Told in the first person, this novel reveals the powerful psychological pressures on a very young, inexperienced woman who lives in the shadow of her husband’s dead first wife, the brilliant and sophisticated Rebecca.
When the young woman first meets Maxim de Winter in Monte Carlo, she is working as a paid companion to an obnoxious, loud, and vulgar American socialite. Almost without being aware of it, the young woman drifts into a romance with de Winter, marries him, and returns with him to his sumptuous estate, Manderley, on the Cornish coast.
Once at Manderley, the young woman’s awkwardness becomes more marked as she compares herself to Rebecca, who drowned in a sailing accident less than a year before.
The mansion is filled with mementos of Rebecca: the statuary she selected, the rooms she decorated, and the luxuriously scented clothes and furs which still fill the closets of Rebecca’s bedroom--the most beautiful room in the house.
Every detail of daily life is just as Rebecca ordered it, from the sumptuous daily meals to the menacing housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who came to Manderley with Rebecca.
When de Winter’s preoccupation with the estate makes him seem distant, the young woman assumes that he is comparing her, unfavorably, with Rebecca. She thinks that her clothing and makeup are wrong and that besides the memory of Rebecca she must appear very plain and ugly. Finally, after a disastrous costume ball, the truth about Rebecca is slowly and compellingly revealed.
Critics reviewed REBECCA favorably, some even saying it was a 20th century JANE EYRE. Whether this comparison is deserved, Rebecca is certainly one of the best of the perennially popular romantic novels.
Bakerman, Jane S., ed. And Then There Were Nine . . . More Women of Mystery. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1985. A collection of essays. Bakerman’s chapter on Daphne du Maurier argues that in her six “romantic suspense novels,” including Rebecca, can be seen not only new uses of the gothic “formula” but also reflections of other literary traditions. Sees du Maurier as preeminent in her genre.
Beauman, Sally. “Rereading Rebecca.” The New Yorker 69, no. 37 (November 8, 1993): 127-138. Points out that the publication in 1993 of Forster’s biography of du Maurier and of Susan Hill’s Mrs. de Winter, a sequel to the novel, indicate the lasting importance of Rebecca in literary history. Beauman voices her surprise that feminist critics have not turned their attention to a work in which the narrator so clearly equates love with submission. A balanced and perceptive analysis.
Conroy, Sarah Booth. “Daphne du Maurier’s Legacy of Dreams.” The Washington Post, April 23, 1989, pp. F1, F8. Accounts for du Maurier’s continuing appeal by placing her in the oral tradition. The deep-seated “universal fears” that are experienced by her characters and the rhythms of her prose are reminiscent of fireside storytelling. Of all of her well-developed characters, the most convincing is Manderley itself.
Du Maurier, Daphne. The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1980. Examines the birth and adolescence of a novel. Contains all textual notes and personal commentary by the author. A comparison of this source and the final text is fascinating. Also included are family anecdotes.
Forster, Margaret. Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller. New York: Doubleday, 1993. The first authorized biography of du Maurier. With the aid of previously unavailable source materials, Forster reveals du Maurier’s lifelong ambivalence as to her sexual identity. She concludes that the novels permitted du Maurier to be psychologically, as well as financially, independent. Although it contains little critical analysis of the works, the volume is a useful addition to du Maurier scholarship.
Hollinger, Karen. “The Female Oedipal Drama of Rebecca from Novel to Film.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 14, no. 4 (1993): 17-30. A feminist view of the translation of a Gothic novel into the film media.
Kelly, Richard. Daphne du Maurier. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Discusses the notebook for Rebecca as well as subsequent film and television versions. Includes commentary from periodicals and a list of all works in chronological order.
“Novel of the Week: Survival.” The Times Literary Supplement, August 6, 1938, 517. A contemporary review of Rebecca, “a low-brow story with a middle-brow finish.” Of the characters, only the narrator is believable; however, the work is well crafted and readable, one of the few in its genre which can be considered an unqualified success.
Shallcross, Martyn. The Private World of Daphne du Maurier. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. An insightful, sympathetic overview of the author by a close family friend. Includes many pictures and a chronological bibliography of the du Maurier canon.
Even though she is writing in the well-worn gothic pattern, Daphne du Maurier incorporates elements from other literary traditions into her novels. Both thematically and symbolically, her works are much richer than most others of their kind.
For example, Rebecca reflects one of the central motifs in literature: the expulsion from paradise. Significantly, when in the first chapters of the novel the protagonist mentions her grief, the focus is not on Manderley, the house, but instead on that area of the grounds called the Happy Valley. The house was a showplace, created by Rebecca and imbued with her evil spirit. Her presence dominated the west wing, overlooking the ocean, and it was almost as evident in the east wing, where the newly wedded couple had been placed, for their rooms had been prepared by Rebecca’s second self, Mrs. Danvers. Rebecca seemed to haunt the oceanside cottage, where she had met her lovers, and the ocean itself, whose deceptive beauty and destructive force mirrored her own being.
While in her dream the narrator does return briefly to the library at Manderley, where she and Max had some companionable moments, it is the Happy Valley that must be seen as their paradise. At Monte Carlo, when he first describes his home to his future wife, Max dwells not on the house, but on that particular area of the grounds. Even without his comments, however, the protagonist would have recognized the importance of the Happy Valley. When Max takes her there, she sees his joy, she finds herself freed from the oppression that grips her elsewhere on the estate, and somehow she knows that the Happy Valley is the heart, the central reality, of Manderley.
The fact that the Happy Valley still exists after the house has been destroyed represents the triumph of good over evil, which is central to du Maurier’s story. Although Max, and the protagonist along with him, must pay the price of murder by being expelled from Manderley and turned away from the paradise at the heart of it, in their love for each other, which the forces of evil could not destroy, the pair carry with them into exile the goodness that they sensed resided in the Happy Valley.
Closely associated with the theme of the lost paradise in Rebecca is that of the loss of innocence. In her choice of a female protagonist as the character who moves from innocence to experience during the course of the story, du Maurier is merely following a convention of gothic romance. By having her narrator play the role of her earlier self as she relates the story, however, the author can show how closely innocence is allied with ignorance and even with potentially deadly error. Admittedly, initially Max finds the protagonist appealing because, unlike Rebecca, she is so innocent. Admittedly, he does send her into danger by evading her questions about the past. It is as much her own imagination as Max’s silence, however, which very nearly results in the protagonist’s suicide. In a sense, while she lives at Manderley, the narrator is writing her own novel. She busies herself inventing scenes in which the gentry criticize her and pity Max—scenes in which she is unfavorably compared to Rebecca. At one point, to Max’s horror, she even acts the part of the Rebecca she imagines. After Max confides in her, it becomes clear how erroneous all the narrator’s assumptions have been. The world she has created does not exist except in her imagination. What du Maurier seems to be suggesting is that in the real world, innocence can be dangerous, even fatal. It is experience, not innocence, knowledge, not ignorance, which enable the narrator to survive.