Daphne du Maurier (who became Lady Browning after her husband was knighted in 1946 and Dame Daphne du Maurier in 1969) won the coveted Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master Award in 1977. Author of historical romances, scholarly biographies, plays, essays, and a travel book, she is best known for her Gothic mysteries. Du Maurier lived in Cornwall for over 40 years, 26 of those in the 17th century home that became the model for the fictional mansion, Manderley (Kelly 1987, 17). Rebecca – the fifth and most famous of her 38 novels – became an instant bestseller, has never gone out of print, was made into a haunting Alfred Hitchcock film, and and was chosen as one of the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the 20th Century by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association.
What kind of novel is Rebecca? It is a mystery, a Gothic romance, a psychological thriller, a modern-day Cinderella, and even a contemporary Bluebeard fairy tale. By combining genres, du Maurier created a memorable, unique, and powerful text.
The plot immediately captures the reader’s interest. Shortly after meeting the nameless working-class heroine while on vacation in Monte Carlo, the brooding, secretive Maxim de Winter asks her to marry him and return to his English country mansion, Manderley. The reader learns that de Winter’s first wife – the “Rebecca” of the title – died within the year, an event that he refuses to discuss. Looming over the novel are questions about her death. Did she die of natural causes? Or was she killed and by whom?
Soon after arriving at Manderley, the heroine becomes obsessed with a past that is shrouded in secrecy. We see everything through her eyes, and we experience her deepest fears and obsessions. Rebecca’s haunting influence becomes inexorable and inescapable for her successor. As our heroine’s tortured thoughts reveal, she cannot escape from the feeling that Rebecca is somehow omnipresent:
Rebecca, always Rebecca. Wherever I walked in Manderley, wherever I sat, even in my thoughts and in my dreams, I met Rebecca. . . . I knew the scent she wore, I could guess her laughter and her smile. If I heard it, even among a thousand others, I should recognize her voice. Rebecca, always Rebecca. I should never be rid of Rebecca (261-2).The first Mrs. de Winters seems curiously more alive and animated than her pale, nameless successor.
Rebecca’s shadow and lasting influence ruins the second Mrs. de Winter’s life. Even more insidiously, it eventually initiates the heroine into a world of guilty knowledge that robs her of her innocence. Maxim tells her, “It’s gone forever, that funny, young, lost look that I loved. It won’t come back again” (336).
Du Maurier excels at depicting the hidden recesses of the unbalanced mind. The heroine’s deep paranoia, her husband’s tormented mind, and the housekeeper’s strange obsessions are all vividly and convincingly portrayed.
What makes Rebecca so gripping is the air of lurking menace and sinister foreboding that pervades it. Manderley is the dominating presence and controlling force of the novel. Evoking the eerie castle of the Gothic novel, Manderley inspires fear and a sense of entrapment. Its mysterious winding corridors and ghostly suites reflect the tortured mind of the narrator; she becomes lost in obsessive thoughts about a strange past.
The circularity of the narrative reflects the narrator’s entrapment in a hopeless existence. As Nina Auerbach observes, “She ends as she began, escorting Max to oppressively sunny watering places, soothing him out of his tyrannical moods as she had Mrs. Van Hopper” (2000, 107).
Rebecca is an atmosphere-centered novel, a psychological thriller characterized by a gradual but relentless build-up of events. The novel ends with a haunting dream in which the heroine looks in a mirror and sees herself reflected back as Rebecca. Although the narrator would have us believe otherwise, the first Mrs. de Winters eventually takes over and completes the character of her no-longer-innocent successor.
This first major 20th-century Gothic novel and perhaps the finest written one, as Kelly claims, is “a profound and fascinating study of an obsessive personality, of sexual dominance, of human identity, and of the liberation of the hidden self” (1987, 54).
Auerbach, Nina. Daphne du Maurier, Haunted Heiress. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.
Du Maurier, Daphne. Rebecca. 1938. London: Virago, 2003.
Kelly, Richard. Daphne du Maurier. Boston: Twayne, 1987.