Back From the Dead: Rebecca (1938), by Daphne du Maurier

rebeccadumaurierThis review contains some pretty big spoilers, so please watch out, especially in the second half of the review.

While I’m on the subject of Jane Eyre and creepy husbands, I thought I’d re-read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Based on Brontë’s classic, Rebecca tells the tale of an unnamed, penniless heroine who marries a rich widower and goes to live on his beautiful estate in the south of England, Manderley.

So far, so good. But for anyone looking for a nice, romantic story, Rebecca is most definitely not the book for you. Because it is, first and foremost, an incredibly creepy book. And it’s not the sort of book that sends a chill up the spine; no, it’s the kind of book whose creepiness hits you about twenty minutes after you’ve put it down, and you’ve already sat down to eat cereal.

Du Maurier’s book picks up where Jane Eyre left off, in a way; the hero’s first wife is dead, and the newly-married couple has just settled down in their new home together. But where Brontë’s story seems to suggest that the spectre of the first wife has been banished (without ever really being addressed at any great length) du Maurier’s book looks at the reality. The first wife is never really gone – she is always a presence in the relationship, especially when she is dead, disembodied, mysterious. Rebecca (the dead first wife) becomes almost an obsession for the heroine. At the beginning of the novel Rebecca is “a phantom” in the heroine’s mind, whose “features were blurred, her colouring indistinct, the setting of her eyes and the texture of her hair was still uncertain, still to be revealed” (Chapter V).

It is upon the couple’s arrival at Manderley that Rebecca begins to fascinate both the heroine and the reader. The sense of spookiness is added to by the presence of the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, who is a figure dressed in black, with “hollow eyes watching … intently from the white skull’s face” (Chapter VII). Creepy, right? And not only does the house have a scary old housekeeper, it seems to come readily equipped with its very own ghost. The fact that Rebecca remains, in some way, alive (at least in the minds of the characters, if not in reality) is hinted at early on, when the heroine catches sight of the buoy that belonged to the boat that Rebecca was drowned in. The name of this ill-fated boat? “‘Je Reviens’ – ‘I come back'”. The heroine muses, “I suppose it was quite a good name for a boat. Only it had not been right for that particular boat which would never come back again” (Chapter XIII). There’s a great deal of irony in this little proclamation, because as the name suggests, the boat does, in fact, quite literally ‘come back’ later in the book.

Which leads me to another slice in the layer-cake of creepiness that is Rebecca. The hero. Mr Maxim de Winter, haunted by the memory of his first wife and, as it turns out, for a good reason. When we’re first introduced to him the heroine hints at his role as a Gothic villain; she tells us that:

He belonged to a walled city of the fifteenth century … His face was arresting, sensitive, medieval in some strange inexplicable way … Could one but rob him of his English tweeds, and put him in black, with lace at his throat and wrists, he would stare down at us in our new world from a long-distant past – a past where men walked cloaked at night, and stood in the shadow of old doorways, a past of narrow stairways and dim dungeons, a past of whispers in the dark, of shimmering rapier blades, of silent, exquisite courtesy.

(Chapter III)

Apart from the fact that the heroine has some slightly (but not too) weird fantasies about her soon-to-be-husband, her descriptions of Maxim as ‘medieval’ foreshadow the revelations that emerge in the final part of the book. Because – get your best fake-surprised faces out my friends – Maxim killed his first wife. Dun dun DUN.

Terris Portrait of a Man

Hmm. Not exactly the sort of person you want to go for Sunday walks with. (Image Source)

Considering how he’s described in the first part of the book, this really doesn’t come as a shock. But if, like me, you watched the Alfred Hitchcock film (which, by the way, is excellent) before you read the book, then you might find yourself feeling a little blindsided. Because not only does Maxim shoot his wife in what one could argue is cold blood, he also goes about covering up the murder methodically and in great detail. But the worst part of the whole gruesome truth is that the book does not appear to judge Maxim too harshly. This is probably because the book is narrated by his young, naïve wife. The heroine is so obsessively in love with Maxim that she dismisses the little fact that he killed his wife in favour of a little kissy-kissy smoochy-smoochy time. Really, there’s nothing like a little mariticide (real word) to bring a couple closer together.

