Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Rebecca is a gothic romance of the kind that has been popular since the genre was invented in the late eighteenth century. The plot is conventional: The protagonist, a young woman, finds herself in an unfamiliar and sinister setting, where she must solve a mystery and win the heart of a handsome man. This novel, which is considered one of the finest of its type, continues to be popular in the late twentieth century, despite the fact that the central character accepts a subservient role in society and in marriage.
Rebecca begins, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” This often-quoted line sets the story in motion, not only establishing the narrative voice but also indicating that what follows will be an account of past events, ending sadly. In the pages that follow, however, the narrator explains that although they must live far from home, she and her husband are devoted to each other. After further arousing the curiosity of her readers with tantalizing references to the title character and to a Mrs. Danvers, Daphne du Maurier begins her story.
Although from this point on the novel moves chronologically, the narrator frequently uses similar hints to foreshadow future events, thus maintaining a high level of suspense. For example, in chapter 3 she muses, “I wonder what my life would be today, if Mrs. Van Hopper had not been a snob.” It soon becomes clear that the social aspirations of this rich American woman vacationing in Monte Carlo have resulted in the introduction of the narrator, who is Mrs. Van Hopper’s hired companion, to the aristocratic Maxim de Winter, and eventually in their marriage. When Mrs. Van Hopper decides to leave immediately for New York, the recently widowed Max does not want to lose his young companion, and to the older woman’s astonishment, he proposes. The result of Mrs. Van Hopper’s snobbery is now clear; what is still to be explained is the rest of the sentence, which recalls the narrator’s statements about suffering in the introductory chapters. For those answers, one must read on.
After this brief beginning, the novel moves to...
(The entire section is 872 words.)
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Manderley. Estate in Cornwall to which Max de Winter brings his new bride, the second Mrs. de Winter. There, he earlier lived with his first wife, Rebecca. From the blood-red rhododendrons surrounding this house of secrets to its iron gates holding in its past when Max and his second wife arrive in early May, Manderley is a forceful, menacing, and even malignant presence. The house itself seems to cause the events of the plot by acting upon the characters. As willful and capricious as the spirit of the dead Rebecca herself, the house symbolizes her tomb; her spirit infuses the place. In this ghostly personification, Rebecca actually seems to transcend the gothic form.
Manderley is based on two distinctive houses, one a house du Maurier visited as a child, and the other, Menabilly, a house in which she herself lived for more than twenty-five years. The houses merged in the landscape of her imagination to become Manderley, which inspired one of the most famous opening lines of twentieth century literature: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” As potent as a presence, as moody as a person, Manderley has a living aura and is as much a character in the novel as any man or woman. In fact, the house figures in the sensibilities of both of Max de Winter’s wives more than any living presence by being imbued with the spirit of his first wife, Rebecca.
According to a published memoir, du Maurier...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
When Rebecca appeared in 1938, it was dismissed as a romance written to fit a familiar formula, designed purely for entertainment. Critics admired du Maurier’s technical skill, but they did not look in the novel for thematic or symbolic subtleties. The fact that since its publication Rebecca has continually remained in print, selling steadily over the years, must be attributed primarily to its still holding the same appeal for readers which made it such a commercial success a half century ago. The book is exciting and suspenseful, it has the kind of setting that lends itself to ghost stories, and it is essentially a love story with a happy ending.
Although many women readers evidently can still identify with heroines as subservient as the protagonist of Rebecca, contemporary critics are taking a new look at the novel. It is difficult to reconcile its seeming acceptance of a patriarchal system of male dominance with what, in her authorized biography, Margaret Forster has shown about the author herself. Not only was du Maurier convinced from childhood that she was a male in a female body, but, though a wife and mother, she felt free to have affairs with other people of both sexes. In other words, although she was not selfish and spiteful, in many ways du Maurier resembled Rebecca more than she did the virtuous protagonist of her novel.
Evidently, Rebecca is a more complex work than it was once thought to be. While it can hardly be argued that Rebecca is a sympathetic character or that her minions, Favell and Mrs. Danvers, are anything but revolting, du Maurier does show how dangerous not only innocence but also a system based on female subservience can be for both partners in a relationship. As she finally realizes, the narrator is of little use either to herself or to Max until she has developed an identity of her own. It is not the shy and helpless girl, but a woman—strong, self-confident, and independent—who chooses to support her husband in his ordeal and, in their exile, to make his life worth living.
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
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...
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