Warning: Please don’t read this review if you have not read the novel. Major spoilers ahead.
Rebecca is a classic of Gothic fiction: when one sets out to review a classic, it is always a bit dicey, as though some blasphemous act is being committed (even if the review is favourable). However, I feel that I must share my feelings about this magnificent work: so I plunge in, setting my apprehensions aside.
Rebecca is an exquisitely crafted novel: from one of the most famous opening lines in the world of fiction(“Last night I dreamed we went to Manderley again”)to the very end, there is hardly a word, sentence, paragraph or pause out of place. The characterisation is painstakingly done and superb. As the story moves towards its predestined semi-tragic ending, the reader is never allowed to relax or withdraw from the story even for a minute.
The novel opens on the French Riviera, where the unnamed narrator is companion to a rich American lady vacationing there. She meets and falls in love with the middle-aged widower Max de Winter there; and after a whirlwind courtship, marries him. She accompanies him to his country estate, the forbidding Manderley, where she is immediately onset by feelings of inadequacy; the whole mansion seems to be pervaded by the unseen presence of Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter. The forbidding housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, adds fuel to fire by continuously insinuating that Rebecca de Winter was a real lady and the new lady of the house is a simple social upstart who can never measure up to her.
Things come to head when Mrs. Danvers cleverly manipulates Mrs. de Winter into wearing a costume at a party, which Rebecca wore on a former similar occasion: Max simply explodes, and asks her to change immediately. Subsequent to this scene, the housekeeper almost persuades the young bride to commit suicide. However, distraction arrives in the form of a shipwreck on the shore, following which Max tells his young wife the truth about Rebecca.
Rebecca, contrary to the charming exterior she presented to the world, was a cruel and manipulative woman who tortured her husband continuously with the stories of her escapades with various men. Ultimately, she tells Max one day that she is pregnant with another man’s child, and that he is powerless to denounce her: he would have to raise the child as his own. Goaded beyond limit, Max shoots and kills her, then sinks her body in the sea within his boat, letting it be known that Rebecca died in a boating accident.
The sunken boat is recovered following the shipwreck, however, and holes drilled at the bottom are seen. A verdict of suicide is brought at the inquest. But a crisis is precipitated by Jack Favell, Rebecca’s disreputable cousin and her lover, who claims that Rebecca could not have committed suicide because she had visited a doctor before her death and had some momentous news to impart. He, along with Max and his wife, are sure that this information is proof of her pregnancy: however, rather than submit to Jack’s blackmail, Max decides to face the music.
The novel’s final bombshell explodes when the doctor reveals that Rebecca indeed had momentous information; and that suicide is entirely believable, because she was suffering from cancer and would have died within a few months. The reader, along with Max and Mrs. de Winter, understand that Rebecca’s provocation of Max into killing her was her final act of revenge and escape from a lingering death. The story does not have a happy ending, however: a frustrated Mrs. Danvers finally goes over the edge and torches Manderley, herself perishing in the fire.
Rebecca is a novel which works on many levels. It can be read as a straightforward Gothic mystery, and is none too the less satisfying for it. The secrets are sufficiently sordid, the mood satisfactorily noir and the characters morbid in their preoccupations.
However, when start to look in depth at many of the many-layered themes in the story, Ms. du Maurier’s genius as a storyteller comes to light. The fact the protagonist is never named, and the novel goes under the name of her dead antagonist is extremely significant. The whole novel, in fact, is driven by three women characters. The dead Rebecca who is beautiful, cruel, miasmic, yet strangely attractive and desirable: the current Mrs. de Winter who is pretty, sweet and extremely likeable yet uninteresting (like Disney’s Snow White): and Mrs. Danvers, dark, brooding and evil like a witch. It is almost a perfect maiden-nymph-crone triad of the pagan goddess (though I doubt whether the author intended anything like it). The protagonist’s lack of identity, and Rebecca’s all-pervasive one, is almost painfully stressed.
From the male viewpoint, Rebecca is the perfect dream-girl who once possessed becomes the antithesis of what she represented as an unattainable ideal. Max tries to exorcise her first by killing her, but proves unsuccessful. Like a fairytale prince, it is through unselfish love for a pure maiden that he is redeemed. When he faces up to his crime, he finds deliverance at the last minute. However, Max still has suffer the final punishment – the loss of Manderley – along with which the crone-figure also disappears, allowing him to finally make a new life with his princess.
Does the novel have any flaws? IMO, the only one I found was that the story was too manipulative: the author has laid out a road-map for the reader, and carefully guides him/her along it without allowing any diversions. The revelations are placed at the correct places with clock-work precision. This is not necessarily a flaw in a mystery novel, but it does take away from the spontaneity of the story a bit.
On the first reading, enjoy Rebecca as a mystery: go into the depth of the narrative structure and craft, and the psychological undercurrents, in subsequent ones. This novel warrants careful analysis, especially if one is an aspiring writer. It will give invaluable insights into craft.