But even this, disturbing as it is, doesn’t come close to the greatest creepiness of all – the heroine’s personality. Yes, for me the fact that Maxim killed his first wife wasn’t nearly as big of an issue as the personality of his second one. Let’s leave aside for a moment the issue that, like Jane Eyre, she never wonders whether the hero is going to do the same thing to her as he did to his first wife. Seriously, am I the only person to wonder whether the leopard can ever really change his spots (or in this case, if the husband can ever stop from incarcerating/murdering his new wife)?!

Rebeccafilm1

That’s the reaction I was looking for.

For me, the most disturbing element of the story was how little personality the heroine seemed to have. In fact, throughout the story, she is in continual danger of merging into one person or another. At one point, she comes dangerously close to not just becoming ‘Mrs de Winter’ but to becoming Rebecca. Sitting at dinner one night, she imagines herself as Rebecca. After a few minutes she awakes, almost from a dream, to find that her husband is looking at her strangely. “I started, the colour flooding my face, for in that brief moment, sixty seconds in time perhaps, I had so identified myself with Rebecca that my own dull self did not exist, had never come to Manderley” (Chapter XVI).

The heroine also has trouble with marital roles; her confused relationship with Maxim, who often treats her like a downright child, leads her to a very strange conception of the role of wife. She claims that Maxim is her “father and [her] brother and [her] son. All those things” (Chapter XII). Later, she claims that, “I did not want to be a child. I wanted to be his wife, his mother. I wanted to be old” (Chapter XVI). The fact that the heroine constantly confuses family roles in her relationship with Maxim – mother, wife, sister – throws a disturbing light on both her personality and their relationship. If the incestuous suggestions weren’t enough, these passages hint at the heroine’s role as a kind of vessel for other people’s personalities; in a sense, she can be all these things at once because in many ways, she is nobody and nothing herself. She’s still holding on to a more romantic notion of love, one where the kind of love that exists between family members – the so-called ‘unconditional’ love – is the same kind that exists between husband and wife. This also suggests that the couple’ sex life may be strange or even non-existent, at least until later in the novel.

But leaving aside such lurid speculations, it’s clear that the story is struggling with the issue of identity. Rebecca, the woman who is all personality, whose character is so strong that it ‘returns from the grave’, is contrasted with the nameless, almost faceless heroine. But if the reader is hoping that this will build towards a more satisfying conclusion, a formation of identity for the heroine, they would be sadly mistaken. Du Maurier is much more bleak about the issue of female identity. Because what all the heroine’s merging with other characters hints at is her final consumption into the personality of her husband. After his revelations about the death of Rebecca, the heroine, far from feeling creeped out by the fact that her husband murdered his first wife, feels that their relationship has reached a new level. She tells us that, “I had listened to his story, and part of me went with him like a shadow in his tracks. I too had killed Rebecca, I too had sunk the boat there in the bay” (Chapter XXI).

Rebeccafilm2

Sometimes… it’s okay to be suspicious of the handsome, rich, middle-aged bachelor with a dead wife.

To me, this seems to be taking wifely duty a little too far. For a moment, the heroine becomes her husband, and feels herself involved in the murder of Rebecca. Perhaps it’s something she’s been fantasising about; killing the woman that she used to think her husband is still in love with, the one who died tragically, the one he never forgot. But the issue here is that the end of the heroine’s story, the resolution, is that she and her husband become inextricably linked. They have become, not Mr and Mrs de Winter, but rather MrandMrsdeWinter – two people merged into one.

