Why did the narrator of Rebecca have nothing much to do?

Quick answer:

The narrator finds herself with nothing much to do because she has poor self-esteem, which prevents her from taking much action. Initially, she is the obedient companion of an overbearing woman whose orders she follows without question. Then, at Manderley, the narrator is so cowed by Mrs. Danvers and the ghost of Rebecca that she surrenders all power right from the beginning. Her aloof husband Maxim leaves her to wander lost around the mansion without much to do.

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The quiet and meek unnamed narrator of Rebecca is often at a loss for knowing how to behave. Both before and after she marries Maxim de Winter, she does not know what she is supposed do; she feels no strong purpose or sense of self-identity.

She initially travels with a wealthy, middle-aged woman named Mrs. Van Hopper, not as a friend but as a hired companion-in-training. Compared to her overly assertive boss, the narrator is a “shy, uneasy colt” who merely accompanies the older woman to prevent her from being alone. Yet while they dine, the narrator cannot make conversation with her boss:

We ate in silence, for Mrs. Van Hopper liked to concentrate on food.

Hoping to catch the eye of other wealthy people, the social-climbing Mrs. Van Hopper sends the narrator on inane tasks “as a bait to draw her prey.” When the woman contrives to meet Maxim, for example, the narrator describes her job:

Like a juggler’s assistant I produced the props, then silent and attentive I waited on my cue.

The narrator’s diffidence continues when she moves to Manderley, where she truly is at a loss for things to do. She admits that she arrives

handicapped by a rather desperate gaucherie and filled with an intense desire to please.

Intimidated by Danvers, the narrator immediately tries to win over the housekeeper by declaring, “I hope we shall be friends.” The narrator states that she wants to make sure Max is happy.

More significantly, the narrator finds herself without much to do because she relinquishes all power to Mrs. Danvers at their first meeting. Despite being Manderley’s new mistress, the narrator tells Mrs. Danvers,

I know I can leave all the household arrangements to you … and you must run things as they have always been run, I shan’t want to make changes.

Mrs. Danvers reveals that indeed she has been in charge of the household for more than the past year since Rebecca (Manderley’s former mistress) died without any complaint from Max. She also admits that when Rebecca was alive, “though I managed for her she like to supervise things herself” like dinner parties. In other words, Rebecca was the boss of Manderley and its social events.

In contrast, the diffident narrator repeats and reemphasizes to Mrs. Danvers,

I would rather leave it to you … much rather.

On her first morning at Manderley, the narrator feels a sense of nothing much to do and not fitting in. She admits,

I had never realized, of course, that Manderley would be so orderly and planned.

And she does not fit into this order. Max himself is no help, and yet another reason why she finds herself lost. In fact, Max wakes up and eats breakfast himself, leaving her on her own to wander around the mansion. She does not have anything substantial to do or friends to confide in.

Finally, the shadow of the supposedly glamorous, sophisticated, and smart Rebecca looms over the narrator. No matter what the narrator does and no matter what changes she suggests, Mrs. Danvers reminds her of how much better things were done under Rebecca and thus should not be altered. This constant psychological sabotage undermines the narrator’s self-esteem, confidence, and desire to do much of anything.

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