Rediscovering Daphne du Maurier’s ‘The Doll’

Last week I submitted my first draft of a paper that focused on one of Daphne du Maurier’s long-lost stories. Written in 1927 when the author was just twenty, ‘The Doll’ was briefly published ten years later and not seen again until its rediscovery in 2007. Rich in uncanny subject matter and subverted gender norms, it centres on an obsessive love triangle between the anonymous male narrator, his female love interest, Rebecca, and her life-size automaton, Julio. The unorthodox tale contains many features relating to gender norms and relationships that would become du Maurier’s signature style in later works, most notably her creation of a heroine who was either disinterested in traditional male-female relationships or disenchanted by the mistreatment of women by men. In this tale, Rebecca is unafraid to live outside of social convention and dismisses the pressures put upon her as a young, unmarried woman. I centred my study on how this particular lost story demonstrates du Maurier’s literary revolt against regressive societal notions of early twentieth century bourgeois England. Focusing on her experimentation with gender and sexuality, I explored how it can be read as a tale of monstrous femininity and objectified masculinity as well as a seminal text for some of her later works.

daphne du_maurier_325594k
Daphne du Maurier

In du Maurier’s usual style, this story has a Russian-doll-like structure where the reader is told that the proceeding story was found written in an old journal belonging to an unknown (and heartbroken) man. As it is essentially his recording of events, the entire text is a creation of ‘the male gaze’ (which I have discussed at length in a previous post). It is interesting to note in this case however, that it is not only the female figure who is fashioned according to the design of the male gaze, but also her lover / his rival for her affections. His depictions are therefore heavily influenced by how he wishes the reader to view his subjects; he begins with Rebecca whom he describes in paradoxical terms of good and evil:

Rebecca – Rebecca, when I think of you with your pale earnest face, your great wide fanatical eyes like a saint, the narrow mouth that hid your teeth, sharp and white as ivory, and your halo of savage hair, electric, dark, uncontrolled – there has never been anyone more beautiful … Intense, restrained and soul-less; for you must be soul-less to have done what you have done. You have that fatal quality of silence … You would be fatal to any man … You fill me with a kind of horror (15).

His repetition of the word “fatal” in this passage can be read as a defining term in relation to her character. It creates a portrait of a mysterious and silent figure that is defined by her sexuality and therefore evocative of Christopher Frayling’s theory of “The Fatal Woman” (Horner and Zlosnik 111-2). The introduction of this femme fatale “altered the whole direction of the vampire tale from the mid-nineteenth century onwards [as she was both] sexually aware and sexually dominant … attractive and repellent at the same time” (Frayling cited in Horner and Zlosnik 111-2). Du Maurier’s creation of such female protagonists therefore exemplifies how early twentieth century literature reflected the arising “cultural anxiety concerning adult female sexuality” (Horner and Zlosnik 112) at this time. Using Sarah Gamble’s concept of ‘the monstrous feminine’ (again, explained in a previous post!), I analysed how Rebecca can therefore be defined as a pseudo vampire in relation to how female vampires are portrayed in core Gothic texts such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The narrator repeatedly declares his adoration of Rebecca’s beauty and silence, and in doing so, he emphasises the correlation between the aforementioned male gaze and its objectification of women as is signified in this text through the figure of the doll. His obsession with her doll-like beauty links her character to Olympia the doll in E.T.A. Hoffman’s ‘The Sandman’ (1816). However, du Maurier’s narrator reveals in a journal confession the violent undertones of his lust / love for Rebecca. He admits his desire to envisage her in doll-like terms in a confession of “thinking [about] how easy it would be to … strangle her” (17). In this fantasy, he visualises her in inanimate terms by imagining her lips parted and her eyes turning lifeless and white similar to the doll’s standard facial expression. In doing so, he further connects her character to Hoffman’s Olympia. His tendency to view her in this manner is repeated once again when he observes her demeanour during a violin recital and recounts that her “eyes [were] wide open, her lips parted in a smile” (18) while she played “weird, haunting notes … like a child’s prayer” (18-9).

