Prepare to feel discomfort and all manner of emotions reading this book, and it is for that reason I urge you to read it unaware of any of its many stunning attributes—stop reading this now and go read it then come back; to do anything but would do the story a disservice. I went in knowing nothing about it and thought it was a romance.
It is a stunning piece of feminist literature. Written in 1940, du Maurier pens elegant prose around a stilted quaintly world of the British patriarchal rich—what we plebs call the aristocracy—written from the perspective of someone who is not. The gender issues alone will make you grind teeth; there’s even some racism in the form of black and brown face discussed briefly; classism is a major theme and a vague illusion to queerness hides in plain sight. Eloquent in its writing style, Rebecca bears witness with far more awareness and atmosphere to how much space women make for men, oftentimes at the expense of our own—in all things, even our very lives. It’s quite infuriating and thorough, but beautifully and remarkably rendered. This book is an entire semester of gender studies—possibly two. I went in search of the many feminist essays afterward and wasn’t disappointed.
I wanted to hate this book; I cannot. It is brilliantly written and a product of its time; examining it ahistorically would do an injustice to the author, the prose, and a failure of gender and class politics, which, in light of our current situation, is pretty damn important and should be studied thoroughly. However radical the book was in the forties, it aged quite clumsily in some circles. Still, it hasn’t aged at all in a considerable amount of places and therein lies why it’s so infuriating. If you’ve read fanfiction and even some romances, this flawed mentality—captured perfectly in Rebecca—still infects lots of women, and men. That it is even labeled a romance is problematic and generates many heated debates—discussions we need have to inform younger women of what awaits them in the form of romance and love.
This book shocked me—but not really. Once you become aware of its true character in the calculated and nuanced form of love and romance, you stop and reassess, moving forward with a curious caution—a perspective I wish, and I expect many women wish they had early in their lives. The descriptions are vivid and stunning. The character arcs could stand some more depth, but the weightiness of that would likely lose the snap of its ultimate goal—its flat flawed creations the point. Given this is the second Mrs. de Winter’s story, it is significant that you’re never given her name. She is an object remember; merely an accessory of Maxim de Winter, the original and only, and a replacement for the former wife: Rebecca.
What I found the most compelling was how du Maurier created the mystery surrounding Rebecca’s character in the evolution of the protagonist; layered in who Rebecca was and why such secrecy embodied that character, unfolds the emergence of others. Like anything taboo—anything other—we tiptoe around, probing gingerly and nuanced as to not upset the delicacy of the male character’s emotions and imbalance the prominence of anything fundamentally male, including those dutiful and servile women they surround themselves with. This is how we live our lives. The male perspectives and male interpretations demanded become the norm, which is all the more infuriating in a patriarchal society where women are made flat with no agency; the evolution of women characters softens the edges, blunts us into simpler tools, and many times, we often acquiesce willingly unfortunately. To condescend to younger women about how much harder the world was for women earlier would be moot since this world remains; if not for us, for others. Though I feel that occasionally all of us need a pointed reminder because it can easily be so again as evident in current events and still around the world daily. du Maurier challenges us to view these women individually and collectively in relation to ourselves and our experiences. It is a salient barbed warning that burns raw when prodded.
Some reviewers have even gone as far as to say the protagonist is an unreliable narrator given her flights of fantasies and games, and her own unresolved identity that is somewhat vague; but that therein seems like more unfairness forced onto us as women. So much of society wants to define us as clean uncomplicated creatures; so, as young women, our identities morph into such illusive capricious creatures crafted by the whimsy and chance of any given moment, provided our safety and needs relevant to the situations we are in given our status in a patriarchal society. As young women, we search and ransack and rummage and scrutinize till we’re lost in a sea of sameness; the confines of a box limited to either one of three identities, of which du Maurier depicts distinctly in Rebecca; we are not allowed to try any additional ones for fear of the delicacies of the males; of upsetting the status quo. Of the many scenes where the protagonist imagines or pretends to adopt an identity or persona other than her own unfulfilled one, two stand out: one where she discusses wanting to wear black satin with a string of pearls, and he dismisses this outright; and, another at the table where he, the husband, chastises her, unbeknownst to him, for mimicking Rebecca; these expose his true nature and the onset to eventual revelations. I didn’t find Max so much as cold and calculated, but shallow and reactive—entitled to his needs and nothing more. Only when he feels the fire of exposure to which she can bare witness does he express his love for her. It leaves one cold and weary.
Given how Manderley is such a big portion of the story, the baroque details are yet another theme. du Maurier created a protagonist of a different class trying to assimilate into another without probably having any experience of the lower ones. I cannot say this for certain though since I have only a vague summary of du Maurier’s history. She did an admirable job of this as the words evoke rich and lifelike imagery. You feel as if you’re actually strolling the grounds of Manderley and that gives the narrative its false sense of happiness and protection—much like her romance and marriage; an empty shell, if you will.
If you have not read Rebecca and continued reading this, I don’t want to spoil that which is an important part of the book because it is critical to recognize and acknowledge it for what it is. When the secrets are unveiled and the perspectives about Rebecca revealed to the protagonist, she fails the test. And there are many tests. Of the many problematic areas, the twenty year age difference between them is painful to witness, and du Maurier renders this beautifully. How the young protagonist immerses her world into his, consuming her whole, smothering any sense of her own identity, ultimately dispatching any awareness of her as an individual, but into something molded by his needs, by his wants, his comforts; we have a word for this—it’s called grooming. Her obsequiousness is nauseating; he wields complete power over her and it is grotesque and leaves one raw and bitter with anger. Her innocence and ignorance of healthy love debases herself while bolstering him. When she sits at his feet, I likened her behavior to that of a dog, it was so foul, and I wondered if du Maurier had written this specific scene as satire. The protagonist does eventually evolve; nowadays I imagine we might call her a Karen.
I empathized with every single female character in this book. Every one of them are all of us. Ultimately though, we are all Rebecca—the character we can relate to most of all; the most complex and fascinating of the book; dehumanized and labeled a whore and adulteress simply because she wanted to live freely and differently (he did agree to this); and when given the opportunity to pass a test of female solidarity, the second Mrs. de Winters fails, whereas Mrs. Danvers—the true heroine of the story—succeeds. Bring on the marshmallows, I say. Let them go gray pondering empty shells and memories turned ash while sitting lazily and comfortably in forlorn European hotel rooms.
Wait—if I condemned the second Mrs. de Winters, I would be committing the same mistake she did. Imagine her position: a newly young naïve wife of a rich white man trapped by a murderous confession, fearing for her safety, knowing she can do little as women were still property at that time with no rights—what was she to do? This is where she is born—of the fires and ashes of Manderley to her more confidant position comfortably stated at the beginning of the novel, she says. Is it fulfilling? Not at all. It’s wearisome and broken and born of the blood and sacrifice of our fellow sisters in self-preservation. And it sucks.
Addendum: I found this about du Maurier that has given me lots more to think about.