In a 1971 BBC interview Daphne Du Maurier tries to pass off her reasoning on why she never gave her narrator of Rebecca a name simply because she couldn’t think of one, but we all know there’s more to the story than this. The young heroine of Du Maurier’s most famous work stands naked before us; she is a tabula rosa, and her seniors, the other characters in the novel, are more experienced, more worldly than she, so each one leaves their stamp on her, our blank slate. On second glance though, the protagonist, may be more aptly described as a vanity mirror, magnifying the characters’ faults and revealing our own weaknesses. The less personality and the less history and baggage she carries, the more we’re afforded transparency to see our own inadequacies. Her naivete and innocence only highlight both our own regrets and the glaring faults of her fictional counterparts.
There are essentially two types of romances. We have our typical courtly love, where the woman represents all that is pure and good and lives only to love and redeem her corrupted partner. Then we have the rarer and more refined arc, where both man and woman are equal in faults, equal in merit, and therefore equally human. Rebecca is hopelessly devoted to the former though there’s a tinge of possible corruption on our heroine’s part. Our anonymous narrator, a plain Jane, poor orphan, does as she’s bidden because she has no means, no name, and no status to claim as her own.
At the start of the story, we find her as a paid companion for a vulgar American, Mrs. Van Hopper, who lives to gossip and grovel at the feet of her more genteel European and English peers. Mrs. Van Hopper, despite all her wealth and power, is a parasite, especially when we compare her to our honest and pure vessel. Our heroine, doesn’t pine for fulfillment but for someone to fill her up with ideas, culture, and sensibility. Maxim de Winter, a widower almost fifteen years her senior, seems just the man to take our dove under his wing. He whisks her away from Monte Carlo, a place of sin and lust and sets her on a perch at the cold and austere Manderlay, his family estate on the wild Cornish coast. Manderlay has more character, more history, and more depth than our heroine may ever realize for herself.
Though our narrator seems to live for her husband-benefactor-surrogate-father, she barely knows anything about him, and we, as a consequence, suffer in ignorance, too. We have to completely rely on our narrator though we’re given plenty of warnings not to take any of her notions at face value. According to our narrator, Mr. de Winter is a wealthy widower who cares only for her, which is all that matters: “There has never been anyone but you. You are my father and my brother and my son. All those things.” She’s had no one all her life, and now, suddenly, at Manderlay, she has an estate to manage, a whole staff to oversee, and a rival to compete with, but, unfortunately, her rival is the ghost of the first Mrs. de Winter. Beautiful and elegant Rebecca died tragically in a boating accident. Still, she lives on in the memory of every person our heroine meets. Her spirit haunts every room on the estate, and, according to Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, who is certifiably devoted to the first mistress of the house, no one will ever live up to Rebecca.
Of course, Rebecca’s presence takes some time to materialize, and the first weeks of marriage are cloyingly sweet. Our narrator sits, blissfully happy, on the lawn at her new home, with her new family, Max’s sister and brother-in-law:
I wanted to go on sitting there, not talking, not listening to the others, keeping the moment precious for all time because we were peaceful, all of us. We were content and drowsy even as the bee who droned above our heads. In a little while it would be different. There would come tomorrow, and the next day, and another year. And we would be charged perhaps, never sitting quite like this, the future stretched away in front of us, unknown, unseen not perhaps what we wanted, nor what we planned. This moment was safe though, this could not be touched. Here we sat together, Maxim and I, hand in hand, and the past and the future mattered not at all. This was secure. This funny fragment of time he would never remember, never think about again. He would not hold it sacred…(104)
There is something enchanting and refreshing about our narrator’s simplicity, yet her innocence, at the same time, is frustrating and embarrassingly naive. We wonder when the reality of adulthood will smack her, but, then, doesn’t this mean we’re just as cynical and jaded as Beatrice and Maxim? Have we already lost perspective and become just as corrupt and bitter as Mrs. Danvers, stepping past a point of no return, leaving our pure innocent narrator in her own little bubble, which we’re biting at the bit to see burst?
If we are impatient with our narrator, if we find her a silly girl with silly notions then that must mean we’ve already lost our appreciation and recognition for The Moment since only an innocent, young adult would have the time and capacity to enjoy the present with no thought, not a shred of worry about the past or future. Maxim cherishes his little wife precisely because she’s “content with the little glory of the living present” (69), and why shouldn’t he love her for this? As adults we lose our ability to be open to what is possible. We become calcified, imprisoned by the choices we’ve made in the past. Maxim is allowed a rare chance to renew himself and make new discoveries through the eyes and experiences of his second wife. Only an idiot would refuse this chance of rebirth.
Maxim teases her by comparing our heroine to Alice in Wonderland, and he’s not off mark. She’s certainly fallen through a rabbit-hole. She’s a pixie spirit in a world of the jaded elite. She doesn’t really belong at Manderlay, but she’s there all the same. Though we shadow her journey, she is, ultimately, alone. Maxim is too estranged, too experienced, and too haunted by his first marriage to be a true companion. Thankfully, our protagonist thrives in solitude:
I wondered why it was that places are so much lovelier when one is alone. How commonplace and stupid it would be if I had a friend now, sitting beside me someone I knew at school, who would say “by the way…” and the bluebells beside us unnoticed, and the pigeons overhead unheard. I did not want anyone with me. Not even Maxim. If Maxim had been there I should not be lying as I was now, chewing a piece of grass, my eyes shut. I should have been watching him, watching his eyes, his expression, wondering if he liked it, if he was bored (153)
Only someone who was used to being alone could make this wonderful realization, and she’s absolutely right. Being alone makes our senses so much more keen. We are in the moment, not self-conscious about what others think. She reminds us, as she does with Maxim, that we don’t enjoy enough solitude with nature.
