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

Suspense and mystery
Le mardi 31 octobre 2006.

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

b/ Suspense and mystery

One of the most obvious characteristics of Jamaica Inn lies in the fact that the author obviously spins out the story and holds back information in order to feed the reader’s interest and to arouse his curiosity. Thus, from the very first chapter of the novel, the reader is in a state of anxious expectancy concerning the outcome of Mary’s situation. Questions such as : What is going to happen next ? Will Mary survive the situation ? or, will she escape Jamaica Inn and return to Helford, and if so, how ? keep on arising in the reader’s mind. The reader’s imagination consequently races ahead of the story, creating possibilities and imagining answers to the numerous questions put by the narrative. The devices likely to arouse suspense derive from the dangerous situations in which the main character of the story is repeatedly involved.

ln the following passage, suspense heightens during Mary’s first real attempt to escape the squalid universe of her uncle’s inn. ln order to avoid being discovered and, having no time to climb the stairs back to her bedroom, she hides behind the door of the parlour :

"Trembling with excitement and fear, she waited in the parlour, and she heard the landlord pass across the hall and climb the stairs to the landing above. His footsteps came to a halt above her head, outside the guest-room, and for a second or two he waited, as though he too listened for some alien sound." (55)

The reader is anxious because he experiences Mary’s fear of being discovered. This effect is extended by the point of view of the narrative. Indeed, the narrative is restricted to Mary’s point of view, everything is perceived exclusively through her eyes and ears, and consequently, the reader is more likely to identify with Mary’s feelings and actions.

Suspense, moreover, is reinforced by the extensive use of sounds. The reader’s emotional response to the situation is previously conditioned by the disturbing sounds which emerge from the darkness. ln this particular scene, "the creaking of the board" which occurs several times, "the footsteps of the unknown guest", those of Joss Merlyn, the "loud beating of [Mary’ s] heart" and the "slow shocking tick of the clock" interplay to work on Mary’s nerves as well as on the reader’s.

The use of stressful sounds is not only restricted to short passages in the novel. The whole novel, in fact, seems to be under the menace of time, symbolized by the strikes of the clock which only momentarily cease at Joss Merlyn’s death, to resound again in the vicarage, before the final climax (233). The endless echo of the passage of time certainly influences the reading of the novel because it gives an infernal rhythm to the story and consequently urges the reader to turn the page.

ln order to emphasize the growing fear experienced both by Mary and by the reader, the writer also makes constant use of words such as "sudden" or "suddenly". These words surprise the reader and also give a steady rhythm to the narrative. Throughout the novel, many other gripping scenes keep the reader in expectation. For example, other devices combine to increase suspense towards the end of the novel :

"The scraping continued, persuasive and undaunted, tap… tap… like the drumming of a beak : tap… tap… like the four fingers of a hand.
There was no other sound in the kitchen except the frightened breathing of Aunt Patience, whose hand crept out across the table to her niece […] Mary swallowed, her throat dry as dust ; whether the thing behind the window was friend or enemy to herself made the suspense more poignant, but in spite of her hopes the thumbing of her heart told her that fear was infectious, as were the beads of perspiration on her uncle’s face."

ln this extract, the writer uses punctuation, consecutive dots, to be precise, to create suspenseful expectation. As a result the mysterious and frightening sound successively associated with "the drumming of a beak", with the fingers of a hand and finally with "the thing", intensely plays on the reader’s curiosity.

Moreover, the sound is not only described, but is also imitated with the use of the onomatopeic "tap" so that the reader’s imagination is intensely stimulated.

Daphne du Maurier’s skill in the creation of suspense also lies in her ability to withhold information. As clearly shown in the previous extract, the reader is kept in suspense until the last moment when the writer finally decides to reveal the identity hidden behind the enigmatic sound. "It was Harry the pedlar…" (179).

Compared to the long and descriptive passage which gradually arouses the reader’s interest, the short sentence delivering the long-awaited information acts as an unexpected lash on the reader’s nerves. Several short sentences, built on exactly the same pattern, which follow passages of intense suspense in the same way, punctuate the whole novel up to the very last page. "It was the Vicar of Altarnum" (143) or "I am the Vicar of Altarnum" (227), for example, appear many times throughout the story to keep up the suspense and also to create an intense sense of mystery.

