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.”

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One Comment

  1. This is brilliant. It’s the best example of a novel review/synopsis that I’ve read in years. Thank you for reading Rebecca and sharing your thoughts. I am now a HUGE fan of
    andrewwinkel.com and am going to read every single one of your posts. Bravo!

    Like

    Reply

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