Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is a Gothic mystery novel that has garnered much success and two famous adaptations since its first publication in 1938. It follows the narrative of the unnamed second wife of a wealthy widower, Maxim de Winter, and how she is haunted by the lingering presence of the seemingly perfect first Mrs de Winter, Rebecca. The title of the novel is enough proof to testify to the power the late Rebecca de Winter continues to have, even in her death. Indeed, just over 80 years after Rebecca’s release, her name continues to live on. So perhaps the dead never truly die after all…
Of the full cast of characters, there are four particularly who ought to be mentioned. Drumroll please, it’s time for a Wikipedia-style character list:
Mrs de Winter: the narrator of this novel and therefore the only explicit point of view we have as readers. She is the second wife of Maxim (see below), and beyond the surname she acquires in marriage, her other names remain a perpetual mystery to us. When reading Rebecca, there is an interesting juxtaposition between the importance she is meant to have as narrator and living wife, and her comparative insignificance as an unnamed woman.
Rebecca: the eponymous character of the novel and the dead first wife of Maxim (see below). She was believed to have drowned during a storm.
Maxim: Rebecca’s widower and husband of Mrs de Winter (the narrator).
Mrs Danvers: the housekeeper and former personal maid of Rebecca.
Interestingly, the three characters who are alive are all bound together by one thing: an obsession with the dead Rebecca. Take Mrs de Winter, who is constantly finding remnants of Rebecca’s life as mistress of Manderley (the de Winter estate) and consequently comparing her own relationship with Maxim to the image she has formed of Rebecca’s with him. From the narrator’s perspective, Rebecca is more alive than she is herself. Not only has she left no mark upon Manderley whereas vestiges of Rebecca’s existence enduringly remain, but the stories she hears of the vivacious Rebecca, a revered and adored member of society’s elite, are so different to the comparatively quiet and dull life she herself now leads at Manderley.
Upon discovering her letters to Maxim, the description that stands out the most is ‘that tall sloping R [of Rebecca’s signature] dwarfing its fellows’. Similarly, when she finds an old handkerchief of Rebecca’s in a mackintosh she’s given to wear, she fixates on the monogram in the corner: ‘a tall sloping R… [that] dwarfed the other letters’. Symbolically, therefore, we can infer that Mrs de Winter feels dwarfed by the looming presence Rebecca continues to have at Manderley. Moreover, the epithet of ‘tall sloping’ does not only refer to the R, but to the very figure Mrs de Winter imagines for Rebecca – tall and graceful, poised and elegant. Rebecca, in death still seems bright and vibrant and vivacious, while Mrs de Winter is nameless and faceless in life. Indeed, despite the importance accorded to Mrs de Winter as narrator of this novel, she is not even the voice of her own story, but that of Rebecca’s.
Mrs Danvers’s relationship with the dead Rebecca proves life in death in a different way. While the narrator’s experience revolves solely around her inferences based on object, Rebecca’s effect on Mrs Danvers is something that stays with the latter based on former experience. Danvers says: ‘I feel her everywhere… Sometimes when I walk along the corridor her, I fancy I hear her just behind me. That quick, light footstep. I could not mistake it anywhere… It’s almost as though I catch the sound of her dress sweeping the stairs as she comes down to dinner.’ Rebecca manifests herself in Danvers through the sensorial. It is not just her lasting influence that makes her live on, but her haunting and almost tangible presence despite her physical absence.
When coastal authorities rediscover Rebecca’s corpse in her sunken boat, Maxim reveals the truth about what he knows of Rebecca’s death to his wife. I am being mysterious here both out of a perverse enjoyment of leaving you, my dedicated readers, in suspense, and because the twist is simply too good to spoil! He too, since the night of her death, has been obsessed with the thought of her, feeling ‘her damned shadow keeping [him and his wife] from one another’, feeling that all along Rebecca ‘knew she would win in the end’. She lives in his memory too.
But what could all this mean? How can we get deeper into whether the dead are ever truly dead? Of course, continuing to feel close to a departed loved one is a natural human reaction to the brutal and often unfathomable idea of them being gone forever. However, other than for the devoted Mrs Danvers, Rebecca was not loved… at least certainly not by Maxim. From his retelling of his first marriage, we, along with Mrs de Winter, learn the truth about this woman who was the master of pretence. She had an undeniable charm that drew in everyone around her. Her mask of kindness and loveliness incarnated fooled all of society. She had any man she wanted whenever she wanted. She laughed at all the men who were in love with her and revelled in their suffering and hurt. She didn’t care about anyone but herself. She knew Maxim’s unwillingness to be humiliated in enduring a divorce in the public eye and so provoked and provoked him. She meddled in and upset other people’s lives and, ultimately, paid for it with her own.
And that’s why Mrs de Winter’s statement ‘Rebecca is dead… She can’t harm you anymore’ is false because she has been hurting Maxim. He obtained no relief in her death, because who Rebecca was a person doesn’t stop now that she no longer breathes. Rebecca’s actions during her lifetime, her spite, her hurt, her damage, continue to have a lasting effect on those who were around her. Yes, du Maurier’s Rebecca is more than just a book about a dead wife, but nonetheless it teaches us an important lesson. Death and life might be seen as an opposing binary, whereas du Maurier shows us that the boundary between these two realms is not as simple as that.
The death of somebody cannot erase the actions that they committed while alive. And the emotions they aroused in the people they knew simply do not pass as they pass on. Ghosts and spirits and memory aside, the dead do live on in the lives of all those they touched. So, take a moment to consider someone who used to be in your life and no longer is. Consider the relationship and the experiences you shared with them. How do they live on in you? What effect have they left in their wake? Now consider your role in theirs. How will your actions continue to live on in them now that you’ve gone? In the story of someone else’s life, whose novel bears your name as the title?
Image credits: Kurt Komoda