Limitations of Fiction: Connections

This journal entry was originally written March 27, 2018.

I was thinking this morning about the limitations of fiction. These aren’t limitations imposed on fiction, but limitations present in the human brain that is the creator of fiction, and thus implicit in the very bones of fiction.

Characters aren’t connected enough in fiction to reflect my experiences in life. This is true of both short fiction as well as longer works (and, as you will see in a moment, it is true in other mediums, especially movies). Very few people in life exist in a vacuum like the one that surrounds characters in fiction. A map of the relationships in my life would be a densely interconnected mesh of people, from friends to family to friends of family and family of friends. Adding complexity to the mesh is the evolution over time as it builds and decays, making new connections and eroding old connections into memories.

Fiction can’t represent this labyrinth of connections except symbolically through representative samples. In Avatar, the movie by James Cameron, Jake Sully travels to another planet because his single connection, a twin brother, is killed, opening an opportunity for Jake’s DNA match to be used to control his brother’s specially grown avatar. Sully has zero connections in his life beyond his murdered brother.

In IT, by Stephen King, Eddie has an coddling, oppressive wife. I can’t remember now what other connections King included — father, aunts, but even when King does better than most at populating the connections of his world, it remains infinitesimally small in comparison to the connections present in the lives of most people.

But fiction can’t, you argue, populate every connection because no one would want to wade through such detritus of information. I accept that this is true as a reader, but I further argue that it isn’t just true from the reading side of the equation; it is true on the writing side of the equation. It doesn’t matter that the reader wouldn’t read it because the constructor can’t build it, the author can’t imagine it — such connections are simply beyond the scope of human imagination.

Now you’re thinking, “Who cares? If the human mind can’t imagine it, and the human mind isn’t interested in reading about it anyway, who really cares?” And you would be correct — if a reader doesn’t notice. But when a reader (or viewer, in the case of a movie) is able to perceive the artificiality of the connections presented in the story, then the writer should care. King is able to cover up his shortcomings with the density of his distracting connections. He gives Eddie an entire pharmacy as an example of his hypochondria, and through this sleight of hand, the reader doesn’t notice that Eddie’s life is absent of contemporary friends, those people who will miss him when he fails to show up at Thanksgiving. Not all of us have King’s ability to find the idiosyncratic as decoys. So it is up to us, as writers, to recognize that we are not able to adequately imagine the connections a character should have in the world — if that character was in fact alive — and write in such a way to minimize the distraction of this truth from affecting our reader’s ability to enjoy the narrative.

With short fiction, there is the advantage of brevity, like a photo that capture s a moment while the viewer postulates a world that must exist beyond the borders of the print and which doesn’t matter for conveying the content of the print. But even short fiction runs the risk of being too streamlined, too elegant, too perfect. Life is never perfect, and while a brilliantly elegant story may be perfect, it is also only a caricature of life, a false representation, hardly more than a fable. Fables have their place: they are didactic and essential (I think I am mostly only capable of writing fables), but they aren’t capturing life, unless it is the job of the writer to share these moments from life that are contained lessons or instructions.

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DIY Air-tight Sump Hole Cover (Revisited)

Since I deleted the original andrewwinkel.com site after my self-hosted website was hacked, I’ve had good intentions to resurrect some of the most popular posts that were lost. Yesterday, I received an email out of the blue from Lucie, who stumbled upon a breadcrumb of one of those posts, a reference to my “Do-it-yourself Sump Hole Cover.” So, Lucie, I’m actually achieving this because of you. Thanks!

There were actually two posts about the sump hole cover. In the first, I explained the background and steps that I followed to create the cover. In the second, I made modifications after the cover had been in use for a couple years. I’ve made some editorial revisions because, well, I write (or at least, in my imagination, I write) and that’s what writers do.

Finally, a special thanks goes to archive.org, where my original text remains preserved. This was much easier because of you!

