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Rebecca

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English Literature

The haunting memory of a beautiful first wife, a mysterious wealthy widower, a grand estate, an obsessed, manipulative housekeeper, a famous opening line, and numerous adaptations, including one by Alfred Hitchcock Rebecca (1938) has it all! Is it any surprise that this gothic novel full of mystery, love, jealousy, and death continues to fascinate readers today? Read on to unravel the mystery behind this remarkable work by Daphne Du Maurier.

Rebecca: Summary

Rebecca employs the flashback narrative. Although the reader is very much aware of the fate of the narrator and her husband from the get-go, the flashback technique is nonetheless effective in creating an air of mystery and foreboding. Further adding to the enigmatic atmosphere of the novel, the narrator and protagonist, the new Mrs de Winter, remains unnamed. She begins the story by describing a dream and recounting how she and her now-husband met.

Travelling as the companion to a wealthy American woman by the name of Mrs Van Hopper, the protagonist was staying in the same hotel as Maxim de Winter, a mysterious widower. After knowing each other for only a few weeks, they get married, and she travels back with him to his grand estate, Manderley. When she arrives there, she finds traces of Maxim's first wife, Rebecca, all over the estate. The protagonist realises that Maxim, the house, and the housekeeper Mrs Danvers, are all still haunted by the memory of Rebecca, who drowned in a cove near Manderley the previous year. Despite never knowing Rebecca, Mrs de Winter, too, becomes haunted by the seemingly superior, 'perfect' image of her predecessor.

Manipulated by Mrs Danvers, Mrs de Winter starts to believe that Maxim is still in love with Rebecca. Mrs Danvers even tries to persuade her to commit suicide. At a costume ball hosted at Manderley, Mrs Danvers convinces Mrs de Winter to wear a costume remarkably similar to one worn by Rebecca, thus incurring Maxim's wrath. After the disastrous costume ball, a sailboat runs aground; it's Rebecca's sailboat, and her corpse is found inside.

As a result, Maxim is left with little choice but to tell his wife the truth about Rebecca. A mean-spirited and manipulative woman, Rebecca had had multiple affairs in the past and used them to antagonise Maxim. One night, when Maxim had asked her for a divorce, she rejected and ridiculed his request by telling her that she was pregnant with the child of her cousin, Favell. Enraged, Maxim shoots Rebecca and kills her, and then loading her body into a boat, lets it sink into the sea.

Upon learning the truth, Mrs de Winter is relieved that Maxim's love for her was true and that he had not remained in love with the memory of Rebecca. There is then an investigation into Rebecca's death; however, the coroner reports it a suicide. Favell accuses Maxim of Rebecca's murder, but a trip to a London Doctor reveals that Rebecca couldn't have been pregnant; she had been dying of cancer and was infertile. In light of these revelations, Maxim is cleared of Favell's accusation, and they travel back to Manderley. But, when they arrive, the house is in flames with Rebecca's faithful housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, still inside.

Rebecca's body is found in a sailboat, pixabay.

Rebecca: Key quotes

'Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.'

The novel opens with this famous quote. It creates a sense of intrigue and mystery, and the use of 'Manderley' in the opening sentence of the novel emphasises the importance of the setting. This emphasis is typical of gothic novels, where the setting is imbued with a complex character as if taking on a life of its own. Memory and melancholia of the past residents of such settings is also a common trope of gothic novels.

It's gone forever, that funny, young, lost look that I loved. It won't come back again. I killed that too when I told you about Rebecca.

This is said by Maxim about the loss of the protagonist's innocence after he informed her that he killed Rebecca. Arguably, this is indicative of Maxim's deception and manipulation of the protagonist. It hints at the moral ambiguity of the climax when Maxim de Winter's crime goes unpunished.

Why don't you go? We none of us want you. [...] It's you who ought to be dead, not Mrs. de Winter.

In this quote, Mrs Danvers addresses the protagonist after the disaster at the costume ball and demonstrates her hostility towards the protagonist and loyalty towards Rebecca. By identifying Rebecca as 'Mrs de Winter,' Mrs Danvers not only makes plain where her allegiance lies, but she also manipulates the protagonist into attempting suicide by compounding the protagonist's insecurity that she does not belong in a place so grand, surrounded by people of a higher social class.

Her shadow between us all the time. [...] She knew she would win in the end.

Maxim explains to the protagonist that the rift between them is caused by Rebecca's memory. This is typical of the Gothic novel in the sense that a character that is not physically present continues to haunt the other characters, either literally or figuratively. In the case of Rebecca, she haunts them through the memories of her which have been stamped on the people of Manderley as well as the estate itself, within which Rebecca's stationery that has been marked with an ornate 'R' can be found.

Rebecca: Structure

Rebecca follows a flashback for the majority of the novel. This structure means that the reader has some information at the very start as to how the novel will end. We know that the protagonist and Maxim are no longer living at Manderley, and we know that they are still both alive and together. This gives us information that we wouldn't have at the start of the novel if it wasn't a flashback.

Daphne Du Maurier's novel can also be considered as a bildungsroman, as the protagonist discovers a lot about her identity and makes many self-discoveries during the novel.

A bildungsroman is a novel in which the protagonist goes through a personal journey of self-discovery.

The novel form lets Du Maurier include a lot of description and character development. Additionally, the popularity of the Gothic novel expanded Rebecca's popularity. The use of flashbacks and the heightened sense of foreboding that Du Maurier maintains throughout the novel is an example of her command over the narrative techniques that she employs in the novel.

The Gothic Genre

Rebecca is a Gothic novel. The Gothic genre often includes picturesque settings, mystery, terror, the supernatural, violence and death, and we can see all of these in Du Maurier's novel:

  • Picturesque setting: Manderley is described in beautiful detail and is a very memorable setting.
  • Mystery and terror: the novel bases itself on the memory of Rebecca and the mystery of what happened to her. Mrs Danvers's treatment of the protagonist also leads to terror.
  • The supernatural: although there are no actual ghosts in Rebecca, the memory of Rebecca haunts Manderley and the people living there.
  • Violence and death: Rebecca suffers a violent death (although we find out that she wanted Maxim to kill her), and Maxim can be seen to have a violent side.
  • Memory and melancholia: typical of a Gothic novel, the characters and the setting in the book are haunted by the memory of Rebecca, with an air of melancholy and mystery settling over the events of the novel. The melancholy of the protagonist is particularly evident as she remains anonymous, and the most fundamental part of her identity, her name, remains a mystery.
  • Corruption: the corruption and loss of one's innocence is a common feature in Gothic novels. In Rebecca, Maxim believes that it is the memory and knowledge of Rebecca that corrupts the protagonist and the sanctity of their marriage.

Gothic texts often feature the trope of 'setting as a character.' This means that the creepy house/castle/manor that the story is set in is written in such an atmospheric way that it seems to be as 'alive' as any other character. Some examples include the castle in Bram Stoker's Dracula or the house in Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. The Netflix show Haunting of Hill House is based on the gothic novel of the same name by Shirley Jackson and also features this trope, where the house seems to 'lure' back the family that once lived there to claim their lives.

Rebecca: Themes

Setting

The setting is important in the plot of Rebecca and is used as a device to support the Gothic genre. Manderley is the main setting of the novel, and the estate is seen as haunting, grandiose, and mysterious.

The beach hut and the cove at the edge of the estate also play an important role in the novel. There is a mystery built around them, and it is also the setting for the violence of Rebecca's murder.

The setting is important when thinking about the Gothic genre and the Manderley estate is a great example of how a place can affect the feelings of characters as the estate feels like it is haunting the protagonist with memories of Rebecca.

Jealousy and Identity

Jealousy is another theme that is common in the Gothic genre, and we can see how jealousy affects the protagonist in Rebecca. The protagonist feels jealous of Rebecca. She feels that Rebecca is more attractive, more intelligent, and overall more successful as a wife than the protagonist. This jealousy towards Rebecca leads the protagonist to start losing her sense of identity.

Mrs Danvers is also shown as a jealous character. Her jealousy is rooted in Rebecca's death and the belief that the protagonist doesn't deserve the life that Rebecca used to have.

Love and Marriage

The love between Maxim and the protagonist is evident throughout the novel. Their marriage is threatened and corrupted by the memory of Maxim's late wife, Rebecca.

It is only after Maxim confesses to the protagonist about killing Rebecca that their marriage is saved, as the protagonist realises that he still loves her and never loved Rebecca.

Sexuality

Sexuality is used by Du Maurier to show the differences between Maxim's late wife Rebecca and his current wife, the protagonist. Rebecca is described to be elegant and beautiful, but it is also revealed that she had multiple affairs. Because of this, her character is highly sexualised since the emphasis is not only laid on her beauty but also on how she antagonises Maxim through her sexual overtures towards other men. She exudes a superficial charm that enthrals those around her.

The protagonist attempts to be seductive earlier in the novel, as she believes that is what Maxim wants, but she fails. Maxim was aware of Rebecca's superficial charm, which she used to her advantage to manipulate people. The protagonist's attempt at seduction reminds him of Rebecca's manipulation, thus repulsing him. His admiration for the protagonist is due to her innocent nature. This shows the clear difference in character between Rebecca and the protagonist.

Death and Memory

The death and memory of Rebecca haunt the other characters and is one of the key parts of the novel. Rebecca's memory and haunting presence at Manderley lead the new Mrs de Winter to question her own identity and the love of her husband towards her.

Rebecca's murder is revealed in the latter half of the novel, and the brutality of her death is used to show that Maxim was capable of violence but was also manipulated by Rebecca.

Justice and Deceit

Maxim is seen as quite a deceitful character, especially after the revelation that he murdered Rebecca. He keeps a lot of secrets from the very start of the novel, which is a great cause of worry for the protagonist. Rebecca is also a deceitful character, lying to Maxim about her pregnancy and forcing him into a murderous rage.

Justice is explored in the novel, but it is up to the reader to decide whether or not justice is achieved. Maxim is not found guilty of Rebecca's murder, and her death is labelled a suicide. Whether this is seen as justice because Rebecca manipulated Maxim into killing her, or whether it is seen as injustice because Maxim isn't found guilty of her murder, is left for the reader to decide.