Another obvious characteristic of the plot concerns the Vicar of Altarnum’s true identity which is not revealed until the end of the book. The Vicar’s identity is not only linked with the witholding of information. Indeed, Daphne du Maurier cleverly introduces clues implicating the apparently innocent character in order to send the reader off on the wrong track and to intensify the mystery.

At first convinced by Mary’s suspicions which present Uncle Joss as the villain of the story, the reader is primarily a victim of the author’s strategie manipulation. But as the story progresses towards the dénouement, the reader is given discreet clues and thus wonders about the Vicar’s true identity. The stranger in the guest room is the first disturbing element introduced in the story, for the reader is deluded by Mary’s suspicions : "Could it have been Jem Merlyn who had hidden in the empty guest-room that Saturday night ?" (107). Then the Vicar’s strange attitude heightens the mystery in the story. The impression of mystery is indeed closely connected with the Vicar’s enigmatic physical appearance. Mary is therefore extremely disturbed by her first encounter with the alleged saviour : "They were strange eyes, transparent like glass, and so pale in colour that they seemed near to white ; a freak of nature she had never known before" (87).

It is not only his physical appearance which apparently seems to belong to another universe, but also the enigma concerning his origins that set the reader thinking. The description of the interior of the Vicarage is in keeping with the Vicar’s strange personality :

"Here it was different. The room in which she was sitting had the quiet impersonality of a drawing room visited by night. The furniture, table in the centre, the pictures on the walls, were without that look of solid familiarity." (88)

Different, abnormal, impersonal, unfamiliar, belonging to another age, are the adjectives and expressions which sum up the Vicar’s identi ty. Later in the novel, and before the reader entirely manages to solve the mystery concerning his identity, the Vicar defines himself as "a freak of nature and a freak in time" (243).

If the mystery is undoubtedly built up around Mary’s discovery of the smuggling process, it is largely thanks to the characters’ possible involvement in suspicious murders that the reader is likely to wonder who the real murderer is and why the Vicar is so mysterious. The plot is in fact carefully organized around possible crimes and murders committed by possible criminals such as Jem Merlyn or Joss Merlyn because of their dubious line of descent. For example, Mary is convinced that Jem Merlyn plays a role in this macabre business :

"The stranger in the bar that night had talked of murder, and now Jem himself had echoed his words [ … ] What part Jem Merlyn played in all this was hard to say, but that he was concerned in it somewhere she did not doubt for a moment." (108-109)

It is only in chapter seventeen that the reader finally resolves the enigma linked to the Vicar’s real identity.
As a consequence, Daphne du Maurier’s compelling storyline skilfully creates a sense of suspense and mystery which reigns throughout the novel and constantly calls upon the reader’s logic. However, these elements are inextricably linked with the narrator of the story. Indeed, the feelings experienced by the reader are also due to the omniscience of the narrator. The following extract establishes the status of the narrator which remains constant throughout the whole novel :

"Jem was silent. The news had evidently come as a surprise to him, and he was turning it over his mind. Mary watched him, tortured by doubt and indecision ; she was thrown back now upon her old suspicion of him." (192)

As the narrator is all-knowing, not only does he reveal the characters’ behaviour ("Jem was silent" ; "Mary watched him") but he also takes the reader into the characters’ innermost feelings and thoughts ("turning it over his mind" "tortured by doubt and indecision"). The characters are focalized internally and emotional identification is thus made easier for the reader. The narrator also has the knowledge of what happens in the past, present and future and is thus able to manipulate the reader and to create a feeling of immediacy.

ln Jamaica Inn, suspense, mystery, point of view and characterization complement each other, as we have tried to demonstrate, encouraging the reader to get involved in the story. Yet there is no doubt that any reader could also suspect the subjective view of the main character and even refuse to be caught out by this fictional story. However, behind these elements, quite obvious to detect, lies a very special atmosphere, which discreetly infuences the reader’s reactions and makes his involvment almost inevitable. The atmosphere carefully drawn in the background does not, contrary to what one might think, emanate from any Cornwall in existence. Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall is undoubtedly imaginary and, paradoxically, the main character directly emerging from this atmosphere seems to be more real than imaginary.

A suivre…

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

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Depuis l'Ile Grande (Joseph Conrad)