DIY Air-tight Sump Hole Cover (originally published May 8, 2011)

Background

The sump hole is original to the house which was constructed in 1958. The drainage tiles originally diverted downspout run-off into the sump hole, where it was pumped out. When we moved into the house, a 1/3 horsepower pedestal style pump failed twice, once during a power outage, and once when the float bent and caught, keeping the unit from kicking on. After dealing with inches of water in the basement a second time, I purchased a Basement Watchdog unit from Lowe’s. I discovered, when I installed the new unit, that the old sump pump had kept the water level high enough that the tiles were filled with water.  This meant that the tiles were always full of water: hundreds of gallons of water was always hanging out, and the difference between a flooded basement and an unflooded basement was only a few gallons. The new pump kept the water down to just inches. from the bottom of the hole. So this was the first advantage to the new pump.

Sump hole without cover

Now the downside, literally. With the water level so low, air was flowing through the tiles from outside the house (remember, the downspouts used to run into the tiles; although they don’t any more, they are only covered with grates to keep things, but not air, out). Over the last couple years after heavy rains the basement begins to smell. You can tell me: have your septic inspected; something is leaking. And you would be right. But here’s the problem: the town is installing a sewer system and every septic tank must be destroyed before the end of the summer. It would be a waste of money to dig up and fix a septic tank whose time has come. After reviewing a number of sites that discuss the advantages of their air-tight sump hole covers, I decided to make my own.

I chose to make a drain with a trap to allow the water to go down while preventing the air from coming up. Some covers I looked at on the internet used a ball and funnel type design, where water would lift the ball  as it drained, then the ball would create the seal. That seemed ingenious, except for one thing: all plumbing in houses uses traps to stop odors, so why not use the same concept here?

Here are some additional advantages to an air-tight sump hole cover: It’s supposed to stop Radon infiltration, it keeps moisture contained within the sump hole instead of spread throughout the basement, and it keeps the air that was blasting through the tiles from the outside from penetrating into the house.

Material List

  • 10 foot long 1″ x 4″ PVC trim board (cost around $17)
  • 1 PVC Trap (1 ½”)
  • 1 PVC Reducer (from 3″ to 1 ½”)
  • PVC Glue
  • Silicon Caulk
  • Assorted scrap 1 ½” PVC

Total Project Cost: Less than $50

Process

First, let’s take a look at the original cover. It was constructed from assorted pieces of 2x treated lumber. It was not sealed and was constantly wet since water drained onto it. BUT, it kept my children from falling into it.

Original sump cover made from treated wood
  • I decided that like the original wood cover, the PVC cover should run from the north to the south (left to right in the picture). Any cut-outs needed to be set into a side of the trim board rather than cutting the board in two. Using the existing cover as a template I cut the PVC trim board to width and used a jigsaw to make rough openings for the sump pump.
  • I traced the PVC reducer and used a jigsaw to cut an opening for it. I actually meant to have it on the other side, but due to a mix-up in what is up and what is down, cut it on the opposite side I meant. Since the location of the drain was nothing more than a preference, I didn’t worry about it. If I had cut the hole for the sump pump itself, however, that would have been another story…
  • I edge-glued the trim boards and put the trap together with glue. I glued two pieces with the idea that I would seal the remaining edges with caulk so I could remove it as needed.
Underside of sump cover, including PVD drain with trap
  • I used caulk to line the perimeter of the sump hole as well as the edges where the two pieces would meet, then set both pieces in the sump hole.
  • I ran another bead of caulk around the perimeter, smoothing the edges to seal.
  • I cut additional pieces to stair-step and glue to form tight fit around the PVC from the sump pump.
  • I caulked the remaining gaps.
  • I then bought assorted PVC to re-route any drains (in this case, the furnace and the reverse-osmosis units) to run directly into the drain. The remaining PVC line that doesn’t make it to the drain in the photos is from the softener, which isn’t running at the moment. When I have it running it will also extend to the drain.
Finished sump cover
Finished sump cover detail

Final Thoughts

Since the cover was installed there has been no smell in the basement. The cover may also help the humidity, and if so, that will mean running the dehumidifier less, which will be a cost savings also.

