Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier, 1938



“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” So begins Daphne DuMaurier’s now classic 1938 novel Rebecca in the voice of the inscrutable, miserable, victimised, pathetic and above all frustrating and frustrated female narrator. I have written before on this blog about my fascination with this nameless, curious figure, known to us only as the second Mrs DeWinter, but also called “little fool” and “little idiot” by Maxim her husband (see In re-reading the novel again for teaching next week, however I realised that in this very first sentence, DuMaurier offers a vital clue towards the solving mystery of how best to understand this character: the second Mrs DeWinter is a dreamer, trapped within a series of romantic and gothic fantasies of her own making which prove to be worse than fatal to her.  Like Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland in Northhanger Abbey, whose obsession by trashy romantic thrillers with titles like “Mysterious Warnings” “Orphan of the Rhine” and “The Italian,” leads her to misread the real dangers to her happiness, DuMaurier’s narrator spends so much time obsessing over the dead Rebecca that she never realises that the real threat to her happiness is the patriarchal “Cinderella” fantasy which she bought into when marrying her brutal husband.


DuMaurierDaphne DuMaurier








The second Mrs DeWinter is unable to read Maxim as he really is: a supercilious, condescending, cruel man who has murdered his first wife when he thought she was pregnant with another man’s child, is interested only in cricket, his friend Crawley and his ancestral home-and instead sees him as a mysterious medieval knight, timelessly handsome and powerful, a figure in an old master painting – a romantic widower hero. Her dreams also lead her to entirely misinterpret Rebecca as an ideal and idealised first wife, whose powerful beauty, wit, and intelligence leave the narrator in the shade.  It is not, she thinks, Maxim’s fault he does not love his new wife, it is her fault for not being as attractive as Rebecca. So rather than this seemingly rags to riches fantasy marriage bringing about a happy ending, DuMaurier points to the trap in which modern women may find themselves if they buy into the traditional daydream of romantic fantasy: what begins as a Cinderella story with a drab young woman enslaved as a companion to a supercilious old woman, ends up with Cinderella enslaved as a companion to a supercilious old man – former Prince Charming Maxim DeWinter, now sexless, grumpy and needing constant nursemaiding.  At least Rebecca’s death was quick!

So far then from being a romance, DuMaurier’s novel warns of the dangers of romantic fantasy for young, vulnerable women, but equally shockingly, of the dangers to strong, powerful women like Rebecca who attempt to challenge the patriarchal status quo: the silencing of female desire is the final destination for both Mrs DeWinters, and the price to be paid, perhaps, for indulging in romantic fantasy and having anything to do with posh bastards like Maxim DeWinter.


8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Pat Jensen on April 15, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    You have given me a new perspective on an old favorite. I never quite saw the characters in the light you portray them, yet, it’s easy to see how my initial view was flawed! Very insightful analysis of the women in Rebecca.


    • Maxim in the movie is a bit better – he doesn’t murder his pregnant wife in cold blood as in the book – it is an “accident” – but even so, it’s amazing how easily he is forgiven!


  2. Posted by Alice Gomm on April 20, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca


    Du Maurier’s heroine is resentful and jealous but always silent about her feelings, similar to female characters in other texts from the module, such as Katherine Mansfield’s Prelude, the heroine represses her own feelings, pretending to be the happy young and foolish wife people think she is. Maxim de Winter is an aristocrat and a slave to convention who falls in love with the conventional, shy, quiet and perhaps easily manipulated woman, the heroine of the novel. The heroine of Rebecca may be seen as a conventional romantic heroine, as she shares many personality traits with heroines of romantic fiction. Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca, is portrayed as everything the heroine is not, intelligent, attractive charming, but also cruel and promiscuous. It is Rebecca’s promiscuity which appears to be her worst fault in Maxim’s eyes and he murders her after being told that she is pregnant with the child of another man. The heroine is bizarrely indifferent to finding out that her husband is a murderer, instead she is pleased that Maxim did not love Rebecca, saying: ‘What did it matter whether I understood him or not? My heart was like a feather floating in the air. He had never loved Rebecca.’(286) It is unclear whether the novel is supposed to have a happy ending or if the reader is supposed to worry about what will happen to the heroine; will Maxim be as violent to her as he was to Rebecca? The narrator’s nostalgic descriptions of meeting Maxim and her early life suggest that she has not had the happy ending of conventional romantic novels.


    Is Rebecca a love story with a happy ending or darker story about the dangers of falling in love with a violent man?

