I can’t remember how many times I have read Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, but I know I never tire of its brilliance. It is a book you can read throughout your life, in every stage, because it is one of the most intricately layered of novels, revealing more about itself with every reading.
I find it funny to think that Rebecca was advertised as a romance when it was first published in 1938. Now, I suppose, it would be marketed as a psychological thriller. But really, I think, it is an important and groundbreaking feminist text, which lays out its stall from the first line and continues to the very last.
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” is perhaps one of the most famous first lines in literature, perfect in its fairy-tale simplicity, which begs you to read the next sentence and then the next. But, to me, it is so much more than that. If this were a true romance, we wouldn’t be dreaming of Manderley or going there again, we would be right there. In fact, the novel’s opening pages are very strange in terms of story—they take us away from any thrilling action in Manderley to a place of sterile boredom: “Our little hotel is dull, and the food indifferent, and day after day dawns very much the same.”
They are, however, completely essential in understanding the feminist angle I believe Du Maurier is setting up. We know from this beginning that our unnamed narrator ultimately dominates, and this must colour our reading of what follows. Our narrator is the second Mrs de Winter, and when we first meet her, she is in control of her marriage—living, for all intents and purposes, as her own woman. In contrast, her husband Max de Winter is a pathetic, broken man, scarred beyond repair by whatever events our narrator has survived. As she tells us, “[My life] inspires me, if not with love, at least with confidence. And confidence is a quality I prize.” If Rebecca is a love story, it is surely about the love one can find for oneself in a hostile world. And, for women in the 1930s—for women now, in fact—the world can be hostile just by dint of your gender.
And, for women in the 1930s—for women now, in fact—the world can be hostile just by dint of your gender.
Du Maurier herself was famously uneasy in the roles laid out for her. She enjoyed relationships with women, spent much of her youth dressed as a boy, and was fiercely ambitious. But she also fell in love with a man, got married, and had three children. She felt that familiar female pull in two different directions, and her letters show she was angered by this and by the unrelenting expectations of women.
There are three prominent women in this novel: our unnamed narrator, de Winter’s deceased first wife Rebecca, and the housekeeper Mrs Danvers. And, in many ways, they can be read as the three paths open to women at the time. If you are born into a good family that is down on its luck, like our narrator, your best bet is to find work as a companion or governess, a position slightly above a servant but offering no freedom or choice. If, like Rebecca, you have beauty and breeding on your side, you will be expected to make a good marriage and live an easy, comfortable, but essentially dull life of entertaining, children, grand houses, and gossip. If neither of these options are open, you must become a domestic servant like Mrs Danvers, who has no real authority in a home she has managed forever, no chance to express herself, no real life. And, of course, the thing that binds all these women is the fact that they are all reliant on the emotional and financial support of a man—in this case, the odious Max de Winter.
This is a question we must ask ourselves: who would freely choose to be married to or work for Max de Winter? If Du Maurier had wanted to write a romance, she would have created a sympathetic, understanding, loving character, but instead she gives us de Winter. He is cold, calculating, unfeeling, and often downright mean. Time and again our narrator tells us he ignores her or is inscrutably angry with her. He is dismissive of Mrs Danvers, often saying he doesn’t care about her or know what she does, but treats Frank, his groundsman, almost as one of the family. And, of course, we eventually learn he is also the cold-blooded murderer of his first wife, Rebecca.
As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly obvious just how trapped both the former and current Mrs de Winters have been. When our narrator meets Max de Winter, she is acting as a sort of companion to the social-climbing, repulsive Mrs Van Hopper. Max offers her a way out of this embarrassing situation in a bizarre, business-like marriage proposal: “So that’s settled, isn’t it . . . Instead of being companion to Mrs Van Hopper you become mine, and your duties will be almost exactly the same.”
Max appears to negotiate our narrator’s freedom with her employer whilst she waits in an anteroom. Van Hopper gives warning that she won’t be happy with Max, but our narrator clings to the possibility of escape and freedom by making herself believe that she is “dreadfully in love.”
Manderley, although stunningly beautiful, is the ultimate gilded cage.
But, as Mrs Van Hopper predicted, the promised freedom of the marriage is really just a different set of restrictions: Manderley, although stunningly beautiful, is the ultimate gilded cage. The atmosphere of our narrator‘s new life is enclosed and claustrophobic. The house, of which she isn’t even shown half, is devoid of any of her possessions, the driveway is over-long and dark, the gardens are full and wooded and the servants unfriendly. When she walks the grounds, she is overpowered with the heady scent of towering azaleas, which leads her to the ominously named Happy Valley, and then on to a treacherous bay.
Our narrator must navigate this new world without guidance, because she goes either unnoticed or ignored. From Max’s early remark that she is “young enough to be my daughter,” our narrator is infantilized—Max, his sister Beatrice, and even Frank refer to her as “child.” She talks endlessly of being bored and trying to look busy, living almost exclusively in daydreams, and she ultimately becomes fixated on the dead Rebecca as a way of explaining her own unease.
But Rebecca herself is actually a red herring. Our narrator fears constantly that Max can’t love her because his head is too full of the wondrousness of Rebecca, but in reality, the issue is not his love for another woman but his capacity to love only himself. As the novel progresses, we learn that Rebecca rejected the path laid out for her. She might have conceded to the marriage that was expected of her, but she was ultimately unprepared to leave behind her passions—and so she struck a bargain with Max, for which she was heartily punished.
Their bargain, Max says, was that Rebecca would play the perfect wife and make Manderley “the most famous show-place in all the country, if you like. And people will visit us, and envy us, and talk about us.” In return for this renown, Max was to let Rebecca live as she pleased, which involved nothing more than having affairs, riding horses bareback and partying in London—quite a sane reaction to living with the stuffy, boring Maxim, some would say. She wasn’t fooling or deceiving him; she laid out a deal, which he clearly agreed to.
All of this comes to light when a liner runs aground in the bay, and Max knows the sunken boat containing Rebecca’s body is about to be found. It is only at this point that he is forced to admit his crime to our narrator: Rebecca didn’t die accidentally in a boating accident. He shot her. Max believes he is totally justified in this, because he thinks Rebecca was pregnant with another man’s child, something which threatened his and Manderley’s reputation. In other words, his property was more important than her sexual freedom, her life, or the life of the unborn child. A woman’s sexual promiscuity is akin to “living with the devil,” as Max says, her crimes punishable by death.
We also must not forget that Max himself is guilty of the same behaviour as Rebecca—marriage under false pretences. He concealed his heinous crime from our narrator before their marriage, except he wasn’t decent enough to strike a bargain with her afterwards, like Rebecca did for him. Both his marriages seem to be little more than tools to keep up appearances. Max expresses love for our narrator after his confession, but I’m not convinced we can take it seriously. At that moment, he needs her on his side to protect his own skin, making the whole thing seem too opportunistic.
Seen in this light, the confession scene takes on a terrifying potency. Our narrator is totally trapped at the moment of Max’s telling—we know she can do nothing. At this time, women couldn’t legally testify against their husbands; she could go to the police, but is unlikely to be believed—and, knowing her husband murdered his wife when she wouldn’t behave in the way he deemed correct, surely she is also fearing for her own safety.
Our narrator’s response to this confession is telling: “There was a hole there on the carpet beneath Jasper’s tail. The burnt hole from a cigarette. I wondered how long it had been there. Some people said ash was good for the carpets.” It is like we’re watching our narrator emptying her mind, forcing herself to accept what she must now do. She has no choice but to play the part of the dutiful wife, because her life literally and figuratively depends upon it.
In the end, perhaps Mrs Danvers, the servant, is the freest of all of the women. She is portrayed as a living death, with constant references to her “skull”-like face and “skeleton” body. But she at least can speak the truth and give in to her emotions, because she goes largely unnoticed by Max. Du Maurier seems to be implying that the only semblance of freedom available to women is to slip under the radar, where you don’t have to think and behave in a certain way. In the end, it is Mrs Danvers who sets fire to Manderley, ruining Max’s sanity and destroying his life in a way neither our narrator nor Rebecca could ever have achieved.
With this fire, Rebecca ends abruptly. As our narrator and Max speed back towards Manderley after their meeting with Rebecca’s doctor, who had told them Rebecca wasn’t pregnant but dying of cancer, it seems as if Max has gotten away with his crime—it can now be presented as suicide. But as they approach their home, our narrator says, “It looks almost as though the dawn is breaking over there, beyond those hills.” We know it is Manderley, burning to the ground, but what our narrator sees is a new dawn, a promise of freedom.
We are safe in the knowledge that our narrator ultimately knows everything, controls everything, and is mistress of everything.
Du Maurier’s last line is for me as good as her first: “And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.” It is brutal and death-like, but also cleansing and forwards moving. Because, of course, we already know the real ending—we have been shown it right at the beginning. We are safe in the knowledge that our narrator ultimately knows everything, controls everything, and is mistress of everything. The burning of Manderley is a condemnation of Max de Winter—a chain reaction set off by his murder of Rebecca, leading to Mrs Danvers’s act of revenge, and, surprisingly, ultimately freeing our narrator to be the woman she wants to be.
I like to think that the truth at the heart of Rebecca is twofold. Firstly, women don’t have to be victims or devils. All of these characters are deeply flawed and complex, and I love that Du Maurier was writing women as intricate humans. But also, I believe Du Maurier was encouraging women to cast aside mistrust of each other, because together we can undo the expectation to choose the best of limited bad options instead of pursuing true freedom. For me, Du Maurier said “Time’s Up” eighty years ago with Rebecca, and today’s activism around #MeToo is a natural outgrowth of her work. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take another eighty years for Du Maurier’s vision to become a reality.
Araminta Hall is the author of Everything and Nothing. She has an MA in creative writing and authorship from the University of Sussex, and teaches creative writing at New Writing South in Brighton, where she lives with her husband and three children. Our Kind of Cruelty is her first book published in the United States.