Disclaimer: This page is not intended to replace the advice of a professional. It simply relates what I did. And what I did may be wrong. That’s one of the ways I learn, by trying things and discovering that I did something wrong. I’m a lot smarter now than I was five years ago, and I hope I’ll be even smarter five years from now.

DIY Sump Hole Cover Redux (Originally published on July 22, 2015)

Previously I explained how to build your own do-it-yourself air-tight sump hole cover using PVC, glue, and caulk. Since then, my sump cover met its match when it tried to swallow a ping-pong ball. The more I tried to remove the ping-pong ball from the inside of the 1 1/2″ PVC trap, the more the trap became blocked; the end result was I had to remove the entire sump hole cover to get the ping-pong ball out of the drain. This proved particularly troublesome since there was no convenient way to pull the cover off. In the end I was forced to drill a hole in the cover and use an L-shaped piece of metal inserted into the hole to give me pulling power to remove the cover; otherwise I couldn’t find any way to get the cover off.

Before re-attaching the cover I decided to make some minor improvements that were not incorporated in the initial design. Obviously the first modification needed to be a handle so the cover can be removed when necessary.

Three additional ping-pong balls had found their way into the sump hole while the cover was off (plus two Nerf balls). The drain needed some kind of cover or screen to prevent anything from blocking it.

One thing that had always bugged me about the original cover was that I could not see anything going on inside. How much water was sitting in the hole? It was always a mystery, and the only way to know what was going on in the covered hole was to listen to the water trickling in or the pumps running. A window to see into the sump hole would be an ideal addition to the design.

First Modification: Handle

I attached a handle to part of the cover. Rather than use the screws that came with the handle, I bolted it all the way through the cover. I caulked the bottom and top before tightening the screws and bolts.

Attach handle using bolts.

 Second Modification: Drain Cover

This choice was really a matter of convenience. I needed something to fill the drain, but I didn’t want a screen that could get blocked with lint or dust or dirt. I tried looking around the house for a ball, something larger than a ping-pong ball that would float and create a barrier to keep out ping-pong balls or other smaller objects, but nothing that I came across worked. As I was standing at my workbench, I noticed an empty seltzer bottle in the garbage can. I thought, why not? And I cut the bottom from it.

Remove bottom from plastic bottle.

Next, I used tin snips to cut triangles between the ridges of the base:

Use scissors or snips or a razor blade to remove triangles from the base of the bottle.

Finally, I set the bottle cut-side down in the drain. It fits; water will flow down over it and through the cut triangles without any risk of ping-pong balls getting in.

Set plastic bottle base cut-side down into drain.

Is it elegant? No. Is it going to win design awards? Does it look like HAL2000? Not really. But does it work? Yes.

Third Modification: Window

Inserting the window from the beginning would have been preferable to adding it after the pieces had all been glued in place. Ideally I would have cut the opening for the window, then routed a lip to recess the plastic. This was after-the-fact, however, so ideal wasn’t going to happen. I was going to have to resort to a plain, old jigsaw hole.

For the window I found a $4 piece of Lexan plastic at Menards.

Lexan plastic for sump window

I used a square to scribe a rectangle on the plastic:

Mark the rectangle to be removed.

Then I used a drill to give my jigsaw a place to start and cut out the rectangle:

Drill starter hole.
Use jigsaw to cut rectangle from plastic.
Finished hole

While there may be recommended tools to cut Lexan, I simply used an X-acto knife and a straight edge. After scoring the plastic a number of times, I bent it until it snapped. This is the step that could probably result in a painful injury, so for heaven’s sake, be careful! After cutting the plastic, I found that my hole was 1/8″ too short, and it was easier to use the jigsaw to remove an additional 1/8″ than try to re-cut the plastic.

