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Jamaica Inn

Jamaica Inn

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Jamaica Inn (1936) is a Gothic tale set in the nineteenth-century Cornwall. The book was inspired by local tales of Cornish smuggling that Daphne du Maurier heard during her stay at the real Jamaica Inn1.

Summary of Jamaica Inn

The story follows Mary Yellan as she moves from a farm in Helford to the isolated Jamaica Inn at the crossroads between Bodmin and Launceston. It had been her mother's dying wish for her to stay there, with her aunt and uncle.

When Mary arrives at Jamaica Inn she finds her uncle is an abusive, bullying man. She becomes aware that something sinister is going on at the Inn. Intelligent and inquisitive, Mary Yellan eventually uncovers the mystery of the place. Her uncle had warned her not to ask questions and to stay in bed when carriages arrive at night. Instead, she peeps out of the window and watches goods being unloaded, brought into the house and stored in a barred room. She realises that this was a smuggling operation.

Mary sneaks down and eavesdrops on a conversation between her uncle and another man, who refuses to participate in what he describes as 'common murder'. She hears her uncle threaten him, describing how he had hanged another man who had refused to participate. At this point Mary faints.

Mary decides to stay to persuade her aunt to leave. In the meantime she helps around the house and works as a barmaid on busy evenings. Lonely and isolated, she becomes friends with the landlord's little brother, a charming horse-thief called Jem, who advises her to leave.

The local magistrate, Squire Bassat, arrives with a warrant to search the property but finds nothing. Certain that Joss Merlyn is involved in a smuggling operation, Squire Bassat is determined to find the evidence needed to convict him. He questions Mary, but for her aunt's sake she gives nothing away.

While out riding, she gets lost on the moors and is rescued by Francis Davey, the vicar of Altarnun (an albino). Feeling at ease in his company, she confides in him about her life at Jamaica Inn, including the night she heard her uncle say he hanged someone. He calms her down and suggests that she has let her imagination run away with her. He also encourages her to confide in him in the future, before taking her home.

Mary's uncle confides in her while drunk. He tells her terrifying stories of his conduct as a wrecker, brutally murdering surviving passengers, including a mother and her child.

A few days later she goes to the Launceton fair with Jem. She recognizes her growing attraction to him, but wary of ending up like her aunt and skeptical of romance, is determined not to act upon it. They kiss, but Mary refuses to spend the night with him. He disappears and she is once again rescued by the vicar.

Mary once again confides in the vicar, telling him her uncle is a wrecker. He reassures her that after the New Year there will be no more wrecking as a band of watchers will be employed to prevent it. On her way back to Jamaica Inn her carriage is stopped by her uncle and his band of wreckers. They forcefully take her with them, for what they are aware might be the last time they can wreck a ship.

She escapes from the carriage and is caught by Harry the peddler who tries to rape her. Mary fights him off and gets away. She watches the wrecking in horror. She is then recaptured and brought back to Jamaica Inn. When she recovers she is confronted by her uncle in a frenzy, terrified of discovery and planning to escape.

Mary is a step behind at every turn. She goes to the vicar's house to tell him everything, but he is away, so she leaves him a note. When she arrives at North Hill, the Squire has gone to apprehend Joss. His wife provides her with a groom and carriage. Mary arrives before Squire Bassat and discovers her uncle has been stabbed to death. The Squire arrives and finds the body of her aunt. He also finds Harry locked in the barred room.

The vicar arrives and offers Mary shelter. Over lunch the vicar tells her how it was Jem Merlyn who had informed on his brother after the Christmas Eve wreck.

In a further unexpected twist, the vicar reveals himself to be the true leader and mastermind of Joss's band of wreckers. His position as a clergyman put him above suspicion, but he reveals that he isn't truly a Christian. He practices paganism. He further reveals that he murdered her aunt and uncle, before abducting her and trying to flee with her across the moors.

Jem finds them and shoots the vicar, rescuing Mary. After her ordeal she stays briefly with the Bassats, who offer her a position as nanny to their son. She declines, and sets off to Helford. However, upon meeting Jem on the way, she abandons this plan, giving in to her feelings of love and attraction, and they set off on a new life together.

Brief Analysis of Jamaica Inn

Daphne du Maurier was inspired to write Jamaica Inn by her stay at a real inn of that name. The author got lost in the moorlands with a friend and their horses led them to the safety of Jamaica Inn. During their brief stay they were entertained with many tales, including stories of smuggling, wrecking and ghosts. Although the story is fictional, the author based it on how she imagined the real place would've been in the early nineteenth century at the height of the Cornish smuggling trade.

Jamaica Inn (1936) has earned its place in the canon of English literature as a crime novel with gothic features, which draws inspiration from the widespread historic practice of smuggling in the early nineteenth century.

Crime fiction. This genre focuses on solving fictitious crimes and exploring the motivations of fictitious criminals. The protagonists are usually, but not always, private detectives or police officers.

Popular examples include the Sherlock Holmes novels by Arthur Conan Doyle and The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith.

