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...
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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....
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Post World War I
During the 1800s, Britain had built its empire by adding colonies, dominions, and protectorates. These were the great years of the British Empire: Queen Victoria, reigning for over sixty years, gave the nation a sense of stability and progress. Her conservative social views created the stiff-lipped, formal stereotype of the British citizen that is known today and that is portrayed inRebecca: strict rules of behavior between the sexes, tea at four-thirty each day, and a fascination with wealth that was suppressed by the good taste not to talk about it. When Victoria died in 1901, her son Edward succeeded her to the throne. The Edwardian age in England is considered a time of international stability, owing to Edward VII’s talent for negotiations. Like the Victorian era, Edward's reign from 1901 to 1910 was marked by domestic stability and social formality.
World War I shattered the tranquility of Europe, especially of Great Britain. Previous military conflicts, such as the Crimean War and the Boer War, had been marked by the civility of the participants. In the previous battles, the British class system had been clearly maintained, separating officers from soldiers, keeping the former far from the fighting, in deference to their ranks. World War I, on the other hand, brought new technology that destroyed any sense of class in battle. Long-range cannon, portable machine guns, and, especially, the use of poisonous gas forced...
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With the exception of the opening chapters in Monte Carlo, Rebecca takes place at the country estate of Manderley. The now famous first sentence, "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again," prepares the reader for the importance of the manor house. Du Maurier adheres to the Gothic tradition by giving psychological importance to the house, which becomes almost a character in its own right. The mansion's rooms provide clues to Rebecca's character. There is a stigma attached to the sea, the site of Rebecca's drowning. Maxim orders Mrs. Danvers to redecorate the east wing, which looks out on the rose garden, rather than taking up residence in the west wing with its view of the sea.
Manderley is important to the narrator before she even sees it. Her elderly companion, Mrs. Van Hopper, dwells on British aristocracy and places great value on Manderley as a stately home. In addition, when younger and vacationing nearby, the narrator herself had purchased a post card of the estate. She speculates, "Maybe there was something inviolate about Manderley that made it a place apart." Her reflection on the uniqueness of the house prepares the reader for the events which are later revealed.
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There are two main settings for this novel. The first is the resort of Monte Carlo on the southern coast of France. Since 1862, when the first gambling casino was opened there, the town has been famous around the world as a playground for Europe's rich. Starting the book in this setting serves to establish the wealthy social class of these characters. It also helps to raise readers' curiosity about Manderley, which is talked about constantly, even by characters who have never been there but who know it by reputation. The narrator buys a postcard of Manderley in a shop in Monte Carlo.
Most of the book tales place at Manderley, the English country estate that has been owned by the de Winter family for generations. The house itself is imposing to a young girl who was not raised in this wealthy social environment. It is so large that she gets lost, so large that one entire wing can be shut off with Rebecca's personal belongings with little effect. Ancient portraits hang on the walls, reminding the narrator of the responsibility of becoming part of a well-established dynasty. The place is decorated with expensive things that Rebecca put there, constantly reminding her of the presence of the first Mrs. de Winter.
The house is surrounded by trees, which can be inviting on a sunny day but frightening on a dark, rainy one. Past the trees is the bay. Manderley's proximity to the sea is important because it adds to the beauty of this...
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Du Maurier excels at first person narration. Rebecca is written from the point of view of Maxim's second wife, whose name is never revealed. This deliberate omission serves to emphasize her colorless personality and, by contrast, to accentuate the powerful personality of her predecessor, Rebecca.
Du Maurier has written that she had meant to begin Rebecca with the narrator meeting Maxim, then later decided to move the beginning of the action to an opening epilogue. This decision is, in large part, responsible for the success of the novel. In Rebecca,as well as in My Cousin Rachel and other of her works, the action begins with a major character's elusive memories of the way life used to be before a terrible event. The novel then describes the events that irrevocably changed the character's life. Du Maurier allows the novel to end quickly by using this narrative device, thus avoiding a long, anticlimactic denouement.