The bigger question is, of course, whether du Maurier is setting this up as a kind of ‘happy end’. The ‘evil’ woman is banished (even though Maxim is never explicit about what Rebecca was supposed to have done; he makes her sound like an absolute devil, even though it appears that all she did was have a few lovers, like that’s the most evil thing a woman can do *cough cough* Lady Macbeth *cough*) and the good little girl becomes a wife and confidante to her husband. But I think that du Maurier is less than cheerful about this ending; although we’re invited to identify with the heroine, I agree with critics who see Rebecca as the real heroine of the novel. After all, the book is named after her, and at the very end she seems to make a mysterious return, as a sea breeze tickles the faces of the hero and heroine, while Manderley burns in the distance.

Rebecca is full of mysterious and disturbing elements. And while I hated many of the characters, disliked the romance, and found much of the book profoundly unsettling, reading it for the second time opened up my eyes to many elements that I’d ignored when I read it the first time around, several years ago. Rebecca is less romance, more ghost story. Questions of identity, murder, and memory are just some of the things that surface again and again during the tale. It addresses some of the issues that Charlotte Brontë tackled in Jane Eyre, and leaves as many questions in the reader’s mind as Brontë’s original did. You may not like it, but don’t dismiss it; Rebecca will keep coming back to haunt you.

Rating: 4 Stars

4 Stars

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11 thoughts on “Back From the Dead: Rebecca (1938), by Daphne du Maurier

  1. Your review is superb! Love it!

    Rebecca’s one of my favourites, more so the film actually, but I do love the book. I used to read it over and over again when I was in my early 20s. I just wish I could enjoy another du Maurier novel – never managed to get into any of them (though I loved her biography of Branwell Bronte).

    • Thanks! :) Yeah, I absolutely love the film too; it’s still great. I haven’t tried any of du Maurier’s other novels, and I’m not sure whether I’ll like them. I think it took me a while to appreciate Rebecca, so it might happen that way again.

  2. Brilliant review!

    Personally, I think Maxim is creepy and shouldn’t have gotten away with Rebecca’s murder. It irked me that the unnamed narrator clung to him till the end instead of reporting him to the authority and walking away with his fortune.

  3. I adore this book in large part because there is just so much to discuss. I even used it in my Introduction to Literature course for a few semesters. I still haven’t seen the movie…bad me.

    • There’s definitely so much to discuss! I think this book would work well for an intro class. It’s little less well-known, so it doesn’t come with a whole lot baggage the way that some really famous and well-known texts (Ulysses, Great Expectations, Austen, Shakespeare) do. Those books can sometimes be quite alienating for people who don’t have a whole lot of experience with literature because they have such an aura attached to them.

  4. This is a brilliant review/discussion of the book. When I read it, I remember being it feeling rather anti-climactic once all was revealed. I realised I had to sit through more of the book and without the anxiety that had kept me going I was uninterested. I think I found the unnamed young wife more interesting that anything else, maybe I was projecting.

    Now you’ve laid the book out, the fact that Maxim is never judged for murdering Rebecca is very interesting. I’d be interested to read the book from Rebecca or Danvers point of view now. To see how if Rebecca really was infuriating, or Maxim was just insecure.

    • Thanks, Alice! It definitely was rather anti-climactic after the final reveal. Rebecca or Danvers would be very interesting characters to focus on, and I’ve seen quite a few retellings from their perspective. I’d be interested to see how other people understood their presence in the book.

  5. I also loved “Rebecca.” The heroine is one of the most fascinating I’ve ever read. Sometimes it’s hard to understand why the novel is not typically included among the classics.

    • Thanks for your comment, Nadine! I’m sorry for not replying sooner. :) I was actually in the bookstore the other day and noticed that Rebecca was shelved with fiction rather than classics. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that it’s treated as a romance, or as ‘women’s fiction’, and therefore as being less ‘serious’ than other books. Which I think is quite unfair, as it’s a very interesting book with a great deal of fascinating issues to tease out.

  6. Pingback: A Lit Major at the Movies: Rebecca (1940) | (majoring in literature)

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