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You Are What You Read: Rebecca

Emily Mellows on why Du Maurier's novel makes for such a timely read.

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Image Credit: Virago Press Ltd, 2003

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca makes for excellent reading during these tumultuous times, given that it focuses so closely on the damaging consequences of isolation. At the beginning of the novel, the unnamed narrator travels across Europe as the companion of an elderly American heiress. However, after she meets and swiftly marries the rich and highly secretive Maxim de Winter, she finds herself confined to the claustrophobic Manderley Manor. She is frequently abandoned by her husband and spends a great deal of time feeling trapped in her home, an experience that everybody who has endured the lockdown may find disturbingly relatable.

Within Rebecca the unnamed narrator is a naive people pleaser. But, she somehow  still makes for a strangely likeable and sympathetic protagonist. A great deal of the novel is consumed by her desperate attempts to please the characters that enter and live at the manor. The tragedy of the story  derives from the fact that she is surrounded by people that are so guarded, so determined to hide the secret history of the manor. Her character is largely motivated by a desire to understand the people around her, which is why she is  almost driven mad, tortured by the silence and contempt of her servants and husband.

In this sense Du Maurier’s protagonist drastically differs from the titular character of the novel, Rebecca, who is the deceased ex-wife of Maxim de Winter. The unnamed narrator  is eager to surrender her identity, space and life in order to satisfy the people around her. In sharp contrast, Rebecca is unafraid of displeasing and manipulating those around her to get what she wants. Her personality is so strong and imposing that she continues to control the manor and its occupants long after her death. As the novel progresses, the narrator shrinks herself down, diminishing herself to make space for Rebecca’s unwavering and oppressive presence. Rebecca grows and comes to life whilst the narrator becomes the ghost haunting the story.

Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper who despises the narrator for taking the place of her beloved former mistress, voices and embodies the overwhelming hatred the narrator feels towards herself. Having said this, Maxim makes the more terrifying villain. He is more realistic. He frequently takes advantage of the far younger protagonist, actively deceiving and restricting her. Whilst Mrs. Danvers’ cartoonish cruelty certainly pushes the narrator towards the edge, it is Maxim’s coldness and lack of affection that ultimately inflames and presses his wife’s insecurities.

The reader gets the impression that it is the narrator’s lack of identity, youth and naivety that make her attractive to the much older Maxim. Later revelations in the novel only confirm these suspicions. He is a predator in search of  a wife he can easily mould and manipulate. At times the narrator seems to be aware that her husband has chosen her for her ignorance and inferior social position. She compares her  perceived treatment at Manderley Manor to that of Jasper the dog. However, for the majority of the novel, she seems content to remain under her husband’s control. With the exception of Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca, almost all of  the characters in the novel  jump through hoops to protect and keep the secrets of the charismatic Mr. de Winter.

The psychological aspects of Du Maurier's creation, the characters and the plot, are what make the novel such a masterpiece. It is an excellent novel for those who have just started reading the classics or who may feel intimidated by older texts. The language of the novel is relatively simple and easy to follow. Stylistically, Rebecca holds many similarities to Jane Eyre. Both novels chronicle the life of a poorer woman whose love for a richer, older man is almost thwarted by the man’s ex-wife. Those who have read Bronte’s novel will likely enjoy and note the similarities between Mr. De Winter’s Rebecca and Mr. Rochester’s Bertha Mason. Du Maurier’s novel concludes with Manderley Manor, the home that the narrator has been confined to for so many chapters being burned to the ground. It definitely makes for therapeutic reading for anybody who has been trapped in quarantine for the last few months.

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