Rebecca follows the conventions of the Gothic novel and is largely responsible for the genre's resurgence in the twentieth century. Typified by Horace Walpole's novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764), the Gothic novel is often set in an eerie mansion or castle. Usually, a young heroine's life is threatened by secrets contained in the mansion until the man she loves rescues her. Rebecca follows this formula except that Maxim, the hero, does not rescue anyone from the evil Manderley. To the...
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Compare and Contrast
1938: The first nuclear fission of uranium is achieved by German scientists. This is the physical reaction that leads to the nuclear bomb.
1945: Nuclear bombs are dropped on the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hastening the end of World War II by killing nearly two hundred thousand people.
Today: After decades of international fear about the devastation that nuclear weapons can cause, no other nuclear bombs have been used during wartime.
1938: Cancer is barely understood. The first cancer-causing agents, known as "carcinogens," have been isolated in England just five years before.
Today: Cancer is the number two cause of death in the United States, but millions of dollars are spent on research each year, and much progress has been made in understanding causes and treatments.
1938: The first steps in photocopy technology are made, as inventor Chester Carlson develops a method to reproduce an image on paper using electrostatic attraction.
Today: Image reproduction has progressed to the point that computer users are transferring scanned images from one machine to another, without ever using paper to transmit them.
1938: Orson Welles presents his radio program about an alien invasion, War of the Worlds, in the style of a news program. Across America, hundreds of listeners believe that Martians are really invading...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Mrs. Van Hopper has briefed the young narrator on the history of Manderley and its owner, Maxim de Winter. With her previous knowledge, do you suppose that the narrator has fallen in love with Maxim or with Manderley?
2. Discuss the narrator's relationship to Mrs. Danvers. Why does Mrs. Danvers dislike the second Mrs. de Winter?
3. What is the significance of the boathouse? Why does Maxim stay away from it?
4. Why is Doctor Baker's testimony so important to Maxim's case? Does it make you change your mind about the events surrounding Rebecca's death?
5. What are some of the objects at Manderley that remind the narrator, Mrs. Danvers, and Maxim of Rebecca?
6. Why is the narrator's costume a mistake? What is the significance of such an error?
7. Beatrice Lacy, Maxim's sister, is kind to the second Mrs. de Winter, yet she constantly argues with Maxim. What is the background of her relationship with her brother?
8. Why is Rebecca written in the first person? Does this add to the suspense?
9. The narrator comments, "But Rebecca would never grow old. Rebecca would always be the same. And her I could not fight. She was too strong for me." Does she prove herself wrong by the end of the novel?
10. Why is it considered odd that Rebecca's boat sank? What clues are revealed later that indicate foul play? Ideas for Reports and Papers
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Discuss the way the young narrator slowly collects information on Rebecca's personality and habits.
2. Read Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (1847). Do you note any similarities between Thornfield Manor and Manderley? What makes each of these a Gothic novel?
3. Setting is very important to Rebecca. Discuss the significance of the sea, the rooms in Manderley, and the surrounding countryside.
4. At the inquest, certain details of the night that Rebecca died come to light. Why were they not presented earlier? What is the importance of these details?
5. Alfred Hitchcock's adaptation of Rebecca is one of his most successful films. Watch the movie and compare it to the book. Are there any stylistic similarities between the movie and the book?
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Topics for Further Study
Monte Carlo is still recognized around the world as a vacation spot for the rich. Research what it was like in the 1930s: what sort of people went there, what sort of activities were available, and so forth.
Using the descriptions in the novel, draw sketches of various locations at Manderley.
Write a short story about where Maxim de Winter and his wife will eventually end up after they finish traveling, as described in the very first chapters. Bear in mind that this novel ends at just about the time that World War II begins.
The novel describes how Rebecca threatened to have someone else's child and make Maxim de Winter raise it as his own. Research British law and try to find out how difficult it would have been, in the 1930s, for him to divorce her.
Several times in the novel, the characters predict what the weather will be like, with observations such as "the glass is dropping." Explain how a barometer works and how accurate its predictions are likely to be.
Rebecca is still popular today. Find out the sales figures throughout the years. Try to explain at least one period of high or low sales.
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As at least one critic has pointed out, du Maurier is at her best when writing in first person. My Cousin Rachel (1951) is told from the point of view of Philip Ashley and Rebecca from the point of view of the second wife. Rebecca is remarkable because the reader never learns the narrator's name. This deliberate omission serves to emphasize the colorless personality the second wife appears to have and, by contrast, emphasizes the powerful personality of her predecessor, who is named.
Du Maurier has written that she had meant to begin Rebecca with the narrator meeting Maxim, then later decided to move the epilogue to the beginning of the book. This decision is, in large part, responsible for the success of the novel. In Rebecca — as well as in My Cousin Rachel and other works by du Maurier — the novel opens with a major character's elusive memories of the way life used to be before a terrible event. The novel then describes the events that irrevocably changed the character's life. Putting the epilogue first allows du Maurier to end quickly, thus avoiding a long, anti-climactic denouement.
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Rebecca follows the tradition of the Gothic novel and is largely responsible for the genre's resurgence in the twentieth century. First created by Horace Walpole when he wrote The Castle of Otranto (1764), the Gothic novel typically takes place in an eerie mansion or castle. Usually, a young heroine's life is threatened by secrets in the manor until the man she loves rescues her. Rebecca follows this formula except that Maxim, the hero, does not rescue anyone from the evil in Manderley. To the contrary, Maxim is responsible for the death of his first wife and is unaware of the danger his second wife faces. My Cousin Rachel is also an adaptation of the Gothic novel since a young hero and heroine are caught in a mystery that takes place in an old mansion. It also departs from the traditional Gothic romance because the hero is responsible for the heroine's death and the reader is never certain of the heroine's true character.
Two authors who used the trappings of the Gothic novel and influenced du Maurier are Charlotte and Emily Bronte. Charlotte Bronte's fane Eyre (1847) also has a mysterious first wife, a brooding hero, and a fire. Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel begin similarly to Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (1847) since all are structured as memories of events that have already taken place. Daphne du Maurier has acknowledged her debt to the Brontes. She used a line from one of Emily Bronte's poems for the title of her first novel. The Loving Spirit...
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While Rebecca describes the struggle between good and evil, My Cousin Rachel explores the nature of good and evil. The narrator, Philip Ashley, shifts from one opinion to another as he desperately tries to discover whether Rachel is a murderer and greedy conniver or a hapless victim of circumstance. Since Philip ultimately resolves the problem of Rachel by killing her, readers must also judge whether Philip has killed an innocent woman or struck a necessary blow against evil. As the novel vividly shows, the presence of evil is not easily recognizable, and the true worth of a person is highly subjective.
Du Maurier adapted Rebecca into a three act play, which was produced in London in 1940 and on Broadway in 1945. The most famous adaptation of Rebecca is Alfred Hitchcock's classic film. Starring Laurence Olivier as Maxim, Joan Fontaine as the second wife, and Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers, it won the 1940 Academy Award for best picture. In an era when leading men portrayed fully heroic figures, it is not surprising that Hitchcock changed the plot so that Maxim kills Rebecca accidentally rather than deliberately. Rebecca was also adapted in 1978 by the British Broadcasting Company and Time-Life films and shown on television in 1981. This version, starring Jeremy Brett, Joanna David, and Anna Massey, is more faithful to the novel than Hitchcock's version and received good reviews. Nonetheless, it is less memorable than the...
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In 1977, as part of the celebration of her seventieth birthday, Daphne du Maurier participated in a television biography about her life. This rare interview by Cliff Michelmore, entitled The Make Believe World of Daphne du Maurier, is available in VHS cassette from Banner Films in London.