Manderley is burnt down near the end of the novel, which could be seen as a sort of justice for Rebecca's murder, as the protagonist and Maxim are unable to continue living there.

Rebecca: Characters

The four key characters in Rebecca are the protagonist, Maxim de Winter, Mrs Danvers, and Rebecca. Let's take a look at these characters in more detail:

  • The protagonist: seen as quite naive and innocent, the unnamed protagonist falls in love with Maxim quickly and is whisked off to Manderley. Once there, she is corrupted by the memory of Rebecca and Mrs Danver's harsh treatment of her. After Maxim reveals he hated and killed Rebecca, she is relieved rather than horrified as she realises he is no longer in love with Rebecca.
  • Maxim de Winter: Maxim is mysterious and enters the novel as a rich widower who falls quickly in love with the protagonist. He seems troubled with the memory of his late wife, and later in the novel reveals that he killed her, showing the reader that he has a violent side.
  • Mrs Danvers: she is the faithful housekeeper to the late Rebecca. Mrs Danvers is cold and harsh towards the protagonist. She tricks her into humiliating herself and tries to persuade her to commit suicide. At the end of the novel, Mrs Danvers sets fire to Manderley house.
  • Rebecca (Mrs de Winter): the eponymous character of the novel, Rebecca is first viewed as perfect - beautiful, intelligent, charismatic. By the end of the novel, her true nature is revealed; she was cruel and manipulative towards Maxim, lying on multiple occasions and having lots of affairs. She tricked Maxim into killing her as she was already dying of cancer.

A cove, perhaps similar to the one where Rebecca was on the night that she died, pixabay.

How has Rebecca contributed to English literature today?

The novel is seen as Daphne Du Maurier's most recognisable work. In 1969, she was awarded a DBE (Dame Commander of the British Empire) for her contributions to literature.

Paired with mystery and an ambiguous villain, the unnamed protagonist makes the novel quite unusual as, when there is a central character, they are usually the focal point and are very often named. Over eighty years later, people still enjoy the novel; there have been multiple film adaptations of the novel, and this has made it more widely known to people. A recent adaptation (Rebecca, 2020) of the film shows us that the novel is still relevant today because of the narrative techniques it uses to evoke a sense of mystery and suspense, which the film tries to replicate.

Rebecca - Key takeaways

  • Rebecca follows an unnamed protagonist as she marries Maxim de Winter and goes to Manderley.
  • Manderley is haunted by the memory of Maxim's late wife, Rebecca de Winter.
  • The main characters in Rebecca include the protagonist, Maxim de Winter, Rebecca, and Mrs Danvers.
  • The novel is from the Gothic genre and follows a flashback. It can also be seen as a 'bildungsroman' as it follows the protagonist's journey.
  • Key themes in the novel include place, jealousy and identity, love and marriage, sexuality, death and memory, and justice and deceit.

Rebecca

At the end of the novel, the truth that Maxim de Winter murdered Rebecca is revealed; however, Maxim is declared innocent, clearing the way for Maxim and Mrs de Winter to live happily. When the couple returns to Manderley, the house is in flames with Rebecca's faithful housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, still inside.

The novel bases itself on the memory of Rebecca and the secret of what happened to her. In the latter half of the novel, it is revealed that Rebecca was murdered by her husband, Maxim de Winter.

Rebecca was written by Daphne du Maurier and published in 1938.

Rebecca follows an unnamed protagonist as she marries Maxim de Winter and moves to his Manderley estate which is haunted by the memory of his late wife, Rebecca.

Maxim de Winter, Rebecca's husband, killed Rebecca.

Final Rebecca Quiz

Question

When was Rebecca published?

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Answer

1938.

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Question

Who is the narrator in Rebecca?

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Answer

The narrator remains unnamed throughout the novel.

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Question

Who does the narrator marry?


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Answer

Maxim de Winter.

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Question

What is the name of the estate that Maxim de Winter takes the protagonist to?


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Answer

Manderley.

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What genre is the novel?

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Answer

Gothic.

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Who is the housekeeper that torments the protagonist?

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Answer

Mrs Danvers.

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Question

How did Rebecca actually die?

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Answer

Maxim killed her after she lied and said she was pregnant with someone else's child.

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What does Mrs Danvers try to persuade the protagonist to do?


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Answer

Commit suicide.

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Question

What happens to Manderley at the end of the novel?


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Answer

It is burnt down.

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Question

Which of the following is not a theme in the novel?

  1. Jealousy

  2. Memory

  3. Winter

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Answer

C, Winter.

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What is revealed about Rebecca very near the end of the novel?


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Answer

That she was not pregnant and was dying of cancer.

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How was Rebecca thought to have died at the start of the novel?


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It was said that she drowned.

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What is the name of Rebecca’s cousin with who she had an affair with?


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Answer

Jack Favell.

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Question

True or false: the protagonist was horrified when Maxim told her he killed Rebecca.


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Answer

False, she was actually relieved that he still loved her.

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Question

Which of the following relates to the structure of the novel?

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Answer

Chronological order

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