The trope of the double
in Daphne Maurier's Rebecca and Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop
And in the mirror, I can no longer tell
whether I am still myself,
or just something she’s created[.]
(Wyrick, 1996: 21)
Doubling is the “appearance of persons who have to be regarded as identical because they look alike” (Freud, 2003: 14) and, according to Freud, this can create an uncanny effect because “we are faced with the reality of something that we have until now considered imaginary” (Freud, 2003: 150). However, the trope of the double has far more potential than just sending shivers down our spines; its appearance might indeed raise, and confront us with, important questions concerning our own identity and subjectivity. I would like to exemplify this by comparing the importance of doppelgänger figures in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop in relation to gender identity and would like to investigate, in particular, how the trope of the double/phantom might call into question gender role expectations, shed light on their constructedness, and ultimately play an important role in overcoming social and sexual limitations.
In the novel Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier establishes, from the beginning, a doppelgänger of and binary opposition to the narrator, in the haunting presence of Maxim de Winter’s late wife Rebecca. In doing so, she draws our attention to the differences between the two, in particular the differences in their notions of femininity and womanhood, which have a profound impact on their identity and the way they define themselves as subjects. Rebecca is, in fact, the complete opposite of the narrator, both on the inside and the outside; indeed, “their counter-images seem photo-negative reversals of each other” (as cited by Horner & Zlosnik, 1998: 108). Unlike the second Mrs de Winter, she is confident, runs Manderley’s enormous household by herself, can sail a boat single-handedly, hunt, ride horses, and, in doing so, behaves in a way that, at the time, might have been considered rather masculine demeanour. As her housekeeper Mrs Danvers informs us: “She looked like a boy in her sailing kit, a boy with a face like a Botticelli angel” (du Maurier, 2003: 312). This impression is further reinforced by the fact that, even though she is actually married, she satisfies her sexual needs in a rather unrestrained way – a right usually reserved for men: she has an incestuous relationship with her cousin and seduces her sister-in-law’s husband; even bisexual tendencies towards her housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, are occasionally implied. Her fatal flaw, however – and perhaps her most powerful weapon – is that she increasingly refuses to keep her lifestyle a secret. Despite the “growing anxiety [at the time] about the ‘masculinisation’ of women in their transition from angels of the hearth to ‘wandering’ New Women” (Horner & Zlosnik, 2000: 211), “Rebecca refused to obey the law whereby women exchange their bodies for social place” (Light, 1984: 115). She only married Maxim for reasons of prestige; and her calculating personality and unwillingness to be kept down by men help her move up the social ladder and finally realise her dream of a high-society life. By not living up to Maxim’s expectations of a loving and caring wife, Rebecca “disrupts conventional notions of gender and sexuality” (Horner & Zlosnik, 1998: 115) , and her power as a femme fatale situates her as evil in his opinion (cf. Horner & Zlosnik, 2000: 210). According to Mrs Danvers, “[s]he despised all men” (du Maurier, 2003: 382), and “[l]ove-making was a game with her, only a game” (du Maurier, 2003: 382). When she then laughs at patriarchal ideas, Maxim, in an attempt to justify his own world view, concludes that “[s]he was vicious, damnable, rotten through and through... She was not even normal” (du Maurier, 2003: 304), whereas some might argue that she was only “seizing life with her two hands” (du Maurier, 2003: 304).
As the second Mrs de Winter lacks all those qualities – she is shy and socially awkward – Rebecca, however much resented or feared by her, becomes an unconscious model of sexual and female freedom. For the narrator, her lingering presence sets in motion a process that cannot be easily brought to a halt. Her own unfulfilled desires are so to speak “incorporated as a ‘fantasy’ within the body and hidden from the ego in a ‘crypt’ from which it returns to haunt” (Castricano, 2001: 23). She strongly identifies with Rebecca, even re-enacts imaginary scenes from her life and dreams about her. Whatever she does, she does it not without considering how Rebecca might have reacted in her stead: “Rebecca did this... I’m not the first to do it” (du Maurier, 2003: 155). Freud stated that “[a] person ... may substitute the other’s self for his own” and that the double “performs the function of self-observation and self-criticism” (Freud, 2003: 142). With this in mind, it seems only natural that the narrator should discover in Rebecca the prospect of an alternative life, and the more she becomes aware of the differences between the two of them, the more she looks up to her and secretly longs to be like her. She desperately needs Rebecca, rather than Maxim, to overcome her awkwardness. She realises this when she says: “I had said the name” (du Maurier, 2003: 139), and this “acted upon me like a stimulant” (du Maurier, 2003:143). When, at Manderley Ball, she finally dresses up in the same costume as Rebecca once did, the transformation is, for a short moment, complete. Subconsciously, the second Mrs de Winter is aware of the possibilities that come with being Rebecca and would like to embrace them: “And my curls were her curls... I don’t think I have ever felt so excited before, so happy and so proud” (du Maurier, 2003: 238), which is due to the fact that she becomes “co-owner of the other’s knowledge, emotions and experience” (Freud, 2003: 142).