    Charlotte Brontё, Jane Eyre, chapter 27, pp. 302-305


    This extract demonstrates some of the similarities between Jane Eyre and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, like Maxim de Winter, Rochester is angry, often cold, with a mysterious past and a hated first wife. Parallels may also be drawn between the first wives of the two men, for example both women are portrayed as promiscuous. Bertha Mason is described by Rochester in this extract as ‘gross’, ‘impure’, ‘depraved’, ‘intemperate and unchaste’ (304) while Rebecca is regarded as ‘vicious, damnable, [and] rotten through and through’(283) by de Winter because she slept with other men. Another similarity is the way that the women’s promiscuity is used as evidence of mental illness or abnormality. For example de Winter says that Rebecca’s behaviour shows she was ‘not even normal’ (283) and Bertha Mason’s promiscuity is said to have ‘prematurely developed the germs of insanity’ (304). One difference in the way Rebecca and Bertha are portrayed is that Bertha’s ethnicity is used to portray her as ‘other’, for example Bertha is described as having a ‘pigmy intellect’ (304) and the imagery used to describe her is animalistic, such as her ‘wolfish cries’ (305).


    What other similarities are there between the two novels?

    To what extent do Rebecca and Jane Eyre follow the conventions of a romantic novel?


  3. Posted by floeastoe on April 21, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    ‘Rebecca’ Daphne du Maurier

    This novel is famous for its unnamed protagonist. Sometimes du Maurier hints at her character’s name, with Maxim talking about how “unusual” it is, and how it “suited” her father as well as her. These constant mentions tease the reader and pique their interest, but the secret is never revealed.
    It is the one mystery held by the second Mrs de Winter, the only part of her that is kept back from the reader. In contrast, the only thing known about Rebecca for a long time is her name. It is everywhere in Manderley; on pillow cases, in books, in the morning room, she is, in the narrator’s mind, inescapable.
    It must be remembered by the reader that every part of ‘Rebecca’ is told from the second Mrs de Winter’s perspective, much of the novel is taken up with her fantasies, and the preoccupation with Rebecca by the other characters is something she has created. While Rebecca is vilified for her affairs in the novel with both men and women, her “cruelty” and her marrying for purpose, instead of love, she could be seen as a modern woman, who does not feel constrained by society’s limitations and double standards.

    There are huge similarities between ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Rebecca’, beginning with the naive, young narrator, and ending with the family seat, the enormous mansion that the narrator has come to call home, being burnt down. While ‘Jane Eyre’ focuses on the relationship between the female protagonist and the distant, superior love interest, ‘Rebecca’ focuses on the relationship between the two women: the new wife and the looming specter of the previous one.


  4. Posted by Nabilah on April 21, 2013 at 6:43 pm

    Daphne Du Maurier, ‘Rebecca’

    ‘Rebecca’ is an interesting novel narrated by an unnamed young woman. Firstly, Tasmina Perry stated that in gothic/gothic romance novels, the setting is the ‘third character’, and this is definitely the case with ‘Rebecca’ especially when the narrator describes Manderley and its surrounding areas, she personifies nature in Chapter 1: ‘Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long tenacious fingers […] The beeches with white, naked limbs leant close to one another, their branches intermingled in a strange embrace’. Secondly, it could be argued that the unnamed narrator has a mild form of the Oedipal/Electra complex. She must overcome the vulgar maternal figure that is Mrs Van Hopper, and marry the paternal figure Maxim. However, all is not as it seems as the real maternal figure is Rebecca, who the heroine feels that she cannot live up to. Nevertheless, she cannot “kill” Rebecca as she is already dead, and this puts strain on her marriage. On the other hand, once the heroine discovers that Maxim killed Rebecca she is relieved and she does not seem to have anymore. Thirdly, it is rather shocking how quickly the narrator forgives Maxim for killing his allegedly pregnant ex-wife. She does not seem bothered that Maxim murdered Rebecca in cold blood as he was very angry, and does not feel in any danger herself. She even appears to be remotely happy that Maxim loves her and never loved Rebecca for her adulterous ways. Finally, it is noteworthy that Rebecca’s downfall was due to her amorous activities. This reflects on the “Madonna/Whore” complex, and it could be argued that Maxim has a case of this. He only defines women into these two categories, as “Madonnas” to be virginal and subservient to men or “Whores” to be “punished” by men. He sees the heroine as “Madonna” and Rebecca as the “Whore” who he subsequently killed as punishment for her promiscuity.


    What is significant about the female narrator being unnamed?

    What is your opinion on how quickly the heroine forgave Maxim for murdering Rebecca?