Maxim and the second Mrs. de Winter eventually do settle into a marriage that is all too real. With no hobbies and no pressing occupations to fill her time, other than daydreaming in solitude, she can only look to her marriage to find validation. She asks her husband, “You know our marriage is a success? A wonderful success?” (149), and he replies, “I don’t know the answer myself, if you say we are happy, let’s leave it at that. Its something I know nothing about. I take your word for it. We are happy. All right then. That’s agreed!” (149). Despite their extraordinary courtship, their insecurities and shallow doubts about their marriage, worrying about what society thinks and what the neighbors might be saying behind their back, all of these misgivings are perfectly ordinary. What drives this Gothic romance isn’t the mundane tawdriness of a badly patched marriage, but the haunting specter of Rebecca.
And, here’s where we come to the crux of the story, the heart of the mystery. Who is Rebecca, and how did she die? Maxim’s first marriage has haunted this couple from the start. Rebecca is the title of the story, and it’s Rebecca, not Maxim, who occupies the blank past of our narrator, threatening to overtake her future as well.
Enter Mrs. Danvers, a woman so fantastically created, we can’t help but delight in the most twisted pleasure when we watch her torture our heroine with her jibes. We see, through Mrs. Danvers’ eyes, that she paired with the beautiful and irresistible Rebecca complement one another, combining to make, essentially, the perfect wife. Rebecca knew just what to say and carried an impeccable sense of style that made her marriage to Maxim look picture perfect while Mrs. Danvers managed behind the scenes, ensuring the estate was a well-oiled machine. If any reader suspects the rich or shares a bias against them, this is the book for you. The characters are made grotesque by their status and wealth.
Du Maurier takes us on a most unexpected and interesting turn halfway through the novel. Instead of egging us on to hate these snobs, we’re afforded the slightest but most piercing glimpse of their interiority. Our protagonists’ fatal flaw blossoms into an astonishing strength. As a tabula rosa, she has the stunning ability to channel the fears and fantasies of those around her. Her empathy is uncanny. She becomes a woman not of her own making but through clairvoyant powers is able to access the most personal and intimate details of her new neighbors and family. She begins reenacting things Rebecca might have said, gesturing the idiosyncracies of her grandmother-in-law, and perceiving the misgivings of her neighbors. No one else has the empathic powers she does, not Maxim who is too self-involved and certainly never Rebecca or Mrs. Danvers. This is entirely our heroine’s distinct asset.
This transformation ushers her into womanhood and finally brings our heroine closer than ever to the mystery of Rebecca. She musters some moxie when Mrs. Danvers literally tries to push her over the edge. Gaining some spine, our narrator, starts asking questions, and tries to lift the veil of secrecy by seeking the one person who is innocuous to the point of being impotent. She finds a friend and confidante in someone who’s almost as invisible as she. Frank Crawley, the de Winters’ estate agent, is the real hero of the book.
“We were allies, we traveled the same road, but we could not look at one another,” she describes him. They find affinity in one another as tiny fish in a big pond, and, in their friendship, our narrator gathers strength and courage to slowly stand up for herself, which really translates into standing by her man.
Our heroine predates Tammy Wynette’s anthem by a few decades but her sentiment is just as strong. Though she finally steels her nerve, all her steeliness is in service of Maxim, and, unfortunately, for our narrator, Maxim’s existence is tethered to the mystery of Rebecca’s life and death. Du Maurier’s twisted fairytale contorts love, turning romance into a maze of lies, where our heroine finds herself inextricably entangled, but, no matter, she’s devoted heart and soul to her husband-father, and, as long as she has him nothing else matters.
If we could step out of this dark fairytale for a moment and consider the fairytale’s cousin, the allegory, a form closely related but much less fanciful, less thrilling, and more moralizing. Let us entertain the notion, that Rebecca is the latter, and test the mystery’s flexibility with the thought that perhaps du Maurier is playing with War, specifically The Great War, which was to end all wars. Its not that far-fetched considering the period she wrote this novel.
Might we circumspect that Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter, is England, at her height of Empire, sophisticated to the point of callousness, gluttonous at the risk of being vulgar, respected out of fear, and carelessly cavalier with her passions and desires, which eventually bring her to her own destruction. Our narrator then would be servant to the Empire, ground down by the machine of Imperialism, and at the mercy of the elite. In this allegory, once the beast of Empire has been decapitated, our narrator is afforded the rare chance to step onto the throne and live how the other half-lives. Our commoner gets to walk the great halls, sleep in the same bed, and make love to the noble and powerful while we get to see up close and too personal just how corrupt and grotesque the noble and powerful are.
Critics often say that women novelists don’t write of war and “the things that matter” but, they’re wrong. As much as Rebecca is a Gothic Romance, she also belongs to a canon of stories that center on Love and War. More often than not, the two are one in the same, and we’re fools if we don’t see their likeness.
Be sure to catch classic film adaptation, if you haven’t already. Joan Fontaine outshines Laurence Olivier and adds a grace and depth that keeps viewers on edge. Many of the scenes were filmed at Point Lobos and Central California, otherwise known as heaven-on-earth. Du Maurier’s work was destined for the screen, and Hitchcock captures the spirit of the story with perfection: