Table of Contents:
2. Plot Summary
3. Rebecca as a Gothic Novel
4. Characterisation of the Main Characters and Reference to Social Classes and the Political Subtext
5. Comparison Between the Novel and the Film
5.1 Common Features
Daphne du Maurier is widely known for her Gothic novels and short stories. Unaffected by the literary fashions of her days, she wrote simple narratives that appealed to the reader’s love of adventure, fantasy, sensuality and mystery. Her novel Rebecca, published in 1938, was probably her most famous novel. It has never gone out of print and is one of the great international bestsellers. Du Maurier began writing it at a difficult point in her life: it was only a few years after the death of her adored father, she was pregnant with her second child and her husband, an officer in the Grenadier Guards, had been posted with his battalion. Her homesickness and her resignation about her wifely duties, together with a guilty sense of her own ineptness, were elements she included in her Gothic romance Rebecca. The novel’s iconic opening line - “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” 1 – was born out of du Maurier’s own preoccupation with Menabilly, a country house in Cornwall, which was later the inspiration for Manderley in Rebecca.2
In the following, the Gothic elements in Rebecca will be examined and the main characters will be analysed: every character in the novel represents a different type of social class of people with different habits and living standards. Therefore, I am going to interpret these types with their qualities and debilities and figure out the actuality in du Maurier’s characters. After that, my focus will be on the comparison between the novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and the film adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock. In order to compare them, I will search for parallels or common features, and differences between the novel and the film.
To provide a general overview about du Maurier’s Gothic romance, the main story will be briefly summarized and explained hereafter.
The novel Rebecca is told by a nameless narrator, who lives in Europe with her husband, Mr de Winter, travelling from hotel to hotel and thinking about their old home called Manderley, which has been destroyed by fire as you learn at the end of the story. Du Maurier’s narrative is written in a flashback, looking back to the narrator’s time in Monte Carlo and later in Manderley, a huge estate of the de Winter family. Since her parents have passed away, the unnamed heroine works as a travelling companion for a wealthy American lady named Mrs Van Hopper in Monte Carlo. One afternoon, Mrs Van Hopper recognises Maxim de Winter - the owner of Manderley – and immediately strikes up a conversation. As she becomes ill during the following days, the timid narrator and Maxim spend much time together and finally get married within two weeks. Maxim takes his new wife to Manderley and all seems to be perfect at first. But a dark cloud hangs over their marriage: Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife, drowned in a cove near Manderley the year before, and now her ghost haunts the newlyweds’ home. The housekeeper Mrs Danvers is obsessed with the beauty and perfection of the first Mrs de Winter, and she frightens her new mistress whenever possible. Now the heroine begins to doubt the relationship with her husband, because she thinks that Maxim is still in love with Rebecca who was beautiful, clever and talented (or so everyone says) – qualities she will never have. Someday, a diver finds the wreckage of Rebecca’s sailboat with a dead body in the hold near the cost. This discovery forces Maxim to tell his wife the truth: according to him, Rebecca was a perfidious, wicked woman, who carried on multiple affairs - including one with her cousin Jack Favell - and lived a secret life which no one ever knew completely. Maxim – literally desperate – demanded a divorce in the night of her death, but she refused and told him about her pregnancy with Favell’s child, which she would raise pretending that it was Maxim's. Infuriated, Maxim lost his head and shot her, sailed out to the harbour in Rebecca’s boat and sank it, with the dead body stowed inside. This revelation makes the heroine feel loved and finally makes it possible to release the burden of Rebecca’s ghost. Some time later, Maxim gets in trouble with the justice because Jack Favell accuses Maxim of the crime. Furthermore, the local magistrate finds out that Rebecca was infertile and dying of cancer, which means that she had lied to Maxim about her pregnancy. This illness supplies a motive for Rebecca’s supposed suicide and Maxim is saved. After all these incidents, he and his wife drive home all night back to Manderley to finally live a happy life, but it comes differently than expected: when Maxim and his wife top the hill near their home, they see bright lights at the horizon and realise that Manderley is on fire.3
Rebecca as a Gothic Novel
Daphne du Maurier’s novel is a typical example of a Gothic Novel, which is indicated by many characteristics. In this chapter, the word “Gothic” will be explained, and the Gothic key elements will be mentioned and worked out in Rebecca.
The term “Gothic” was originally related to the Goths, one of the German tribes who fought numerous battles with the Roman Empire for centuries4. But it could also refer to the style of architecture, sculpture, painting or other arts practised in Europe from the 12th to the 16th century or to a genre of literature characterized by gloom, the grotesque and the supernatural which became popular especially in the late 18th century5.
As you can see, “Gothic” has come to mean quite a number of things by this age, but centuries passed before this term was used to describe a certain type of novels6. The Gothic Novel “took shape in England around 1790 1830, although its roots can be found much earlier in the Middle Ages” 7. It is still popular today and falls into the category of Romantic literature. According to Robert Deniston Hume, a Gothic Novel “can be seen as one symptom of a widespread shift away from neoclassical ideals of order and reason, toward romantic belief in emotion and imagination.”8 Major elements of this type of novel are the atmosphere of mystery and horror, a hint of violence and the supernatural, which you can also find in the novel Rebecca.
According to Wheatley, “the dream sequence at the beginning of the (‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…’) can be read as the traditional
Gothic foreshadowing of a catastrophic event: the heroine dreams the fire ‘before’ it happens.” 9 You can find several Gothic sentences like this one, which seem to frame the story and to underline the character of a Gothic Novel with its dark visions and bizarre imaginations.
Furthermore, the action in Rebecca takes place in the mysterious mansion of Manderley which, as “a centuries-old estate” 10 , symbolises the past and is totally Gothic: in this place, tradition and memorisation play an important role, associated with the English values of propriety, honesty and inherited wealth. Manderley is attractive but pointless, only useful for hidden unpleasant secrets, the upper classes’ lifestyle, Rebecca’s deceptive and partying existence. At times, Manderley seems to embody Rebecca as her influence is still felt in every detail there. Finally, the huge de Winters’ home, full of unrevealed secrets, ends up in charred ruins – destroyed by fire which cannot cleanse the guilt of several crimes. The burning of Manderley indicates the end of comfortable conservatism, the wasteful wealthy lifestyle and, of course, the horrifying presence of Rebecca’s ghost, everywhere felt in the estate.11
In Maxim de Winter, Daphne du Maurier creates a typical image of a Gothic male, wealthy due to his heritage because of his ancestry. The owner of Manderley with his aristocratic name, Maxim de Winter, compulsively tries to repress his late wife deeply into his memory. However, Rebecca’s presence is portrayed by his brooding personality; he never appears completely happy and thoughtless.12
The mystery, an important Gothic element in the novel, does not appear until later when Maxim reveals what really happened to Rebecca. Once the truth begins to arise, one unpleasant surprise follows another: the dead body in the hold of the boat is not Rebecca, Maxim is the murderer of his first wife, and Rebecca was not pregnant – she had uterine cancer. Even Maxim’s judicial inquiry and Favell’s blackmail constitute attributes of mystery and suspense which shows the totally Gothic character of du Maurier’s oeuvre.
Additionally, the supernatural element in Rebecca comes to light through the presence of Rebecca, prominent in almost every room in Manderley. The second Mrs de Winter has to use the same drawing room and the same writing utensils as her predecessor, and she should preferably order the same food as Rebecca13. The heroine is uncertain what lunch sauce to order or where the morning fire is located (which even the dogs know), and she answers the in-house phone call for Mrs de Winter with the incredible statement that “Mrs. de Winter has been dead for over a year” 14 . Everywhere, she can feel the ominous presence of the first Mrs de Winter: “At any moment she might come back into the room, and she would see me there, sitting before her open drawer, which I had no right to touch ” 15 . The timid narrator does not even get a name because she is so suppressed by her dead predecessor.
Du Maurier’s climax in the novel is the grand costume ball organized upon request of the second Mrs de Winter. When the heroine descends the stairs in the beautiful white dress copied from the portrait of Caroline de Winter, she creates an effect she could never have predicted. Maxim looks as though he sees a ghost and asks her, “What the hell do you think you are doing?” 16 . The narrator interprets his reaction as her failure to come up to the level of Rebecca and leaves the costume party completely distraught. To conclude, the fete ends up in a nightmare, caused by the cruel Mrs Danvers who manipulated her new mistress to wear the white dress.17 Accordingly, even the partying in Manderley is only an imitation of Rebecca’s lifestyle, which illustrates an important Gothic element in the novel.
These are only a few of all the Gothic features you can find in Rebecca, but it is especially these elements that make the novel exciting, interesting and – what counts most – inviting for the reader.
Characterisation of the Main Characters and Reference to Social Classes and the Political Subtext
The main characters in Rebecca are all completely different and special. As you look closer, you can find a connection between the characters’ personality and social classes in today’s society. Every character seems to represent a social class of people with different habits, qualities and debilities. In the following, the main characters will be studied and matched with the social classes.
To start with the nameless narrator, you can have a look at her behaviour in general. At first, she seems like a timid, unremarkable person who does not really like her employer, but never complains or asks questions. In front of the wealthy American Mrs Van Hopper, she always tries not to upset her and to stay in the background. She describes her younger self “with straight, bobbed hair and youthful, unpowdered face trailing in the wake of Mrs. Van Hopper like a shy, uneasy colt” 18. The timid paid companion seduces Maxim by appearing to be no more than a bumbling, naïve young woman in Monte Carlo, an appearance that simultaneously makes her sympathetic for the reader19. But in the following, the narrator transforms herself into “a Rebecca-like figure”20 , as Linkin says, always trying to be like the first Mrs de Winter who she imagines as beautiful, talented and perfect. The social class the narrator in Monte Carlo could typify is the young working class which is exploited by American commercialism – represented by Mrs Van Hopper. At Manderley, she is “shocked by the senseless waste of food and the elaborate lifestyle generally” and “she feels comfortable only with her maid Clarice – an inexperienced working-class girl” 21. That shows her perfect fitting into the working class and her incomprehensibility of the upper classes’ lifestyle. As the story goes on, the heroine wants to become the perfect bourgeois wife and convulsively tries to imitate Rebecca which puts her under great pressure at Manderley. Yet, she will never be able to reach this aim because of her completely different character and habits.
Another important character in Rebecca is Maxim de Winter. As the narrator meets him the first time in Monte Carlo, he seems calm, confident and polite – like an English gentleman who spends his vacations at the Cote d’Azur. For the timid working-class girl, he is a potential husband with a big house and also her chance to leave Mrs Van Hopper. But as the novel goes on, his calm façade breaks down: Maxim is not only “a prudish, brooding figure” but also a character “with sinister secrets, whose temper is always on the verge of erupting” 22. Reading further, you can remark that he is weak, manipulative and even a murderer, but this cannot be discovered until far in the book. Maxim is always seen through the eyes of his second wife and she loves him above all things, which shows a very subjective perception. In the end, the reader can determine that Mr de Winter is a two-sided personality: a handsome, wealthy and well-known husband and a cold-blooded murderer of his own wife. According to Frank, he could represent “the benevolent but passive” aristocrat belonging to the upper class who finally “takes a union with the new blood of the working class”23 .
1 Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca, (New York: Avon Books, 1971) 1.
2 Cf. Jessica Bomarito, “Daphne du Maurier - Introduction”, eNotes.com (Gale Cengage, 2006) <https://www.enotes.com/topics/daphne-du-maurier/critical-essays/du-maurier-daphne-1907-1989>.
3 Cf. SparkNotes Editors, “Rebecca Summary – Overall Analysis“, sparknotes.com, <http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/rebecca/summary/>.
4 Cf. Michael Wölfl, The Gothic Novel, Handout (2018).
5 Cf. “Definition of ‘Gothic’”, Collins Dictionary (2007), <http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/gothic>.
6 Cf. M. Wölfl, The Gothic Novel.
7 “The Gothic Novel: What is Gothic Literature?”, Owlcation, 21st January 2018 <http://owlcation.com/humanities/The-Gothic-Novel-What-is-Gothic-Literature>.
8 Robert Deniston Hume, Gothic versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel (Modern Language Association, March 1969) Vol. 84, No. 2, 304.
9 Kim Wheatley, Gender Politics and the Gothic in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002) 134.
10 Jackson Arn, “Rebecca Symbols: Manderley”, LitCharts (LitCharts LLC, 19th March 2016) <https://www.litcharts.com/lit/rebecca/symbols/manderley>.
11 Cf. Gina Wisker, “Dangerous Borders: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca : Shaking the foundations of the romance of privilege, partying and place.” Journal of gender studies (Carfax: Abingdon, 2003) 88, 94.
12 Cf. “The theme of the Gothic in Rebecca.”, Assignments Writing – Help For Students (31st July 2017) <https://primetimeessay.com/theme-gothic-rebecca/>.
13 Cf. “Gothic Elements“, weebly.com, <http://daphnedumauriersrebecca.weebly.com/gothic-elements.html>.
14 D. Maurier, Rebecca 84.
15 D. Maurier, Rebecca 86.
16 D. Maurier, Rebecca 213.
17 Cf. G. Wisker, Dangerous Borders: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca 92.
18 D. Maurier, Rebecca 9.
19 Cf. Harriet Kramer Linkin, “The deceptively strategic narrator of Rebecca.” Journal of Narrative Theory (Ypsilanti: Eastern Michigan University, 2016) 225.
20 H. Linkin, “The deceptively strategic narrator of Rebecca.” 225.
21 Bernhard Frank, “Du Maurier’s Rebecca“The explicator (HELDREF Publications, 2005) 240.
22 Shmoop Editorial Team, “Maximillian de Winter in Rebecca.” Shmoop (Shmoop University, 11th November 2008) <https://www.shmoop.com/rebecca-book/maxim-de-winter.html>.
23 B. Frank, Du Maurier’s Rebecca 240.