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The Scapegoat

A book by Daphne du Maurier

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"... you have a different smell ... like a doctor ...or a priest, or a stranger who comes to tea"

  • May 10, 2013
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There are almost too many defensible ways to read and interpret English writer Daphne du Maurier's 1957 novel THE SCAPEGOAT.

-- First, the story is distinctly weird, eerie. My wife even found it frightening. A few years after World War II, French Count Jean de Gue tricks a mildly religious, conventionally good English university lecturer and writer John (no last name) into swapping identities with him. Implausibly, John, who speaks perfect French and is a ringer in looks, accent, intonation and otherwise for the Count, wakes up in a seedy Le Mans hotel after a heavy night of drinking and possible doping by the Count to find a French chauffeur ready to take him back to the Count's nearby chateau and to his new, unreal family. No one in the family, not mother, not wife, not estranged sister Blanche, not 10-year old daughter Marie-Noel, not brother, not sister-in-law, not family priest, no one senses that John is an imposter, albeit initially a coerced one.

-- Next, THE SCAPEGOAT is intensely, pervasively religious. Englishman John is severely depressed, finds his life a failure. Despite a lifetime studying France, its history and culture, he has no French friends, no one in France who loves and welcomes him. He is unmarried and unhappy. He wonders if a quick trip to immerse himself in a life of silence and meditation among silent French Trappist monks in their ancient monastery near Le Mans, where the novel's events are set in motion, will bring him closer to God or at least to understanding who he, John, is and what he is meant to make of his life. The novel's very title suggests several trains of thought within the mind of John as he lives in another very different man's life: is John meant by God to take on Jean's sins and  atone for them while driven out into the wilderness? Is John to blame for any results from his decisions during his week among the Count's family and for trying keep the endangered 300 year old family glass foundry afloat? Is John a scapegoat for Jean?

-- Third,THE SCAPEGOAT is set a few years after World War II. Otherwise lazy Count Jean had lived briefly in England during the War and been a leader of the French Resistance. The foundry's manager Monsieur Duval had been close to the future Count and was engaged to marry the Count's older sister Blanche. But then Count Jean had had a strong hand in an illegal execution of Duval as a suspected Nazi collaborator. And Blanche has hated Jean ever since. She has not spoken a word to Jean in 14 years. England and France still live in austere post-war times. There are still severe currency exchange controls.

-- Let me dwell, finally, on the detective story aspect of THE SCAPEGOAT.

How on earth could a shy English intellectual bachelor pull off mimicking a French count whom he had never met? Initially at least no family or servant doubts John/Jean's identity. But Count Jean's fey 10-year old daughter Marie-Noel perceives something new just after her alleged father's return from Paris:

"Have you had your nails manicured? she asked.


"They are a different shape, and your hands are cleaner. I suppose that is what Paris does for men. Also you have a different smell."

"What sort of smell?"

She wrinkled her nose. "Like a doctor," she said, "or a priest, or a stranger who comes to tea" (Ch. 6).

Experts debate how to interpret the transformations that go on in THE SCAPEGOAT. We are informed, for instance, that in the dingy hotel in Le Mans where the Count makes John unconscious, John falls heavily on the floor after drinking far more than was good for him. Had French Count Jean drugged English scholar John?

Or is the Count the only one real person of the two? Is narrator John merely the imagined or dreamt  conscience of Count Jean?

Is John no more than a creature of the Count's occasional longings to be free of family and company obligations? To run away? To live as an undiscoverable bachelor in London?

Was the decadent, selfish 38-year old count's long delayed flirtation with decent, caring behavior simply a product of his (not John's) heavy fall at novel's beginning? Did a concussion cause this whole weird story?

Another argument for the real flesh and blood reality of John is that neither the miniature pets of his ailing supposed mother nor the Count's own hound Cesar accept John as their master. And the Count's mistress says toward novel's end that she had known he was in false identity. And the Count is a crack shot with a rifle, while John has never learned to shoot. Moreover, the two men allegedly have different blood types. How can readers sort out these clues?

Oh, by the way, the entire tale is narrated in the first person by John!

What is the truth of THE SCAPEGOAT? Who is who? Clues are ample, if at times prima facie contradictory. Read this great novel and try out your own interpretations. I think you will be glad that you made the effort.


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More The Scapegoat reviews
review by . November 17, 2002
How anyone can say that "The Scapegoat" is slow leaves me dumbfounded. The week in the life of British historian and lecturer, John, posing as Jean, the impoverished Comte of the chateau de Gue is a journey of the mythic hero, going off into unknown territory and accomplishing a mission where he is thereby transformed. Before the switch, John feels like a voyeur, reading and studying people from a distance rather than actually living in the midst of them. Once he is immersed in Jean's life, he cannot …
About the reviewer
(Thomas) Patrick Killough ()
Ranked #94
I am a retired American diplomat. Married for 47 years. My wife Mary (PhD in German and Linguistics) and I have two sons, six grandsons and two granddaughters. Our home is Highland Farms Retirement Community … more
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"A good original novel, well tinged with nightmare."—Times Literary Supplement

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Author: Daphne du Maurier

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