The Scapegoat, Daphne du Maurier, Victor Gollanz Ltd, 1957, 348 pp (Reprint: University of Pennsylvania Press)
Scapegoat has an intriguing history as a word. Originally, in the Old Testament book of Leviticus, the High Priest confessed the sins of the people on the Day of Atonement over the head of a live goat which was then allowed to escape, taking the sins with it. From this religious tradition developed the meaning of a person, group or thing who takes the blame for the mistakes or crimes of others.
In Daphne du Maurier's excellent novel, an English history professor on his way home from holiday in France, is reflecting on his unfulfilling and lonely life when he meets a man in a restaurant. The man, Jean de Gue, is his double but of a very different character. By means of alcohol, possibly a drug, and trickery, the main character wakes up the next day with Jean de Gue's luggage and clothes, finds that his doppelganger has vanished, and that he is being picked up by de Gue's faithful servant.
Feeling that the police will think him mad, feeling in truth somewhat mad, he allows himself to be taken to a rundown chateau in the country, where he is not suspected by anyone in the family. In this post WWII setting, the three generations live in genteel poverty amid bitterness and a failing glass factory.
The man takes up Jean de Gue's life, penetrating the several mysteries of the family's past and in a bumbling fashion manages to fix everything and restore the family to happiness. All the while, though the reader is hoping this man will succeed, du Maurier in her inimitable fashion leaves you feeling that it cannot possibly end well. Of course it doesn't but the final scenes do support the title and the theme of the scapegoat.
What makes this book so good is the way the author handles all the improbabilities of the story. She had me willingly suspending my disbelief most of the time. Even when I could not believe that the family members did not realize it was a different man, I was so engrossed in the story that I did not care. I also love how this writer always makes some point of wisdom about life in her tales and she did not fail me in this one.
(There was a movie in 1959, starring Alec Guiness and Bette Davis, with Gore Vidal getting credit on the screenplay. Wow! However, it got negative reviews at the time and is not at Netflix.)
(The Scapegoat is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)