    The “Madonna/Whore” complex is a double standard that is very limiting to women. Why is it that women must be “virtuous” and “chaste” when men do not have to? Are men ever “punished” for being promiscuous in Literature and real life?


  5. Posted by Nina Gill on April 21, 2013 at 9:32 pm

    ‘Rebecca’, Daphne Du Maurier

    On the surface of the novel, the unnamed narrator shares her romantic vision of falling in love and marrying the man she loves. The protagonist romanticises her husband as well as the marriage which supposedly changes her from a position of lowly maid to rich, loved wife: ‘Romantic. That was the word’. Placing aside the narrator’s clouded vision, beneath the surface, there lays a brutish husband who is condescending and impatient with her. As the narrator continues to share the depth of her insecurities within her married life, the story begins to revolve around the narrator’s fear, frustration and silence. Her insecurities stem from feeling inadequate compared to the skills and ‘attraction’ of his dead first wife, Rebecca, who is still referred to as Mrs De Winter. Wanting to be Maxim’s one love, she desires to be able to perform the domestic and wifely duties but she finds herself struggling to ever match the standards left behind by the mystifying and seemingly all-rounded dead first wife of Maxim. The narrator suffers with her anxieties and self-doubts in silence as she is continuously lead to believe that she is ‘so different to Rebecca’, who is the wife and hostess who is described as seeming ‘to have been so good at everything ’. Feeling jealous and insecure, the heroine lacks ‘confidence’, making her fall deeper into her own mind of fear throughout the majority of the novel. She describes herself as lacking ‘confidence, grace, beauty, intelligence, wit. Oh all the qualities that means most in a woman’.

    ‘She didn’t care, she wasn’t afraid’. Rebecca was described as having ‘the courage and the spirit of a boy’ and being ‘Lovely as a picture’. Later, we understand that her attractive qualities were all pretence, a ‘game’ to her. The frustrating jealousy of the narrator disappears when she grasps the fact that ‘Maxim did not love Rebecca’. Maxim ‘hated’ her because she was ‘clever, damnably clever’. They are seen as ‘two female antagonists’, ‘the living and obedient second wife, Mrs De Winter and the dead, rebellious and indestructible first wife’ – (Afterword).

    Continuous patronising references to her age and condescending comments towards her experience frustrate the narrator into wanting to be someone she is not. However, when a character describes her as ‘kind’, ‘not like the other one’ (Rebecca) the narrator sees that it is a good thing. Maxim confesses to liking the ‘vacant’ look in her eye and her inexperience, making the narrator feel loved by Maxim for the first time in the relationship. She admits that it is only his dependence on her that has allowed her to feel greater and finally gain some confidence. Despite having won his passion and love, the heroine is still unable to face a life of luxury and goodness as the murder of his first wife inevitably remains a ‘particular devil who rides us and torment us’.

    Q: ‘Rebecca’ has only been credited as a classic more recently. What do you think might be the reason that this novel was not initially given due credit? It is not as romantic as it may seem, but is the overly romantic and naïve vision of the narrator rather frustrating?
    Q: Portrayed as antagonists, Rebecca and the narrator show two opposing sides of a wife and perhaps a woman. Rebecca’s punishment, death (and arguably the cancer), are seen as fitting or can at least be argued as deserving in the eyes of a reader, because she is the ruthless, manipulative one. However, the narrator’s innocence, inexperience and general obedience are also proven to be punished as she is left to live a life of anxiety and is never particularly rewarded in any way. Therefore, neither side of the wife, obedient or rebellious, are ever given relief from their situation in a liberating manner. (In reference to Nabila’s comments above), what can this tell us about the double standards of a woman and in particular, a wife?
    Q: ‘The ritual of our tea’ is a phrase that is continuously repeated. Why does the idea of ‘performance’ resonate throughout the novel and how does it come into play with the plot?