The issue of objectified masculinity arises when the narrator is introduced to Julio the doll. His immediate preoccupation with Julio’s eyes mirrors his earlier fixation on Rebecca’s saintly eyes and raises the notion of the doll’s gaze as he provides a detailed description of his love rival using a series of ominous and predatory terms:

“[A] boy of about sixteen, dressed in a dinner jacket, shirt and waistcoat, and long Spanish trousers. His face was the most evil thing I have ever seen. It was ashen pale in colour, and the mouth was a crimson gash, sensual and depraved. The nose was thin, with curved nostrils, and the eyes were cruel, gleaming and narrow, and curiously still. They seemed to stare right through one – the eyes of a hawk. The hair was sleek and dark, brushed right back from the white forehead. It was the face of a satyr, a grinning hateful satyr” (23).

Julio’s status as an automaton is only revealed afterwards, almost as an afterthought when the narrator recalls that “[t]here was no boy sitting in the chair. It was a doll. Human enough, damnably lifelike, with a foul distinctive personality, but a doll. Only a doll” (24). His distress at Rebecca’s possession of the doll as well as his discomfort in its presence remains throughout their encounter and demonstrates the uncanny effect of the doll when it is “perceived as [a] life-endangering” (Sencindiver 113) threat that can potentially “render the human inanimate” (Sencindiver 113). He becomes haunted by Julio who represents the figure of the Other. This is a technique that du Maurier repeats in Rebecca when the anonymous narrator is haunted by the Other in the form of Rebecca’s ghost, who exists as both “a phantom in [the narrator’s] mind” (45), and a “textual creation constructed in mystery” (Horner and Zlosnik 122-5).

The next part of the journal reveals details of his uninvited return to her apartment later the same night. He confesses that all his fears were realised when he finds her partaking in a sexual act with Julio. His attempt to influence the reader’s perception of Rebecca returns at this point when he describes “her eyes, the terrible light – the unholy rapture in her eyes, and her ashen – ashen face” (29) as she asks him “[h]ow can I care for you, or any man?” (29). Her unholiness is directly linked to her decision to practice an unconventional sexual preference for her doll rather than the narrator. Transferring his attention to Julio, he describes his horror at the motorised doll’s simultaneous state of animation and lifelessness which is a unification that emphasises his uncanniness. He is sickened to see “his filthy vile face looking at me […] he was not alive, not human” (29) and never recovers from his encounter with the doll. He admits that Rebecca left the following day and remains only as a memory to torment him as he realises that he “shall never see [her] again – no one will … It will always be Rebecca and Julio … they will haunt me” (30). By the end of the story, his demise appears to be inevitable as he confesses to feeling cursed and unable to cope or live with such pain and rejection.

Works Cited

Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1993. Print.

Datlow, Ellen. The Doll Collection. New York: Tor Books, 2015. Print.

Du Maurier, Daphne. Rebecca. London: Orion Publishing, 2007. Print.

Du Maurier, Daphne. The Rebecca Notebook & Other Memories, London: Virago Press, 2005. Print.

Du Maurier, Daphne. Myself When Young: The Shaping of a Writer. London: Virago Press, 2005. Print.

Du Maurier, Daphne. The Doll: The Lost Short Stories. London: Harper Collins, 2011. Print.

Forster, Margaret. Daphne du Maurier. London: Arrow Books, 2007. Print.

Horner, Avril and Sue Zlosnik. Daphne du Maurier: Writing, Identity and the Gothic Imagination. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998. Print.

Hoffmann, E.T.A. The Sandman. London: Penguin Classics, 2016. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Ebook.

Yi Sencindiver, Susan. “The Doll’s Uncanny Soul.” The Gothic and the Everyday: Living Gothic. Ed. Lorna Piatti-Farnell and Maria Beville. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 103-130. Print.