The story is, at its core, a tale about seeing and talking with the dead, as well as about psychic visions and premonitions. Laura and John have lost their daughter but meet up with a blind woman who has visions of the dead child and can hear her warnings to her father. John’s death is a result of his denial of supernatural forces at work.
The blind sister has not always been blind, but discovered that losing her sight enabled her to see into another world. She had always studied the occult and similar topics, and the two sisters now keep a diary of supernatural happenings. After John apologizes for implicating the sisters in his wife’s apparent disappearance, they explain that when he saw Laura with them on the boat he was probably experiencing a premonition. He still does not believe in such things, but the sighted sister assures him that this has probably happened to him before, but he chose not to acknowledge it. “So many things happen to us of which we are not aware,” she says. ‘ ‘My sister felt you had psychic understanding.” By the time the story comes to its violent conclusion, John realizes too late that this is true and that the scream and the child/dwarf running the previous day were a warning vision.
Mystery and Confusion
A sense of mystery infuses du Maurier’s story from the opening lines. John starts off by warning Laura that two women across a restaurant are trying to hypnotize him and that she should be careful about simply turning around to look at them. The couple launches into a lighthearted game of guessing and imagining who these women might be: are they jewel thieves or murderers, or are they even women at all, but men dressed in drag? When Laura follows one of the women into the bathroom to see if she is really a he, the one left at the table stares at John but doesn’t acknowledge John’s smiles.
As well, du Maurier reveals only a bit about the sadness that Laura holds, waiting until the story is well on its way before she uncovers the mystery of her daughter’s death. In fact, Christine’s death is mentioned at first by John as the narrator, without many details, and it is only later that the cause of her death is divulged.
The mysteries continue, even after Laura discovers that the women are simply sisters traveling together and that one is blind, which explains her failure to respond to John. The blind sister is purportedly psychic and has seen John and Laura’s dead child sitting between them at the restaurant. This upsets John because he is convinced that something suspicious is brewing with these sisters, and that they must want something from him and Laura. John’s concern deepens when he sees them at a church later and again at dinner that night, where they tell Laura that he is in some kind of danger and should leave Venice immediately. John’s suspicions about the sisters increase when he apparently sees them on a boat with Laura at a time when Laura should be on a plane to England.
More confusion and mystery appear in the story, from when John mistakes a murderous dwarf for a child in a hooded coat to when he can’t figure out where his wife is and to the couple’s becoming lost in the tangled streets of Venice and hearing an unidentifiable scream. Very often, as well, a sense of danger and fear accompanies the mystery and confusion in the story.
John and Laura have what seems to be a conventional but generally satisfactory marriage. John obviously loves his wife, but he acts as if she is exceedingly fragile and must be protected when, ironically, he ends up being the one who is in danger. Their relationship is full of denial: they come to Venice to get away from the pain of their daughter’s death, and John is willing to let Laura believe anything so long as she is not depressed. When she first tells him that the blind sister has seen a vision of dead Christine sitting next to them, he panics and doesn’t want to consider what this means, as long as Laura is happy. “He had to play along with her, agree, soothe, do anything to bring back some sense of calm,” he narrates. Most of all he does not want to discuss what has happened. He eventually becomes angry and argues with Laura about the sisters. As well, when he hears a scream and sees a child running in fear, he never tells Laura about it, even though she is just around the corner. He wants to cover it up, fearing that the incident would have “a disastrous effect on her nerves.”
Meanwhile, Laura’s relationship with the sisters is a warm one. They seem to give her what she needs emotionally. She is able to speak with them about Christine, something she has not really been able to do with John, who simply wants her to get over their daughter’s death. Laura expresses the joy that she now feels, knowing that Christine is happy in the afterlife, according to the blind sister. She explains to John,’ ‘You know what it’s been like all these weeks, at home and everywhere we’ve been on holiday, though I tried to hide it from you.” Though John tries to connect with Laura, he ultimately fails, and it is up to the sisters to do so. And in the end his inability or unwillingness to listen to women is the cause of his death.
Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 14, Daphne du Maurier – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.