Rebecca is one of director Alfred Hitchcock's most celebrated films, made in 1940 with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.
Rebecca was also adapted to a television series on the British Broadcasting System in 1978 starring Jeremy Brett, Joanna David, and Anna Massey, with direction by Simon Langson.
A 1996 adaptation of the book, co-produced by Carlton-UK television and WGBH-TV in Boston, stars Charles Dance, Diana Rigg, and Faye Dunaway. This version is directed by Jim O'Brien with a screenplay by Arthur Hopcraft.
A 1993 abridged audiocassette version of the book, read by Jean Marsh, is available from Audio Renaissance.
There is an unabridged audiocassette version, released in 1999 by Audio Partners Publishing Company, which is read by Anna Massey, who played Mrs. Danvers in the 1978 British television version.
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What Do I Read Next?
The script for Arthur Hopcraft's 1996 adaptation of Rebecca for television has been published in paperback by Andre Duetsch Ltd.
Readers who enjoy the sweeping romance of Rebecca generally like du Maurier's previous novel, Jamaica Inn (1936), about a young woman who moves out to a house on the British moors and is faced with mystery and romance there.
Susan Hill wrote a sequel to Rebecca called Mrs. de Winter (1993). Hill's book carries on where du Maurier's novel left off. Die-hard fans of the original book should beware that reviewers generally find Hill's version to be a disappointment.
One of the most interesting and in-depth biographies of Daphne du Maurier is Martyn Shallcross' The Private World of Daphne du Maurier, published in 1992.
While Rebecca is a good example of romantic literature, the supreme example of the genre is Emily Brontë's 1847 novel Wuthering Heights, which also has a female protagonist in love with a cruel, strong male figure, living in a big, secluded English house.
The novel's plot, about a second wife who is haunted by the memory of the glamorous first wife, is clearly in debt to another classic romance: Jane Eyre, also published in 1847, by Charlotte Brontë, Emily's sister.
Kazuo Ishiguro's 1989 novel Remains of the Day is about the life of a faithful old-time English butler, a type that...
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For Further Reference
"Daphne du Maurier—Romantic." Ladies' Home Journal (August 1971): 102-103. Biography of du Maurier; also includes one of her stories, "Shock of Recognition" (published as "A Border- Line Case" in Don't Look Now).
"du Maurier, Daphne." In Current Literary Biography 50 (June 1989): 63. This short obituary relates the highlights of du Maurier's career and writings.
du Maurier, Daphne. Myself When Young: The Shaping of a Writer. New York: Doubleday, 1977. Information on writing The Loving Spirit.
The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories. London: Victor Gollancz, 1981. An early outline of du Maurier's most famous novel.
Kelly, Richard Michael. Daphne du Maurier. Boston: Twayne, 1987. This biography includes criticism and interpretation of du Maurier's novels and a helpful bibliography and index.
Straub, Deborah A. "Daphne du Maurier." In Contemporary Authors New Revision series, vol. 6. Detroit: Gale. Biography of du Maurier and bibliography of her works. Also summarizes critical opinions of her most popular works.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Barkham, John, Review in New York Review of Books, March 8, 1953, p. 8.
Davenport, Basil, "Sinister House," in Saturday Review, September 24, 1938, p. 5.
Hill, Susan, Review in New Statesman, July 23, 1971.
Raymond, John, Review in New Statesman, August 11, 1951.
Rogers, Pat, "Saving Her Bacon," in Spectator, Vol. 237, No. 7727, July 31, 1976, p. 20.
For Further Study
Auerbach, Nina, Daphne du Maurier: Haunted Heiress, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.
This recent critical examination of du Maurier defends her against criticism that finds her work superficial.
Forster, Margaret, Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller, St. Martin's Press, 1994.
This is the biography that was authorized by du Maurier's family. It has some probing information because the author had more access to papers and interviews than many du Maurier scholars.
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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 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...
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