  6. Daphne DuMaurier, Rebecca
    At the beginning of Daphne DuMaurier’s romance Rebecca, it is easy for the reader to feel sympathetic towards the nameless, first-person female narrator with her low self-esteem, inexperience and insecurities. The novel initially appears to fit in with romantic conventions as the heroine, who fails to recognise her self-worth, marries the aristocratic hero Maxim DeWinter and begins a new life at Manderley, the perfect location she originally desired in postcards. Manderley operates as a third character in the novel with DuMaurier’s lengthy descriptions of the natural surroundings and large mysterious house, contributing to its gothic romance element. Like Mrs DeWinter, the reader becomes consumed by the idyllic setting and questions whether the newly wedded narrator is in love with the location and idea of romance rather than her husband? The narrator acknowledges that she barely knows Mr DeWinter and indulges in the idea of a traditional white wedding and a proposal she witnessed “in books [where] men knelt to women, and it would be in moonlight. Not at breakfast, not like this.” DuMaurier’s narrator envisions a life based on fiction and fantasy, pointing to the dangers of reading romance novels and its utopian world that deludes women. Whilst his proposal is far from romantic, Maxim’s treatment of his new wife is patronising and harsh, causing the reader to question whether his love is genuine? Additionally, when the narrator learns that the widowed Mr DeWinter murdered his previous wife Rebecca, she accepts his justifications and continues their relationship, unafraid of potential danger. The mysteries building up to these revelations create an unsettling atmosphere, evoking anxieties in the reader’s as well as DuMaurier’s narrator, emphasising the gothic genre. After this revelation, original feelings of sympathy may turn to frustration as the narrator fails to see any fault in her husband. Furthermore, DuMaurier’s narrator obsesses over Rebecca, places her on a pedestal and attempts to fill her place, feeling inadequate and ostracised by her new companions in Manderley. The importance given to Rebecca is stressed by the narrator who remains anonymous throughout the novel. Although she seeks reassurance and fails to get it from the most important person, her husband, Mrs DeWinter wallows in self-pity and may exaggerate her version of events, making assumptions about the ways in which she is judged by others as second best.
    1.It can be argued that DuMaurier’s narrator shares the traditional wedding dream of many young women. Are women’s expectations of men therefore, too high? Is this a delusion that begins at a young age as girls indulge in fairy tales and Disney princess stories?
    2.Is DuMaurier’s narrator’s version of events valid? Does Mrs DeWinter’s jealousy and insecurity cause her to exaggerate the judgements made by other people or is it her failure to live up to high expectations that causes her to feel inadequate?


  7. ‘Rebecca’- DuMaurier.

    ‘Rebecca’ is a haunting gothic Romance about a first person female narrator from a modest background who is thrust into a life of extravagance. She is not given an exact age, but the reader can be sure that she is younger than twenty-one and she is constantly referred to as a child. Upon meeting and immediately marrying Maxim, she soon learns that he is still very much haunted by his previous wife Rebecca’s death and this causes his moods to vary with little warning. The protagonist describes her existence as the lady of Manderly, not as a wife of the master, but a child who is left in the dark in terms of knowing her husband’s past: ‘…I knew all the doubt and anxiety of a child who has been told, ‘these things are not discussed, they are forbidden’. This self-reflection of the protagonist along with her realisation of being treated much like Jasper the dog, shows a very clear insight into DuMaurier’s opinion of the treatment of married women, particularly young ones. She contrasts very much to Rebecca who was respected by her equals and servants and is remembered for being particular about arrangements within the Manor and therefore a perfect Lady of the House in comparison. As in most novels of the gothic genre, the weather also bears a clear effect on the feelings of the characters. When Maxim is happy, the surroundings are of blooming flowers, freshness and beauty. When his mood sours due to his constant reminders of his ex wife, the whole climate changes; for example, when he first starts to show his new wife around ‘The Happy Valley’, there are many descriptions of the intoxicating scents of the flowers and the happiness this causes. But when he later becomes troubled and distant, the couple are situated on the bay and like Jasper, who has drifted across the very symbolic rocks and crashing waves, the narrator too is shown to be out of her depth and drowning in confusion and sadness at not knowing her husband’s mind. A clear symbol throughout the novel is the smells within and around Manderley. The musky smells of the West Wing symbolise the death of Rebecca and the smells of flowers and blossoms symbolise the part of the building that is, in a sense still alive. The hankercheif that the narrator finds belonging to Rebecca still has a scent of azalea flowers as does her old room and this represents the lingering memory of Rebecca, the fact that she is gone but still very much present in everyone’s mind; Another symbol which is repeated is the narrator’s description of Rebecca’s signature; the ‘R’ towers above all the other letters in her poetry book and later, on the hankerchief that the nameless narrator finds scrunched up. Even the way that Rebecca writes her name seems to consume the narrator and the ‘R’ seems to symbolise the importance of her in comparison. Moreover even the fact that Rebecca is given a name in the first place shows that she is held in higher regard than the narrator who is only ever given the name of her husband via marriage.

    Q) How far would people agree that this is much less a romance and more about a woman who is being conditioned from being free to becoming trapped in the traditional role of a woman?

    Q) Who feels that the narrator is a likeable character and if not why not?

    Q) How do people feel about having a narrator with no name? Can we as readers appreciate the symbolism of it or is it frustrating never to find it out? What effect does it have on the reader’s connection with the character?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: