Daphne du Maurier’s short story, or novella, “Don’t Look Now” is a tale of the supernatural, full of mysterious premonitions, blind soothsayers, and messages from the next life. Critics refer to it as a fine example of contemporary romantic horror writing, and the film made from the story sent chills up the spines of many moviegoers in the 1970s.
But this story also looks at men’s and women’s relationships with each other. Nina Auerbach, writing about du Maurier in the book British Writers, notes that the author has developed an “emphasis on the animosity between the husband and the wife.” Against John’s sarcasm, disbelief, and fear, the primary female characters in the story—who outnumber John four to one—create a community of women whose actions denote strength and power. With the help of her fellow females, Laura takes steps to grow, while John is literally and figuratively left behind.
When the story opens, John and Laura look like any relatively happily married couple enjoying their vacation to romantic Venice. They are away from their child and can laugh and joke as if they haven’t a care in the world. But after only a few paragraphs, the novella reveals a tense side to their merriment: they are on vacation to get over the death of their five-year-old daughter, Christine. John is tired of Laura’s depression over the loss of their child and hopes that they can “pick up on the familiar routine of jokes shared on holiday and at home… [and] life will become as it was before.” John seems to hope that his life will not be changed by Christine’s death and that Laura will simply forget about Christine— an attitude that marks him as immature.
His hopes for an unaffected life are dashed, though, when Laura learns that the blind sister is able to “see” a happy Christine seated next to Laura and John as they eat lunch. Despite the fact that his wife is obviously overjoyed by this news, John’s only thought is to move along to the next tour stop. He decides he must “play along with her, agree, soothe, do anything to bring back some sense of calm,” but he is the only one losing his calm here. His response to Laura’s discovery is, “What do I do? How do I cope?,” and he desperately looks for a way to move her off the topic and onto something he can understand.
If the news has stunned and confused John, the experience has left Laura stronger. As she speaks of the sister’s vision, her demeanor changes to one of control and strength. “The dazed expression,” he notices, “had given way to one of dawning confidence, almost of exaltation.” Instead of being reassured by this, John panics that Laura is “going off her head.” Here is an instance in which a supposed caretaker is the one in need of care, a theme that is repeated in this story a number of times.
John sees himself as Laura’s protector because, in his eyes, she is weak and fragile. He does not tell her about seeing the hooded character he assumes to be a child in danger, because it “might have had a disastrous effect on her overwrought nerves.” When John catches a glimpse of the sisters at the cathedral, he keeps this from Laura, too, believing that the old ladies are out to bother them or even to get money from them. When he thinks that Laura has disappeared, John begins to believe that the sisters have tricked her into getting off the plane. He imagines her being susceptible to the sisters’ wild stories of premonitions and choosing to let the plane leave without her, “all without question.” When John goes to the police station to report her missing, he agrees with the police officer that Laura has been “suffering the aftereffects of shock” and that she may be so stressed from the blind sister’s visions of Christine that she could have had “a sudden attack of amnesia.” In John’s mind, Laura is not the master of her own mind or actions—someone must be controlling her as if she were a puppet.
But Laura does come to know her own mind, with the help of the other three major female characters in the story: the elderly twin sisters and Christine’s ghost. When the story begins, Laura is suffering from the grief of losing Christine to meningitis. By all accounts she has been depressed and not her usual self. John brings her to Venice to forget her grief and recapture her former happiness, but meeting the sisters and hearing their news about Christine is what puts Laura back on the road to recovery—not John. After Laura finds out about the blind sister’s visions of Christine, she is exuberant and energized and can confess to John that she has been trying to hide her depression from him. “You know what it’s been like all these weeks,” she says, “though I tried to hide it from you. Now it’s lifted, because I know.”
After her confession to John, Laura feels a great sense of relief and begins to take more control over her actions. At the cathedral she wades into a crowd of sightseers, “undaunted,” and begins studying a guidebook, “as had always been her custom in happier days.” When the telegram arrives with information that their son, Johnnie, has appendicitis, Laura takes charge and handles the return trip to England. She seizes the phone from John and makes arrangements so that she is able to fly back home that afternoon. She is all organization and purpose, arranging for John’s later departure and watching over the porter who has been assigned to find her a seat on a plane. John notices that Laura “no longer looked anxious and drawn, but full of purpose. She was on her way.”
In both the literal and the metaphorical senses, Laura is “on her way,” leaving John and flying to England. The sisters have helped Laura with this progress, letting her know that Christine is happy in the afterlife and sympathizing with the pain she carries from losing her daughter—something John is unable to do. Indeed, as John fears, the sisters “lure Laura beyond marriage into new, transforming perceptions,” according to Auerbach. She is reborn, in a sense, as a confident woman, finding more strength in the company of women than in that of men. When John sees Laura in the passing ferry with the sisters, he misinterprets the scene on two levels: first, by failing to recognize it as a premonition; and second, by believing that Laura is helplessly under the spell of the sisters when, in fact, the sisters are supporting Laura as she returns to Venice to claim John’s body after his murder.
The sisters also serve as a conduit for Christine, who has two messages to share with her parents: first, that everything is fine with her, and second, that John is in extreme danger and must leave Venice immediately. Laura hears and appreciates both of these messages, but John, in his arrogance, will not listen. The four women have created a club, of sorts, a place where lives are renewed, but John rejects their attempts to include him, eventually paying for this with his life.
The sisters act as wise crones, a little frightening but filled with vision and understanding. Laura chooses to listen to them, despite her husband’s dismissal of their powers. Du Maurier has never been classified as a “feminist” writer and, in fact, according to Auerbach, “has become identified with a femininity distasteful to misogynists and feminists alike.” But a close reading of “Don’t Look Now” that focuses on the relationships between the main characters, combined with the understanding that du Maurier wrote this story late in her life, raises some interesting issues. For here is a story of two sisters and a female ghost helping another woman through a tough ordeal. Thanks to his own stubbornness, a female murders Laura’s husband. Despite the fact that the story ends with John’s violent and bloody death, the chronologically final scene of the story—John’s unwitting premonition of Laura and the sisters returning to Venice to claim his body—is one of female companionship and bonding through troubled times.
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.
Susan Sanderson, Critical Essay on “Don’t Look Now,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002