For nearly four decades, Daphne du Maurier excited and terrified readers with some of the best suspense novels of the twentieth century. She is one of a small group of writers who, by their artistic ingenuity, has insight into character and situation, has technical virtuosity, and has the skill to elevate popular formula fiction into serious literature. There is no better example of her skill and power than her early suspense masterpiece, Rebecca.
The basic structure of Rebecca is what may be called the modern gothic romance, but du Maurier utilizes and transforms the rigid formula of this popular genre to create a very original and personal fiction. The unnamed narrator, at least for the first two-thirds of the novel, is the typical heroine of a gothic romance. Although her character is not deep, her qualities and desires are carefully chosen to provoke maximum interest and sympathy. Two narrative questions animate the rather leisurely early chapters of the novel: Can the heroine, an orphan with little training or worldly experience, adjust to the unfamiliar, demanding social role as mistress of Manderley? Can she win and keep the love of her passionately desired, but enigmatic, even sinister husband, Maxim de Winter? These two elements—Manderley, the isolated, beautiful, but ultimately threatening setting, and de Winter, the charming, handsome, rich, but moody and mysterious male love object—are essential in the genre.
After the de Winters set up residence at Manderley, these two questions lead to the dominating, almost spectral presence of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca. Her presence is made more threatening by Mrs. Danvers, the efficient, sinister, intimidating housekeeper, who still serves her original mistress, and by Jack Favell, Rebecca’s crudely handsome, lascivious cousin. They, along with the gradual revelation that Rebecca’s death was not accidental, give the novel that sense of growing menace that is so important to the gothic romance.
Approximately two-thirds of the way through the book, however, du Maurier adds a special twist to the story that takes it out of the gothic romance category and establishes the book as a unique suspense thriller. Maxim finally breaks down and confesses to the heroine that Rebecca was “vicious, damnable, rotten through and through,” and that he murdered her when she tormented him about a “son and heir” that was not his. Thereafter, the focus shifts from the heroine’s mysterious danger to her husband’s legal fate. Instead of fearing for the physical safety of the narrator, the reader is placed in the ironic position of rooting for the criminal to escape detection and punishment. Furthermore, the “villains”—Mrs. Danvers and Favell—become petty, pitiable creatures rather than seriously dangerous conspirators.
Importantly, the heroine is freed by this knowledge from Rebecca’s onerous legacy. Knowing that Maxim loves and needs her, and faced with a threat that is real and specific rather than undefined and pervasive, she can deal with her situation in a direct, forceful way as an emotionally whole, self-confident woman. The heroine thus grows from a pretty household decoration to the mistress of Manderley, from a girl to a woman, and from a child bride to a mature wife. It is, finally, du Maurier’s skill and sensitivity in describing her heroine’s maturity in a manner that is psychologically believable and emotionally satisfying that qualifies Rebecca as a unique and serious work of art.