Cut plastic ready to be inserted

I spread plastic wrap on the work area. After placing the cover face down, I set the cut Lexan into the opening, then applied the silicone caulk to the perimeter. Again, I’ll mention that ideally there would be a lip around the perimeter that would hold the plastic level to the surface of the sump cover; this method only holds the plastic in place with caulk, so it cannot support weight. Hopefully you aren’t standing on your sump cover anyway.

Set plastic into opening.
Caulk perimeter and let dry.

Once the caulk dried, I put a second layer of caulk around the plastic on the other side of the cover.

Set Cover

I cleaned the area around the sump hole and ran a fan on it for a couple hours to dry it out before setting the cover in place.

Prepare sump hole for the cover by cleaning and allowing drying time.

I ran a bead of caulk around the perimeter, but with the variations in the lip from age and deterioration, some sections did not allow for a good seal.

Apply a bead of caulk to perimeter of sump hole.

Something I failed to mention previously was that I realized after I installed the cover the first time that the sump hole was not level; water that ran onto the cover didn’t run straight to the drain; instead, it pooled on one side. I used this opportunity to make sure the cover sat in such a way that the water would be directed toward the drain. Running a second bead of caulk around the perimeter and on every seam insured a snug fit and a good seal.

Finish the cover by adding caulk between the pieces, to the perimeter, and along every seam.
Detail of the drain in use: no ping-pong balls are going in here!
Finished DIY air-tight sump hole cover

Conclusion

If you are fortunate enough to have a prefabricated sump hole unit, there may be covers available for cheap that will save you the stress and time of building your own. Most everything I found online was for round sump holes; many did not include drains, or were not air-tight. If you have a house like mine that was built in another era (mine is from the 1950s), building your own may be the best option. I suppose it’s possible this sump cover is not 100% air-tight, but it has to be pretty darn close. Plus, this is the only cover I see that incorporates a window to see into the sump hole.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your stories or feedback. Leave me a comment below!

Compulsory Disclaimer: This post does not take the place of professional advice; it simply describes what I did. I am in no way responsible for you, your choices, your experiences, and your problems. In other words: use at your own risk!

What is a miracle?

Simon Blackburn, in his book, Think, explains, “The prior probability that the miracle occurred is very, very small. The ‘basic rate’ is near zero. That is because miracles are the kind of thing that either never happen, or almost never happen” (183). He goes on to refer to “flying elephants, being taken into sexual slavery by Martians, or conversations with the living Elvis” (183). The issue with this reasoning isn’t the improbability of his examples; it’s the expectation that miracles rarely or never occur. His examples aren’t miracles, they’re fantasies. The universe is filled with what is, but what isn’t is infinitely more than what is (at least, within the finite scope of our finite existence). So instead of choosing the improbable and expecting such improbabilities to be examples of miracles, I say miracles are everywhere all the time. My existence itself is a miracle of circumstance, a chain of events any one of which would, by not having happened, remove me from the equation. The greater miracle isn’t what isn’t, it’s what is.

Lucille Clifton, in her poem “won’t you celebrate with me,” writes,

…come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50974/wont-you-celebrate-with-me
(For a better understanding of the power of this poem, watch the poet read her work here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XM7q_DUk5wU

I found the above in a journal dated 8-16-17. I tacked the excerpt from Lucille Clifton to the end because it is, to me, the most succinct, powerful, and memorable passage that reinforces my point: we are all miracles.

Reflections on “Rebecca” by Daphne Du Maurier

The eighth-grade reading teacher at Bradley Central, Kelly Carroll, lent me a copy of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. It was, she said, her favorite book when she read it in high school and remains one of her favorites. Initially I wanted to make a few comments on the telling of the book to share with her after I finished, but as I began reflecting on the book, I began to find more and more to write about. I decided, as these reflections are interesting to me, that they may be of interest to others. I have specifically chosen not to look up anything online about the book, so the source materials for these reflections are my own thoughts and the novel itself.

Be warned: It’s impossible to write about Rebecca without writing about the book as a whole. This means revealing secrets and events that are essential to the story, but that are best experienced by reading Rebecca for yourself. This commentary contains spoilers.

The copy Mrs. Carroll lent me is from her classroom library. It’s actually has a terrifically tiny font with hardly any margins. I purchased reading glasses so I could read it and found myself cursing the margins on every page. If you are selecting a version of the text to read, I don’t recommend it, but as I used this copy for page references, it is

Du Marier, Daphne. Rebecca. 1938. Avon Books, 1971.

 

Paradise Lost

From the very first line of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier – “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” – the narrator makes it clear that Manderley is not just a setting in the novel, it is something greater. In most novels, the settings serve as backdrops for the action; In Rebecca, Manderley is described with exquisite detail and as an ever-present edifice representing the de Winter family’s pride and social status. For Maxim de Winter, Manderley is symbolically Eden: a place of supreme happiness that is lost forever. But neither is Rebecca Eve nor even the forbidden fruit. Rather, she is sin, the sin of selfishness and self-love collected in a single soul so that Maxim de Winter, upon entering his marriage with her, his contract with her, is swindled out of his principles into her sins. While she does not convert him, she does stain him until he becomes that most heinous of sinners, a murderer.

Rebecca does not chronicle Maxim de Winter’s fall; instead the fall is unraveled, told years after the fact, through the memories of an innocent newcomer, the unnamed protagonist and narrator who chronicles her own experiences with Maxim de Winter and who, through these experiences, finally shows the reader how de Winter became a murderer and lost his Eden.

The Telling

Although a first-person telling invites the reader into the teller’s thoughts, the voice of the protagonist of Rebecca is very cerebral: the teller frequently supposes or imagines – even predicts what she expects to happen – and then the narrative goes on to relate what really happened, thus adding to her characterization through the contrast between the mental scenes and the scenes that actually play out. A significant percentage of the novel takes places within these mental excursions which, while atmospheric, can be tedious if a reader considers that he is spending time reading the speculations of a teller who already knows the truth of the past and could just as easily have recounted that truth instead of the imagined events.

Here is an example: “We should grow old here together, we should sit like this to our tea as old people, Maxim and I, with our dogs, the successors of these, and the library would wear the same ancient musty smell that it did now. It would know a period of glorious shabbiness and wear when the boys were young—our boys—for I saw them sprawling on the sofa with muddy boots, bringing with them always a litter of rods, and cricket bats, great clasp-knives, bows-and-arrows” (69). This mental excursion lasts for around three paragraphs before it is interrupted by another character, “My vision was disturbed by the opening of the door…” (69).

As a technique, this practice of shifting into “I wondered ” or “would” or “should” creates an immediacy to the telling, especially as it is only when a person goes through events that he or she tends to speculate about the what-ifs, and during a re-telling or recounting (which is what a first-person telling is[1]) tends to omit those speculations in favor of capturing the teller’s version of events.

Finishing Rebecca, a reader may start over at the beginning and notice that the first and most of the second chapter are really the denouement, not the beginning at all. It is only in the final paragraphs of the second chapter, after the teller attempts to describe Mrs. Van Hopper’s usual manner of ingratiating herself into the company of the wealthy or famous that the first moment of action takes place: Mrs. Van Hopper looks at and makes a comment about Max de Winter. Her comment, “They say he can’t get over his wife’s death…” placed as it is at the conclusion of chapter two, is not foreshadowing. It’s misdirection.

 

The “New Mrs. de Winter”

Why doesn’t the new Mrs. de Winter, the narrator of the novel Rebecca, ever share her name?

As far as the protagonist knows, Rebecca drowned tragically in a boating accident less than one year before the narrator met Maxim de Winter. Rebecca appears to have been beloved, and as the new Mrs. de Winter interprets it, existed as a paragon of style and society, almost a force of nature. The narrator, in contrast, is everything Rebecca was not. Where Rebecca was forceful, the narrator is timid; where Rebecca always spoke with exactly the right words or acted in exactly the right way, the narrator is uncertain, embarrassed; where Rebecca always dressed at the height of fashion, or decorated with the eye of a connoisseur, the narrator is frequently made aware of her homemade simplicity, of her plainness; and as the narrator explained, “She called him Max” (43), but “I had to call him Maxim” (43).

