Why You Should Re-Read Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier's Gothic Classic

The enduring haunting of a cold first wife.

a still from hitchcock's rebecca, based on the daphne du maurier novel
  • Photo Credit: United Artists

The acclaimed Gothic novel Rebecca was published by author Daphne Du Maurier in 1938. This gripping story follows an unnamed woman in her early 20s, brimming with naivety and heart. After a quick courtship with an older widower, Maxim de Winter, the narrator retreats with him to the delightful Manderley estate in Cornwall. But it soon becomes clear that Maxim’s deceased wife, Rebecca, lingers on in his wife and the halls of the looming estate…

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For avid readers, it may be easy to spot some similarities between Rebecca and the earlier Charlotte Brontë work, Jane Eyre. But while Du Maurier’s novel may have drawn from a genre classic, it paved its own way so uniquely that it boasts its own ripples through pop culture.

Shortly after this captivating story hit the shelves, a film adaptation was produced. This 1940 Academy Award-winning film was directed by none other than the iconic Alfred Hitchcock, and starred Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.

Eighty years later, as a testament to the staying power of this great work, a remake of the film is in production, with Lily James and Armie Hammer in the leading roles.

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References to the book exist in several of horror writer Stephen King’s books, as well as in modern romantic novels like E.L. James’ Fifty Shades Darker. There have been stage adaptations, radio plays, and television miniseries dedicated to bringing this heart-pounding story to life. And in 2017, the novel was voted as one of the UK’s favorite books in the last 225 years.

But why does Rebecca leave such an impression on readers of today, much like the titular character seemed to brand her mark on the world of the novel?

a still from hitchcock's 1940 adaptation of rebecca
  • Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in Hitchcock's Rebecca, 1940.

    Photo Credit: United Artists

For starters, this novel is an expertly crafted psychological exploration full of mystery, drama, and romance. As the second Mrs. de Winter settles into a life full of fresh promise, the dark shadows of obsession, jealousy, and secrecy slither into her psyche to disturb the foundation of her marriage. Undermined at every turn by the coldly calculating housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, Mrs. de Winter shrinks into feelings of inadequacy, falling into despair as she is convinced she is less beautiful, less capable, and less loved by Maxim than the late Rebecca. It’s a feeling that’s punctuated by Daphne du Maurier’s choice to never let readers learn the narrator’s name, instead forcing us to refer to her by the one she shares with the first Mrs. Maxim de Winter.

Through an air of mystery and conniving driven by crazed obsession, the character of Rebecca is built up in the minds of both the narrator and the reader as a true paragon of womanhood. Her seemingly effortless perfection paints a bleak and hopeless picture for the future of Maxim’s second wife. Yet, as the light at the end of the tunnel seems to dim further and further and Mrs. de Winter is encouraged toward a suicidal path, a random tragedy unearths a disturbing truth.

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The impressive execution of the twists and turns of this novel are noteworthy on their own, but the persisting relevance of the thematic threads in the book mark this as a work that transcends the passage of time. The personal struggles and truths overcome, earned, and discovered in the tale are deeply and timelessly human. How many of us can say that we’ve never felt like we were living in someone else’s shadow? How often do we let the words and judgements of others feed our insecurities?

[Editor’s note: Spoilers ahead! If you want to experience the twists in Rebecca for yourself, stop reading here.]

Buy Rebecca at Amazon

Rebecca

By Daphne du Maurier

 

But like the looming presence of Rebecca in this novel, the ghosts of the things we compare ourselves to are never quite as flawless as our fears would make them seem.

Of course, it’s rare to find someone as shockingly and cruelly imperfect as the woman Du Maurier slowly unveils to her readers. The beautiful marriage that the second Mrs. de Winter longs to emulate was nothing but a sham full of loathing and contempt. Rebecca had a history of being senselessly vicious and contemptibly selfish, forging habits of manipulation, deception, and infidelity which fueled her husband to commit a terrible crime of passion. And while exposing the faults of the shadow one is living in may be a relief in real life, the dramatic reveal of Rebecca’s twisted nature adds a tense sense of foreboding.

Yet, while the late Rebecca is the central focus of a story which frames her as a parasitic deviant, it is the living who seem the most dangerous of all. The conniving Mrs. Danvers, who abuses the second Mrs. de Winter's self-esteem so thoroughly. Rebecca's first cousin and lover, Jack Favell, who echoes her worst traits and seems determined to wreak only more havoc. And Maxim himself, whose cold exterior hides not only a softer heart, but darker deeds.

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first edition cover of rebecca by daphne du maurier
  • The first edition cover of Rebecca, from 1938.

    Photo Credit: Public Domain

This is a novel full of complex characters—characters who have many layers and sides that are exposed and obscured depending on whose eyes we get to see them through. The truths and actions set into motion as the novel hurdles toward the end bring about warring senses of relief and dread, coloring villains in shades of unexpected sympathy while our classic heroes are mottled with corruption. And the once timid Mrs. de Winter is forged by the unspeakable trials into a more assertive woman who denies the victimhood thrust upon her.

Amidst the fears and atrocities so tangible you can taste the dread is the vivid estate of Manderley. Du Maurier’s descriptions of the enigmatic mansion evoke a nightmarish sense of stale secrecy. The gloomy halls of the home stand as a chilling mausoleum of the past. And like the narrator in the celebrated opening line of the novel—“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”—readers seem unable to escape the grip of this haunting manor.

Rebecca is a novel rife with problems that bear continued prevalence in today’s society. The pervasive trend of pitting women against each other. The desperate cruelty that comes from feelings of inadequacy. Corrosive jealousy, crazed obsession, and the inability to let the past rest. These are specters far more dangerous than the looming memory of Rebecca de Winter, and this novel’s thoughtful exploration of them makes for an unforgettable work.

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Published on 26 Jun 2020