An essay on Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.

The psychological suspense novel was first published in 1938 – and has never been out of print since. In 1940, Alfred Hitchcock turned it into one of the most famous pieces of black-and-white cinema. As recently as 2019, Rebecca was adapted into a Netflix original, of the same name. What is it about this work of fiction that continues to intrigue readers today? Perhaps the descriptions of opulent Monte Carlo in the 1930s, and Gothic Cornwall, draw us in for different reasons. As with every matter in this book, there are oppositions of setting that entwine like the trees on the driveway. The setting of Manderley, the mansion the unnamed narrator inherits when she marries Max de Winter, is at once beautiful and uncanny. The following is a description of the chief maid, Danvers, but it could so easily be about Max de Winter’s late wife, Rebecca:

‘I tried to forget she was in the house at this moment, perhaps looking down on me from one of the windows. And now and again when I looked up from my book or glanced across the garden, I had the feeling I was not alone.’

Some of the details are excitedly overwritten, perfectly capturing the flourishes of a young woman keen to pick up on new airs and graces, in this unfamiliar area of society. Of course, at the heart of Rebecca is a tale of jealousy; it’s concerned with stepping into the ill-fitting shoes of another woman. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the unnamed narrator as she lives in the shadow of the sensual, captivating Rebecca – we learn of her fearlessness for sailing, possible bisexuality that mirrors Daphne du Maurier’s own, and the contradictory elements of her character. Rebecca lives passionately and without restraint, a little like a darker version of Nancy Mitford’s romantic Linda, in The Pursuit of Love (1945). Rebecca is at once generous, expansive, and well-mannered; she is also cruel, deceptive, and self-centred. Like the narrator, the reader sinks into a deep obsession with the other woman’s complexities; most of all, her mysterious marriage with the reserved Max de Winter. As more details emerge relating to Rebecca’s fate, the narrator begins to fear her own…

This is what I have wanted him to say every day and every night, I thought, and now he is saying it at last. This is what I imagined in Monte Carlo, in Italy, here in Manderley. He is saying it now. I opened my eyes and looked at a little patch of curtain above his head. He went on kissing me, hungry, desperate, murmuring my name. I kept on looking at the patch of curtain, and saw where the sun had faded into it, making it lighter than the piece above. ‘How calm I am,’ I thought. ‘How cool. Here I am looking at the piece of curtain, and Maxim is kissing me. For the first time, he is telling me he loves me.’

When Maxim then pushes the narrator away, she fears the loss of his suggestions immediately, prompting the reader to wonder how secure she is in the knowledge that her husband truly loves her. Throughout the novel, she wonders how he can possibly come to feel a thing for her, the poor orphan destined for a life of waiting on richer women than herself. Even when she escapes from that life, she is met with the unfortunate circumstances of having everything handed to her secondhand, including Rebecca’s old house and maid.

The final details surrounding a heinous crime – after all, at its heart, this book is a murder mystery – are written in a compelling fashion that cut at the reader’s moral compass. Just as the narrator has shrunk from the obligations to be a socially adept, compelling woman in the upper-middle-class English circles, the reader may find themselves absolving themselves of the decision to point fingers of blame. Rather, the blood-stained sequence of events that led up to this fascinating story could perhaps be seen as many characters’ normal responses to abnormal situations. A disempowered narrator, who discovers the truth about a woman she was so incredibly jealous of, finally destroys the memories embedded deeply into her psyche, discarding Rebecca forever. Meanwhile, Rebecca, her counterpart born into an oppressive society, expresses every unfaithful thought, bisexual instinct and urge to live. Her response to being married is dreadful: she uses Machiavellian calculations in order to achieve her goals, which are portrayed as rather vain and self-serving.

I need not add that this is one of my favourite books. I first read it in 2014, in preparation for beginning my undergraduate degree in English and Creative Writing. The pages make themselves new every time I read it, and I adore the dualities of binary oppositions. The book is cinematic and passionate; if Rebecca’s diary was written in scarlet, the accompanying narrator’s ink must be black. I implore you to read both experiences.

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