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As a literary term, the word “subtext” has been defined by the Collins English Dictionary as “an underlying theme in a piece of writing” and “a message which is not stated directly but can be inferred.” The subtexts of any work of literature can be numerous and complex, but one subtext of Daphne Du Maurier’s famous Gothic novel Rebecca is suggested by the book’s opening sentences:
Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.
No smoke came from the chimney, and the little lattice windows gaped forlorn. Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me. The drive wound away in front of me, twisting and turning as it had always done, but as I advanced, I was aware that a change had come upon it; it was narrow and unkempt, not the drive that we had known.
In the most obvious senses, this passage describes the narrator’s dream of an approach to a place that once seemed very familiar to her. Apparently she had been to this place often and may even have lived there, since she seems quite familiar with all its details, as is implied by such phrases as “as it had always done” and “that we had known” (emphasis added). Both of the phrases just quoted suggest that Manderley was once a regular part of the narrator’s accustomed surroundings and regular routine. She had known it well, apparently.
Yet one can also read the passage above and find a variety of subtexts, especially when the novel is being re-read. Among the possible subtexts of this passage are the following:
- The narrator is the surrogate of the reader. Just as the narrator is approaching a place that now seems a bit strange to her, and just as the narrator now doesn’t seem to know quite what to expect, so the reader of the novel is in a similar situation. We are not quite sure what will happen in this book – a fact that is especially important since the whole book is a mystery and since the book’s opening sentences already imply its mysterious qualities.
- The book itself is like a “dream” in the sense that things, events, people, and places in it seem “real” but do not in fact exist. Just as dreams can be incredibly vivid, gripping, and involving, so Du Maurier will succeed in creating a fictional narrative that will have these same traits. Just as a dream can seem to present a kind of reality, so, too, will this novel do the same.
- Just as the narrator’s dream presents a variety of challenges and obstacles (a locked gate, an entrance that seems barred, a call but no response), so the novel itself will pose various challenges and obstacles to the reader. Indeed, part of the reason that we enjoy mysteries is that they deliberately mystify us and keep us full of uncertainties and challenges.
The opening paragraphs of Rebecca, then, can seem to contain what might be called “metafictional” subtexts – subtexts that invite us to consider the intriguing similarities between the novel itself and what the novel describes.
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