When it comes to development of our spiritual and social lives, the type of journey we set out on comes in a variety of forms. I think of the hobbits setting forth from the Shire in The Lord of the Rings and learning that they, too, are warriors capable of standing up to great evil. I think of Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, who out of love for a married woman, lays down his life for her husband.
In Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat, readers are taken into perhaps a more modern journey whose landscape is largely interior. Readers meet John, a British professor of French history with no connections. He’s been living a quiet, lonely life, and has decided to end his latest trip to France with a stop at a monastery. He wants to know what he can do with what he deems to be a failed life, and hopes the monks will have some answers. He stops in Le Mans for a drink.
Enter Jean de Gué, a man who not only has a family, but is actively trying to escape them and his life of responsibilities. And to their mutual surprise, John and Jean are doppelgangers. Jean decides to get John drunk and to leave John with his life—his family, his failing glass factory, and his tangled relationships.
At first, John tries to unveil his mistaken identity, but no one will believe him. He ends up taking on the charade that Jean has created: he enters Jean’s house as Jean de Gué, and the family accepts him as their husband, father, son, and brother. The book follows John over the course of a week, a week in which his actions and reactions shape the life of Jean’s family in both harmful and beneficial ways.
In helping Jean carry out deception, John must parse a striking reality: that by existing, we influence—and even change—the lives of those around us. John must bear the repercussions of Jean’s negligent treatment of the family: a weak and jealous wife, a dramatic daughter, a morphine-addicted mother, an overworked and suspicious brother, a bitter sister. John must figure out how to respond to the family’s needs, either as he believes Jean would, or in accord with his growing affection for them. As the week progresses, John begins to feel the weight of the responsibility that’s been laid upon him:
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. (page 74)
In realizing his responsibility for this family’s well being, John also comes to realize an inexplicable love for them. When Jean returns home, and the two switch back into their own lives again (you’ll have to read to find out how this happens), John no longer wonders what to do with failure, but rather, “What do I do with love?”
A confidant gives John a striking answer:
You give it away…but the trouble is, it stays with you just the same. Like water in a well. The spring remains under the dried depths. (pages 372-73)
As the well is an image that figures throughout the book as a place of old tragedy, broken hope, and eventual reconciliation, equating it with love transforms the image and reflects John’s transformation in the novel. He starts the novel unattached and empty. At the novel’s end, he’s found purpose, connection, and community among those who were under his care.
I’ve found a great deal of comfort in this book, especially at this time of life: one of transition, one of waiting to discover whose lives I might be asked to enter. I’ve also found here a reminder about the risk of love—that, as John finds, to love is to be willing to suffer:
I knew suddenly, with conviction, that it was not a stranger’s curiosity that drew me to them, a sentimental attraction to the picturesque, but something deeper, more intimate, a desire so intense for their well-being and their future that although akin to love it resembled pain. (page 325)
The book ends mid-journey, as all stories of lives still being lived do. In telling the story of a life of loneliness transformed by human selfishness (Jean de Gue’s in trying to escape his family) and a slew of errors (John’s often failed attempts to understand and interact with Jean’s family) du Maurier’s story highlights the dignity and value of each human life—that our connections with each other are powerful, and therefore, should be treated with reverence.
Have you read this book before? What did you think?!
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Lindsey Weishar is an MFA candidate in Poetry. She enjoys discovering beauty in the little things and endless cups of tea. She has written for Verily and The Young Catholic Woman. A chapbook of her poems is forthcoming from Leaf Press in the spring.
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