Rebecca Essays and Criticism
by Daphne Du Maurier

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The Narrator of de Maurier's Story

(Novels for Students)

No one could ever reasonably question the popularity of British romance and mystery writer Daphne du Maurier. An author who sells books in the millions is rare enough, but her fans took their enthusiasm beyond simple purchases. In an age before the internet made conversing with fellow enthusiasts as easy as sitting down at a keyboard, there were several societies devoted to her, like the fan clubs that movie stars tend to attract. Most of this cult of du Maurier centers around one book: her 1938 neo-Romance, Rebecca. The book attracts new fans every year, with thoughtful readers of literature beaming about how hard they found it, after the last page, to shake off their involvement in the lives of the dashing Maxim de Winter, the repressed Mrs. Danvers, catty Bee, and all of the rest of the larger-than-life characters who roam the halls of Manderley.

It is tempting to give in to du Maurier, to congratulate her posthumously for creating a world that has lasted over a half of a century. There is, however, another side of the argument, a side that would describe Rebecca as nothing more than a work of really competent trash, which owes its popularity to its appeal to the least common denominator in literary tastes. To critics of this inclination, the book's continuing popularity is no sign of the author's talent, but of her willingness to corrupt her considerable skills to be all things to all people, ending up with nothing particular to say.

It is an age-old debate: is it mere snobbery to say that what sells is trash, or is it delusional to say that what sells is art? One way or the other, in the case of Rebecca, it seems impossible to separate the book's overwhelming popularity from its merit.

The question becomes even more compelling when the focus of inquiry is narrowed to one particular aspect of the book, such as du Maurier's handling of the narrator. For the first third of the book, she has no name, a mystery that the author is clearly willing to go out of her way to preserve. It is not as if there are no opportunities to have the character's name revealed in dialog, or in a memory of something once said to her, or any of the countless other tricks that authors use to reveal such information. Du Maurier knows that she is teasing readers about it, and she makes her teasing quite clear. "But my name was on the envelope," the narrator says of a letter de Winter sends her in chapter 3, "and spelled correctly, an unusual thing." This story takes the time to draw attention to something, without going on to say what that something is.

Artistically, this coy act should not work. It usually does not. Beginning writers often try leaving out specific details about crucial characters, hoping that, without names or faces, it will be easier for readers to relate to the characters, as if anonymity is the same thing as universality. Usually, avoiding the obvious just results in weak writing because readers tend to feel less, not more, involved when details are left out. The book may work because of this technique, or it might work in spite of it. The general rule against obscurity just might be wrong, but anyone who has read much amateurish writing that tries to stir up suspense by leaving out facts will swear that it is right. The other two likely explanations are difficult to unwrap from one another: either du Maurier just happened to find that one-in-a-million recipe of the precise amount of characterization needed, without one atom over, or else readers are willing to let her get away with underwriting her main character because the rest of the book is just so much fun.

There is plenty of reason to believe the first option, the one about du Maurier's precision in molding a credible human being of the second Mrs. de Winter. It is, after all, not as if the character is entirely left up to readers' imaginations. Some facts are given about her. She is supposed to have artistic talent, although this is always brought up in the negative, in terms of the...

(The entire section is 6,978 words.)