My Cousin Rachel | Study Guide

Daphne du Maurier

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My Cousin Rachel | Chapter 1 | Summary



"They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days" begins the narrator, Philip. He first looks back to a time when he was a child of seven and his guardian, Ambrose, took him to see a rotting corpse hanging in chains at the crossroads. Ambrose informs the boy it is a warning to lead a "sober life" so as to avoid the fate of the felon Tom Jenkyn who killed his wife. Philip cannot admit his revulsion and makes jokes. Ambrose tells him he can vomit in the bushes and then leaves him. Afterward, Philip throws a stone at the corpse to see it move.

Now 18 years later, Philip is reminded of the incident, wondering what caused Tom to kill his scolding wife. Philip knows he must endure life, filled with doubt, never knowing whether or not Ambrose's own death was murder. He reflects that he will never know if Rachel was innocent or guilty of killing Ambrose. Philip looks, thinks, and acts like Ambrose. If they had been different men, they would have survived Rachel. She would have come and gone with a sufficient amount of money. But Philip reminded her so much of Ambrose. No going back, Philip reflects. If he had looked back, instead of seeing Tom hanging in chains, would Philip have seen his own shadow?


Du Maurier begins the story with heavy foreshadowing: in a flashback to a youthful Ambrose and seven-year-old Philip, the two gaze upon the corpse of a felon executed for killing his wife. Ambrose warns Philip outright to lead a good life, pointing to the corpse as an example of the consequences of bad living. Philip's reflections here set up the expectation that Philip has fallen from the ideal path at some point in the story and that the murder of a spouse and the punishment for it will be significant.

Adult Philip, the narrator, says execution is necessary only if the criminal's conscience does not kill him first. Guilt weighs on Philip—his own guilt foreshadowed by the hanged man and Rachel's guilt never verified. When he speaks of not surviving Rachel—"We would have both survived had we been other men"—his is the slow death of conscience, for he knows his own guilt.

Philip's narration is general at first, as if readers know who Rachel is and what has happened. This narrative style shows the story about to be told is all behind him now. His flashback story details events and circumstance of the previous year, which he gradually falls into telling, alluding to tragedies, torture, and disaster—du Maurier's way of enticing the reader.

Du Maurier ends Chapter 1 leaving the hanged man in the past and pitying Philip who has a lifetime of guilty torment ahead of him instead of a swift execution. Philip imagines going back in time and seeing his own shadow over the body, making the connection between himself and the lowest form of public humiliation and dishonor he deserves.

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