Rebecca: Neo-Gothic Romance or Bildungsroman, an exploration of one’s spiritual self?
Updated: Feb 5
‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’
This iconic line opens Daphne du Maurier’s most famous novel. Rebecca was published in 1938 and publicised as a gothic romance. It was an instant success. In addition to its captivating ambience, hypnotic characters and thrilling plot, what made people purchase this novel was the love story it told between thickened lines of drama and mystery. This is what they expected, and a romantic lens was used in the novel’s reading and consequent analysis. However, the author unfolds a more powerful message, one that a watchful eye may manage to catch a glimpse of.
In Rebecca we follow a young woman working as a paid companion who marries a much older widower, Maxim de Winter. When she arrives at his house — the Manderley estate — her naïve joy is eclipsed by the omnipresent Rebecca, the old Mrs. de Winter, and the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers — her sinister dual-world messenger. As the story progresses, we learn about the mystery that surrounds the mansion and its inhabitants. The tension escalates at a dizzying pace until it climaxes in a revelation that disrupts the course of all the events.
Du Maurier’s characters are exquisitely constructed and developed. The protagonist's search to find herself runs parallel to the plot. Although she seems to be a bland and plain girl, her way of narrating the events makes us empathize with her. She captures the reader’s attention and favour, as we see through her eyes, spellbound by the influx of love. Therefore, Maxim is portrayed as the perfect gentleman who has become the victim of an atrocious accident. Yet, throughout the novel we learn that all characters are not as they seem.
Many readers have compared Rebecca to Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre due to its gloomy and atmospheric settings and vicious relationships. Without a doubt, the neo-gothic elements are vital to the story, as they enable the reader to fully immerse into it. Both Manderley and its surroundings are described in detail, but without falling into tediousness. Likewise, the author's style is enthralling, since it presents a perfect balance between sensory and metaphorical language and fast paced dialogues that keep the story running.
Still, what I found most intriguing were the themes that the author explores. For instance, one of the greatest mysteries of the novel is that the protagonist remains nameless, which symbolizes her constant quest to find her identity which, in the end, was alienated by that of her husband’s. This is explained with several reasons, the main one being that he saved her from an eternal fate as a lady’s companion. Therefore, Maxim becomes her hero, her prince charming, to whom she owes a lifetime’s worth of debt. And she does what any person with a functioning conscience would do — she tries to pay him back. From the very beginning she is always willing to do whatever he expects her to: tries not to make him mad and to gain his approval, which she identifies as love. As an immature girl, she feels as if she is an intruder in the Manderley estate: not only because of Rebecca’s omnipresence, but also because of her inferiority complex, born from her own insecurities and lack of self-esteem. Rebecca was primarily advertised as a romance because it portrays a fatuous and dependent love, in which the main character is willing to do anything – everything – for her husband. That is the only option that she has, the only future ahead of her, and she maintains her grip on it regardless of the cost.
From the protagonist’s perspective, Rebecca is seen as her antagonist. She is treacherously beautiful, but also savage and independent. She portrays the archetype of the femme fatale, but, still, she manages to represent the perfect wife, which makes her a true rival for the innocent and obliging heroine.
Daphne du Maurier plays with ambiguity masterfully. Paradoxically, it is Rebecca who we condemn but also who prevails in that we remember her far more vividly than the nameless protagonist. It is in this way that Du Maurier has achieved what many authors have barely even attempted to: raising the question as to whether the woman who challenges social conventions is the villain or the victim.
This book review on Du Maurier's Rebecca is a staff submission by Andrea.
Crime and high camp … the poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film adaptation of Du Maurier’s thriller. Photograph: Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images