Gothic Fiction. This genre is characterised by an atmosphere of mystery and horror. They usually feature unsettling or supernatural subjects and foreboding settings.2

Popular examples include Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley and Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker.

Main themes

Two of the main themes that run throughout this novel are love vs attraction, and family bonds. These themes motivate the actions of the protagonists and therefore the direction of the plot.

Love and Attraction

The narrator portrays love in cynical and negative terms. Jem Merlyn tells Mary about the women in his family who were abused by the men they loved. Mary herself has seen how years of domestic violence have affected her aunt. She also pities the young women she saw courting in Helford, only to find themselves unhappily married, caring for complaining husbands and crying babies.

She disapproves of Jem's petty criminality and is disgusted by the parallels she draws between Jem and Joss. Despite all of this, Mary finds herself strongly attracted to Jem against her better judgment, and ultimately chooses to be with him.

Do you think history will repeat itself?

Family bonds

Another key theme is 'family bonds'. Mary Yellan stays in Jamaica Inn despite its dangers because she is focussed on protecting Aunt Patience. Many of her actions, from staying at Jamaica Inn to lying to Squire Bassat, are motivated by this aim. Conversely, Jem ultimately betrays his brother, telling Squire Bassat of his involvement in wrecking and smuggling.

Jamaica Inn quotes

Dead men tell no tales Mary "(p 131)

Joss says this to Mary after telling her about the innocent people he kills. Consider how this could be a warning to Mary.

There's things happen at Jamaica Inn, Mary, that I've never dared to breathe. Bad things. Evil things. "

This grim and vague warning foreshadows Mary's discovery of the wrecking activity. His thrice-repeated use of the word 'things' suggests acts so evil he cannot even speak of them. The reader later learns of his murder of innocents.

Though there should be a world of difference between the smile of a man, and the bared fangs of a wolf, with Joss Merlyn they were one and the same ”(ch 2).

This is one of Mary's first impressions of Joss Merlyn.

She cried out to me to help her Mary, and I smashed her face in with a stone”(ch 8).

Joss Merlyn confesses his evil actions in great detail while drunk.

In her own way, Aunt Patience was a murderer too. She had killed them by her silence." (ch 9).

Mary considers her aunt complicit through her silence.

He was like a child in the game, powerless without my orders ”(ch 17).

Francis Davey boasts to Mary of his secret role in the wrecking.

The genre of Jamaica Inn

Du Maurier's Jamaica Inn belongs to the genre of crime fiction. It includes many of the traditional features of this genre, including breadcrumb style clues for the reader, red herrings to throw the reader off-track, murder, and villains. Its protagonist faces great danger before the crime is ultimately solved and a resolution is reached.

Jamaica Inn also features many of the hallmarks of Gothic literature, such as the creation of an atmosphere of suspense, mystery and fear. It also features villains, romance and danger.

Think of another Gothic novel, Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker. There are some genre similarities between the two books. Can you identify three?

This novel is an example of historical fiction. It is a fictionalised narrative featuring fictional characters, but is based upon the real historical practice of smuggling. Smuggling was widespread in Cornwall during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.3

Jamaica Inn's structure and form

Du Maurier uses a third-person narrative which appears to belong to the protagonist, Mary Yellan. The story employs a double narrative structure.

In a double narrative structure two narratives co-exist. The first narrative is hidden and slowly revealed, while the second narrative is set out in chronological order.

The Vicar of Anternun's role as criminal mastermind is the first narrative, which is initially hidden and slowly revealed. Mary Yellan's life is the second narrative, which is set in chronological order.

This structure allows the reader to share in the protagonist's discoveries, her suspicions, and it intensifies the grand reveal of the Vicar of Altarnun's identity as the true leader of the wreckers.

Key characters in Jamaica Inn

Mary Yellan

Mary Yellan is the protagonist, a brave, strong-willed, and morally upright character. A young woman of twenty three, she has led a sheltered life on a farm in Helford and comes to live with her aunt and uncle following her mother's death.

She soon finds her uncle to be in abusive bully, but Decides to stay to try to protect her aunt. Mary is intelligent and curious, which leads her to make dangerous discoveries. Her sense of justice leads her to inform upon her murderous uncle, Joss. She develops romantic feelings for Jem and the novel ends with her decision to start a new life with him.

Joss Merlyn

Joss Merlyn is a well-rounded villain. Although he is part of a band of wreckers and is abusive towards his wife, the readership is also presented with his inner strength. Consumed by guilt, he drinks heavily to forget the faces of his victims. His drunken confession to Mary hints at a desperate appeal for solace.

In some ways he is presented as a victim, born into a family of criminals and enduring a childhood characterised by death, violence and deprivation, he repeats the cycle of abuse in the domestic abuse of his own wife.

Patience Merlyn

We are presented with two versions of Patience from Mary Yellan's childhood recollections. The unmarried aunt Patience of her youth was cheerful, pretty and carefree. She was admired by a good natured farmer, who serves as a contrast to the dangerous man she chose to marry. The aunt Patience she meets at Jamaica inn is a timid, anxious woman who lives in thrall of her violent and domineering husband.