These contrasts are ever-present in the mind of the narrator and thusly in the minds of the readers. As she cannot forget it, we cannot forget it. Everyone remembers Rebecca, and if they do not remember Rebecca, they are imagined to be doing so within the mental excursions of the narrator.

A name is power, it is identity, and in Rebecca, it is the absent and yet perpetually present personality of Rebecca who dominates the narrative. By the conclusion of the book, an interesting thing happens: the reader discovers that the new Mrs. de Winter is not a foil to Rebecca; rather, it is Rebecca who is the foil to the narrator. All of the qualities that the narrator imagines in Rebecca are only the surface of what Rebecca truly is. Rebecca’s appearance is nothing more than a patina, a shine that covers rot. This realization answers an important question that has been present for the reader since the beginning: Why did Maxim de Winter choose as his new wife the narrator, especially contrasting her with Rebecca? It’s only at the close of the novel that the reader understands: where Rebecca demanded, the narrator accepted; where Rebecca plotted and schemed for herself, the narrator kept secrets with only the wish to impress or surprise Maxim; where Rebecca despised Maxim, the narrator loves and adores Maxim.

The narrator is never named because the story, her story, is a journey out obscurity, out of uncertainty, from under the shadow of Rebecca’s dominating personality until her own personality has been transformed through the process in a chemical purification that leaves her as a new substance. She becomes Mrs. de Winter, the wife of Maxim de Winter. And if that identity is not satisfying to us, it is satisfying to her, and that is all that matters to her telling.

 

Rotten to the Core

If Manderley is a symbol for Maxim de Winter and its destruction the result of his marriage with Rebecca and his guilt, then the cancer that eats Rebecca is itself symbolic of Rebecca. Perfect on the outside: beautiful, graceful, poised, immaculate, composed, refined. Inside she writhes with malice and greed, a selfish hedonist with no affection for anyone, except maybe Mrs. Danvers (and this is even questionable given what the reader comes to realize about Rebecca).

Maxim de Winter was taken in by her “Beauty, brains, and breeding” (272), but soon discovered that Rebecca came with a price. “She made a bargain with me,” he tells the narrator (273). “She knew I would sacrifice pride, honour, personal feeling, every damned quality on earth, rather than stand before our little world after a week of marriage and have them know the things about her that she had told me then” (273). It is the ultimate shake-down. Rebecca takes control of Maxim. She ensures their fiction of a marriage maintains an appearance of perfection at the price of keeping her life of liasons. The extent of her extra-marital affairs is described by Mrs. Danvers:

A man had only to look at her once and be mad about her. I’ve seen them here, staying in the house, men she’d meet up in London and bring for week-ends. She would take them bathing from the boat, she would have a picnic supper at her cottage in the cove. They made lover to her of course, who would not? She laughed, she would come back and tell me what they had said, and what they’d done. She did not mind, it was like a game to her. Like a game (245).

Rebecca used others for her amusement, as Mrs. Danvers explains when Jack Favell asks that she confirm Rebecca loved him. “She was not in love with you, or with Mr. de Winter. She was not in love with anyone. She despised all men. She was above all that” (340). Had the reader only de Winter’s explanation of Rebecca to trust, it could be doubted. He could be biased, a scorned lover, a resentful husband. But when Mrs. Danvers reveals such information in a fit of anger, it seals the reader’s impression of the real Rebecca, the person beneath the façade, the rot at the core of the person. At another point, Mrs. Danvers attempts to convince the new Mrs. de Winter of her inferiority, pushing her to suicide. During that conversation, she reveals Rebecca’s true nature: “She was never one to stand mute and still and be wronged. ‘I’ll see them in hell, Danny,’ she’d say, ‘I’ll see them in hell first.’ ‘That’s right, my dear,’ I’d tell her, ‘No one will put upon you. You were born into this world to take what you could out of it,’ and she did. She didn’t care, she wasn’t afraid” (242-243), and “She did what she liked, she lived as she liked” (243).

