The sensation novel came to light as a genre in the 1860’s. Building on the Gothic tradition and the conventions of melodrama, the sensation novel dealt with social issues and situations which were on the fringes of moral acceptability, and frequently dealt with sensitive and shocking subjects.
“Rebecca” can be said to conform to certain aspects of this genre. Dealing with a respectable male character – Maxim de Winter – who murders his wife yet retains the sympathy of his new wife and the reader indeed qualifies the novel to be sensation literature. The 1940 film of “Rebecca” made by Alfred Hitchcock was subject to the strict film codes of the era and although the movie was very true to the novel in parts, Rebecca’s death was rewritten to be an accident, and Maxim only guilty of covering up the truth.
Charles Dickens “Great Expectations’ is often cited as an example of a sensation novel, and indeed parallels could be drawn between the evil Mrs Danvers and the cruel Miss Havisham. Also, the first person narrative of “Rebecca” is comparative to Pip’s narration of his life events. Both narrators also go through a learning process which is, at times, painful.
In the late 1800s, the Sensation Novel genre appeared in England; these were lurid, melodramatic novels about crimes and passion, taking place in present-day settings and often attempting to shock the reader with taboo subjects.
Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, is a good example of a sensation novel. Its subject matter is a tumultuous marriage, a dead wife who may have been murdered, and outside influences who wish to break the protagonists apart. At the time, themes of adultery and spousal murder in a novel were still considered risque, as were the selfish actions of Mrs. Danvers, who attempts to compel the narrator to suicide. Another factor is the novel's success at publication; while it is now considered a classic work, at the time it was deemed barely above the level of pulp fiction, and its success as a "sensational" novel certainly helped to keep it from being recognized as a classic at the time.