Jem Merlyn

Jem is Joss's little brother, a lovable rogue and self-confessed womaniser. He is a criminal like his brother, but his crimes inconvenience rather than kill. He is a horse-thief, who sells a pony back to its owner after stealing it. He ultimately redeems himself, informing upon his murderous brother and shooting Mary's abductor.

Francis Davey

First presented as a kindly vicar, he is ultimately revealed to be the villain of the novel, the secret leader of the gang of wreckers. At first he seems above suspicion, as a member of the clergy and a soft spoken, well-educated man. But he reveals his true identity as criminal mastermind and murderer to Mary after she stumbles across one of his personal drawings. He is killed by Jem after abducting Mary.

Squire Bassat

Representing law enforcement, justice, and the landed gentry, Squire Bassat is set in opposition to Joss Merlyn from the start. He is infuriated to learn that he had accidentally sold Jamaica Inn to Joss Merlyn, a man whose family had engaged in criminality for two generations. In his role as local magistrate he gathers the evidence needed to convict his nemesis for his role in smuggling and wrecking. He shows great kindness to Mary Yellan, offering her a live-in nanny position after her aunt and uncle's murder.

Jamaica Inn, a collection of wooden barrels, StudySmarterFig. 1 - A collection of wooden barrels of whiskey.

The contribution of Jamaica Inn to literature and culture today

Jamaica Inn is based on the history and local stories of Cornwall, sharing these with a wider readership. The novel is a contribution to the genres of both gothic literature and historical fiction.

Jamaica Inn was adapted for the screen by Alfred Hitchcock in 1939. Although it received mixed reviews from film critics, it was a box office hit and introduced a wider audience to the story-line and characters of Du Maurier's novel.4

Jamaica Inn Overview - Key takeaways

    • Jamaica Inn belongs to the genre of crime fiction .

    • A key part of the plot is the shocking reveal of the identity of the true leader of the wrecking and smuggling operation.

    • A double narrative structure is used, so that readers uncover the mysteries of the novel alongside the protagonist.

    • The novel is loosely based on tales of smuggling Daphne du Maurier heard while staying at the Jamaica Inn.

    • Jamaica Inn features many of the hallmarks of Gothic literature.



1 Clockwork Marketing, 2014, jamaicainn.co.uk/history

2Oxford Universiry Press, 2022, oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/gothic-novel

3Mazine Denton, 2022, cornwalllive.com/news/cornwall-news/cornwalls-towns-were-smuggling-havens-6459428

4 Brent Reid, 2019, brentonfilm.com/articles/alfred-hitchcock-collectors-guide-jamaica-inn-1939

Frequently Asked Questions about Jamaica Inn

Daphne du Maurier wrote Jamaica Inn (1936).

In both the novel and real life, Jamaica Inn is located in the Bodmin moor area of Cornwall. The author was inspired to write the novel after a brief stay at this inn.

When the author first visited Jamaica Inn it already had many legends and myths associated with it, most involving smuggling and wrecking, and it was well-known within Cornwall. Daphne du Maurier’s novel Jamaica Inn brought it a level of fame. Two film adaptations have been made of the novel, bringing further fame to the inn. 

Jamaica Inn is about the practice of wrecking and smuggling in Cornwall during the early nineteenth century. As a work of crime fiction the story is about uncovering the truth behind the smuggling and wrecking operation that the Landlord of Jamaica Inn is involved in. 

As a sub-plot it also follows the romance between Jem and Mary. A parallel is drawn between this couple and Joss and Patience Merlyn, exploring themes such as domestic violence, love and attraction.  

Jamaica Inn is owned by Joss Merlyn, the protagonist’s uncle by marriage.

Final Jamaica Inn Quiz

Jamaica Inn Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


What illegal activity is Joss Merlyn engaged in?

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Smuggling and wrecking. 

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 What illegal activity is Jem Merlyn engaged in?

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 What genre does Jamaica Inn (1936) belong to?

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Crime fiction.

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Who was the leader of the wrecking and smuggling operation?

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 Francis Davey.

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Why does Joss Merlyn drink to excess?

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To try to forget the faces of his victims.

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How did Joss's band wreck the ships?

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With lights to imitate lighthouse signals. 

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Who killed Joss and Patience Merlyn?

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Vicar Francis Davey.

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How is Aunt Patience complicit in her husband's crimes?

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Her silence.

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What heroic action does Jem take?

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He rescues Mary from Vicar Francis Davy. 

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 Which of the following best describes the overall atmosphere of the novel?

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Third person narrative which appears to belong to Mary Yellan. 

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Which best describes the Helford community?

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 Friendly and honest.

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What aspect of Francis Davey's appearance is focused on?

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His albinism.

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What is Squire Bassat's role in maintaining law and order?

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He is a magistrate.

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How old is Mary Yellan?

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Which of the following environments does NOT feature in the novel?

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