat is also carried by the smugglers for whom "the presence of a woman [brings] a vicious tang to their enjoyment" (158). The most striking example of the men’s abject attitude towards Mary is illustrated by the following scene, in which Mary only just escapes being raped. ln this extract, physical power, specifically that of the pedlar’s hands, becomes a reality :

" […] but this time he grabbed at her and lurched sideways upon her, all pretence of gentle persuasion gone, his strength horrible, his face drained of all colour. He was fighting now for possession, and she knew it, and, aware that his strength was greater than hers and must prevail in the end, she lay limp suddenly, to deceive him, giving him the advantage for the moment." (162)

Jem Merlyn, although less abject than the rest of the company, and perceived as belonging to another race, (he is for example differentiated from the other men by the expression "half-bred gypsy" (109)) also represents the danger of masculinity. He could easily be described as the typical byronic hero, both glamourous and dangerous, involved in mysterious crimes. His activity as a horse thief, his way of life, his "rough brutality of manner" (64) and his possible involvment in his brother’s trade are enough to dishearten Mary. Her disgust towards the attitude of men consequently finds expression in her excessive reaction towards Jem (which can be interpreted as an act of self preservation), when she first encounters him :

"The sight of him looking her up and down and drinking his ale at the same time irritated her beyond measure. […] His manner infuriated Mary, and she leant foward and pulled the pipe out of his hand, throwing it behind her on the floor, where it smashed at once." (61-62)

Then, even if we learn that Mary knows she "could love him" (122), the reader is soon warned that Mary and Jem are "companions without the strain of being man and woman" (129), and that the emotional bond which exists between them is more representative of "a boyish familiarity" (129), than of the beginnings of a love affair. As implied by the expression "boyish familiarity", Mary’s attitude is often that of a man, and her behaviour differs and adapts according to the individuals she confronts. For example, she behaves like a man with Joss Melyn, both to defend her aunt and to win the struggle against her uncle : "There’s a certain grim satisfaction in this struggle with my uncle that emboldens me at times" (147). Mary constantly has in mind qualities such as bravery and strength of character and she also overtly declares : ’’l’m strong, I can do the job of a man" (9). Later she wonders "why [are] women such fools, so short sighted and unwise" (64). ln fact, in the squalid atmosphere of Jamaica Inn, feminity is far from being an asset, and Mary accordingly refuses everything which reminds her of her feminity. Jem Merlyn’s attempt to flatter Mary’s feminity with "a new handkerchief" (124) is futile, for Mary coldly replies : "l’ m afraid you’ve wasted your money" (124) . Jem Merlyn’s dream to be accompanied by "a pretty girl" in the streets of Launceston is hopeless. Rather, Jem finally accepts Mary’s wish to have been born a boy : "If you must be a boy, l can’t stop you" (195). On the other hand, Mary’s attitude is completely reversed when she is confronted by her aunt. Rather than behaving like a man, she seems to play the role of a mother. She treats Aunt Patience as if she were "a child on her hands" (72). Indeed, Aunt Patience’s behaviour is that of a child and the vocabulary used to depict her is the same used to describe the behaviour of a frightened little girl : she "blabber[s] incoherently" (73), she keeps "working her mouth nervously" (76) or "twists her hands in her dress" (74). This childlike attitude reveals a character who lives in complete submission to her husband.

And it is this very submission which deeply revolts Mary and feeds her struggle against men. However, the reader is surprised to note that, once she is at Jem Merlyn’s place on the moors, she imitates her aunt’s behaviour. Interestingly, at Jem’s side the rebellious girl abandons her principles and momentarily transforms her attitude into that of a submissive and possible wife. She lays the table and cooks Jem’s supper in response to what is almost an order : "I always say there’s two things women ought to do by instinct, and cooking’s one of them. […] You’ve come in good time to cook my dinner" (102-103). The reader is taken aback to witness what resembles one of Aunt Patience’s ordinary domestic scenes and discussions, through Mary’s actions "Take your hands away. The plate’s hot" (103). Mary’s female instinct is therefore underlying, and obviously reappears in this scene. It is maybe no accident that a few words later the reader also witnesses Mary’s confusion towards her own identity, strikingly depicted as Mary sees her distorted reflection in the mirror. Indeed, the woman reflected in "the tell-tale mirror" (120) seems to be nothing other than the very shadow of Aunt Patience :

"For the first time in her life she saw a resemblance between herself and Aunt Patience. They had the same pucker of the forehead, and the same mouth. If she pursed up her lips and worked them, biting the edges, it might be Aunt Patience who stood there, with the lank brown hair framing her face." (120)

Mary’s image, horribly transformed into Aunt Patience’s reflection, represents a threat to her happiness. To some extent this scene may be intended to prevent Mary from becoming this woman, who is a caricature of female submission. As we have seen, all the identities which encircle Mary have managed to destabilize and confuse her as well as increase her vulnerability. Furthermore, her vulnerability is also emphasized by the massive walls of Jamaica Inn which "def[y] man and storm" (29) and which always remind her she is made prisoner… in a prison of the self. Indeed, it is Mary’s identity, more than her physical body, which seems definitely imprisoned. Thus, as suggested by Eugénia C. Delamotte, "confronted with a prison wall, a locked door, a black veil, a mask, the edge of a precipice, the self runs up again and again against its mortality" [2]. Consequently, if we borrow Delamotte’s words, Mary seems "imprisoned in the self, in the limitations of mortality" [3]. She is in fact torn between a masculinity she cannot come to terms with, and a femininity she completely refutes. So the vicar, who doesn’t belong to the world which sickens her, who embodies neither masculinity, nor submissive femininity, could represent the ideal way out. Yet this way out is only valid thanks to the symbolic violation of physical boundaries, that is to say the windows and barred rooms of Jamaica Inn.

As in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, no physical boundary remains intact, no barred room remains locked. The desire to transgress is overwhelming. A few examples of Mary’s desire for transgression will suffice to illustrate the previous idea. The reader is made aware that Mary is stuck inside Jamaica Inn like a fish in a fish tank, "the broad sturdy house acting as a screen" (73), there is "no road of escape" (55). However, it doesn’t take long for Mary to realize that these barriers are not impassable. Indeed, Mr  Bassat’s action of unlocking the barred room symbolically initiates Mary’ s desire to transgress barriers (she witnesses the scene "with some excitement" (77)). Then, the first striking example of Mary’s refusal to be subjected to physical boundaries is represented through her escape from the coach, before the wrecking scene. She is determined to break this physical boundary at all costs, and the wounds caused by her action seem to be less important than the satisfaction obtained by this transgression :

"The door was locked, as she knew, but with straining and wringgling she might yet attempt to squeeze her body through the narrow frame. The endeavour was worth the risk." (160)

This destruction of physical boundaries also occurs when Jem Merlyn "smashe[s] the pane of a glass with his fist" (193), in order to rejoin Mary, locked in her bedroom. Another crucial element of the text lies in the novel’s ambivalence about the heroine’s reaction to the law.

Indeed, if she is first shocked by the smugglers’ trade because it infringes the law, she soon tempers her judgement. She first considers that "[s]muggling [is] dangerous ; it [is] fraught with dishonesty ; it [is] forbidden strictly by the law" (48) ; but then she wonders if it is "evil", adding later that "[s]he would have shrugged her shoulders to smuggling alone" (58). The law here represents a moral boundary to defy, and Mary does so through her companionship with Jem Merlyn. For example, in Launceston, even though she doesn’t take an active part in the illegal sale of the stolen pony, she becomes his accomplice, and to a certain extent breaks the law with him, for she doesn’t impede the deal. On the contrary, this tricky situation creates a sense of excitation, mostly conveyed by the two friends’ laughter (136). At the end of the novel, Mary disregards the meaning of the law when she doesn’t hesitate to grab hold of a pistol, and the reader, knowing the character’s determination, seems to be expected to think she would use it if necessary :

"Then she levelled her pistol, her finger upon the trigger, and looked round the corner of the stone wall to the yard." (214)

Thus, this series of examples tends to clarify our understanding of the message given to the reader, and implied through the gothic writing style. Indeed, Jamaica Inn deals with the self in terms of gender, and reveals the crucial lack of identity of a woman under patriarchal influence. This patriarchal influence points out the female’s weakness, and consequently, the female rebels both against her social status as the weaker and worthless sex, and against the conventions established by the ruling gender. This rebellion is metaphorically expressed through the heroine’s impulse to get across the barriers, through her desire of transgression. ln the light of what has been noted, it can be assumed that Jamaica Inn rewrites sorne of the Brontës’ themes, expressed in the same way in terms of mirroring images, physical boundaries, and concern with the uncanny. Marxist criticism has considered the theme of submission as being central to Jane Eyre, Feminists have underlined the treatment of women in society, also implied in the novel [4]. Wuthering Heights has been interpreted by Feminists in terms of "the strategies and opportunities that are open to women in the novel" ; gender criticism has stressed "the ambivalent representations of gender in Wuthering Heights" [5]. Finally, the connections between Jamaica Inn and Wuthering Heights have been pointed out by Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik’s research : "Alison Light has recognized [Jamaica Inn’s] debt to Wuthering Heights" [6].

Indeed, Jamaica Inn, if not overtly devoted to the writing of women’s social reality in general, seems to provide enough material to read Daphne du Maurier’s subtext in connection with the writer’s fractured sense of her self, a self which struggles to find its place in society. On this point, an extract of Eugénia C. Delamotte’s argumentation could help to justify our reasoning :

"Gothic romance by women represents the hidden, unspeakable reality of women’s lives not just their lives in the private inner world of the psyche, but also their social and economic lives in a real world of patriarchal institutions. The oneiric settings of Gothic romance are superficially removed from that world in space and often in time, but they nonetheless represent it symbolically. The oneiric world, set apart from diurnal reality, is that reality not simply in the sense that it expresses the heroine’s psychological state but also in that it represents her social situation, with its dominant power relations stripped of their civilized disguise. The conflicts and terrors that reign in that world reveal her place in society, her relationships, her special vulnerability" [7].

A perceptive reader may then recognize the hidden message conveyed by the writer’s gothic imagination. It is perhaps this very gothic imagination which contributed to Daphne du Maurier’s self-evolution. And it is precisely on the symbolic level mentioned by Delamotte, that our argumentation will take on its full significance.

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

À suivre…

[1] Letters from Menabilly. Portrait of a friendship, Ed. Oriel Malet London : Orion Books Ltd, 1994 (80).

[2] Eugénia C. Delamotte, Perils of the Night. A Feminist study of Nineteenth Century Gothic. 1990. Oxford University Press (119).

[3] Ibid, p 123.

[4] Sayer, Karen. Jane Eyre. (York Notes Advanced) London : Librairies du Liban publishers, 1988 (73).

[5] Jones, Claire. Wuthering Heights. (York Notes Advanced) London : Librairies du Liban publishers, 1988 (74).

[6] Horner, Avril and Zlosnik, Sue. Daphne du Maurier. Writing. Identity and the Gothic Imagination. ST. Martin’s Press, INC, 1998 (71).

[7] Eugénia C. Delamotte, Perils of the Night. A Feminist study of Nineteenth Century Gothic. 1990. Oxford University Press ( 165).

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