Rebecca’s cancer is the final twist in the story. The reader expects that Doctor Baker will confirm that Rebecca was pregnant with Favell’s child, but instead he reveals, “the growth was deep-rooted…and in three or four months’ time she would have been under morphia. An operation would have been no earthy use at all” (367). The reader discovers, instead of the expected life, of generation, of birth, that Rebecca is filled with death. Further, Rebecca’s generative powers are deformed and useless. Doctor Baker tells Colonel Julyan, Favell, and the de Winters, “The X-rays showed a malformation of the uterus, I remember, which meant she could never have had a child, but that was quite apart, it had nothing to do with the disease” (367). She is revealed, at the conclusion of the novel, as ultimately fallow and ultimately rotten both physically and symbolically.

 

Forgiving a Murderer

Maxim de Winter is a murderer. There is no doubt that he murdered Rebecca. He shot her, stuck her body in a boat, and deliberately sunk the evidence. He cleaned up the mess and months after the boat disappeared, identified another body as that of Rebecca. This was not a mercy killing; he did not know Rebecca was terminally ill. Instead, he thought she was pregnant with a child that did not belong to him, and he killed her out of rage and frustration.

De Winter’s account of Rebecca’s death takes on new meaning once Doctor Baker reveals that she was terminally ill. When de Winter relates his final conversation with Rebecca, he acknowledges, “She looked ill, queer” and “She looked very pale, very thin” (278), but neither of these observations overshadow Rebecca’s implication that she is pregnant with Favell’s child.

Re-reading this section, it’s clear that Rebecca wants Maxim to kill her. She knows that she has months to live, months before she wastes away. “It’s time,” she tells Maxim, “I turned over a new leaf” (278). And with that, she starts tearing apart all of de Winter’s fears and weaknesses. Every sentence she speaks is a knife stabbed into de Winter’s heart, into his pride. She points out that he has no evidence to divorce her: “All your friends, even our servants, believe our marriage to be a success” (278); she points out that Mrs. Danvers will “swear anything I ask her” (279); she notes that a case would only serve to “make [de Winter] look very foolish” (279). Her final remarks are calculated to incense de Winter to murder. Rebecca paints a picture of her son (she uses the possessive pronoun “my,” purposely excluding de Winter from paternity) growing up and enjoying all of the best features of de Winter’s “beloved Manderley” (279). She uses irony when she asks, “It would give you the biggest thrill of your life … to watch my son grow bigger day by day, and to know that when you died, all this would be his?” (279). She returns to her earlier statement about renewal when she asks, “Well, you heard me say I was going to turn over a new leaf didn’t you? Now you know the reason” (279).

Every man has a breaking point, and Maxim de Winter broke. Rebecca knew he would break, pushed him to break, and died as he “fired at her heart” (300).

We don’t know why Rebecca chose to push de Winter to murder. We don’t know whether she wished to avoid the disease that would waste her into a shadow of her vibrant, buoyant self; whether she chose his rage as a means to end her life and destroy de Winter at the same time; whether she really had, for a moment, turned over a new leaf and given de Winter the final satisfaction of punishing her with finality.

As readers, we find de Winter’s behavior presents a difficult conundrum. On one hand, we recognize that Rebecca’s behavior is vile and despicable, but we also recognize that de Winter murdered her and her (as he believed it) unborn child. Although we learn later that she was not, in fact, pregnant, it’s impossible to ignore that de Winter murdered Rebecca when he thought she was pregnant; it’s impossible to call him innocent.

De Winter’s guilt may be why Du Maurier leaves the novel unsatisfying at its conclusion. Manderley’s desolation could be rebuilt. The new Mrs. de Winter, though older and more resolute than she was during the events of the novel, could still become the lady to her wealthy gentleman, the Cinderella to her prince. De Winter and his second wife could move on, push beyond the deeds of the past to build a life together that offers redemption and rebirth in a newly-built estate. But the novel never gives de Winter, his wife, or the reader any sense of redemption, unless the quiet life where “day after day dawns very much the same, yet we would not have it otherwise” (6) is satisfying. This hollow resolution, this half-life, may be all that de Winter gets for his part in Rebecca’s death.

It is possible, though never recounted in Rebecca, that hope remains for the de Winters to move past the events of the novel. As it stands at the conclusion, Rebecca has won: she has destroyed de Winter in her death, even as she destroyed him in their marriage; she has destroyed Manderley (through Mrs. Danvers, her agent); she has destroyed her successor’s chance for an idyllic fairy-tale ending. As the reader has followed the new Mrs. de Winter’s story, our sympathies lie with her and the hope that Manderley will be rebuilt and flourish, that she will live the happily-ever-after that we expect. But it does not happen within the pages of Rebecca, only in our own mental excursions, our own wonderings of would or should.

[1] The only way to create a greater immediacy in a first person telling would be to use the present tense, but the problem with such a telling is that the believability of the narrative comes into question when the reader asks, “How is the narrator recording this?” A person cannot both act and write, “I swing my arm, plant my knuckles into his face. The crunch of knuckle on cheek stings, and the echo of collision sounds as his face rebounds, his equilibrium is thrown off and he falls back, roaring in pain or anger or both.”

Muckers!!!

In the 1968 novel, Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner coins the term “Muckers” to describe people who go crazy and start killing people. According to the book:

It’s no coincidence…that we have muckers. Background: ‘mucker’ is an Anglicisation of ‘amok’. Don’t believe anyone who says it’s a shifted pronunciation of ‘mugger’. You can survive a mugger, but if you want to survive a mucker the best way is not to be there when it happens. (pg. 31)

The book actually introduces muckers much earlier in a newsreel-style narration:

The incidence of muckers continues to maintain its high: one in Outer Brooklyn yesterday accounted for 21 victims before the fuzzy-wuzzies fused him, and another is still at large in Evanston, Ill., with a total of eleven and three injured. Across the sea in London a woman mucker took out four as well as her own three-month baby before a mind-present standerby clobbered her. Reports also from Rangoon, Lima and Auckland notch up the day’s toll to 69. (pg. 7)

In other words, the frequency of deaths caused by people who start killing others is reportable on a daily basis in the fictional world of Stand on Zanzibar (set in 2010).

I am most amazed that a Google search for “muckers” does not return results related to Brunner (at least, not on the first three pages as of this writing…and who proceeds further than page three of Google search results?).

Every time I hear news of another mass shooting or senseless act of violence, I think to myself, “Another mucker.” While Brunner’s explained etymology was the word “amok,” the additional layer that “mucker” could be “m(other)-(f)ucker” adds emphasis to something that currently has no term and is yet universally deplored.

Brunner’s term, “mucker,” deserves its place as the word modern society uses to identify individuals who, from whatever motivation, disregard the sanctity of human life and rob others of their existence through overt, public spectacles of carnage and terror.

Source:

Brunner, John. Stand on Zanzibar. Del Rey, 1968.

Note: It’s been twenty years since I read Stand on Zanzibar. Of the plot, characters, and important themes, it’s only the Muckers that remain in my memory. I actually own the library book I read in the 1990s, not because I stole it, but because I bought the actual copy from the library book sale years later.

From “The Curse” by Dame Wilburn

“I don’t think that smart people are smarter than me; I think they’ve read a book I didn’t read.”

This is from the radio show The Moth: True Stories Told Live. I caught bits and pieces while driving out to the middle school to pick up the girls after a student council workshop yesterday. The above quote does a much better job summarizing my philosophy about intelligence than anything I’ve come up with. My closest equivalent is: “I’m not smart; I just like smart things.”

Listen to the full story here:

https://themoth.org/storytellers/dame-wilburn