Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is not an obvious choice for feminist critique. First, there’s the nameless female narrator searching for an identity and finding it only as “Mrs. De Winter.” Then there’s Rebecca, the obligatory dead woman who launches the whole tale. And then there’s Mrs. Danvers, the manipulative old bat. But Rebecca interests me as a feminist because it’s about three well-drawn, fleshed out women characters trying to carve out lives and identities for themselves despite gender and class privileges working against them. And, oh yeah, there are some men.
Plus, the novel sets up a feeling of foreboding, a sense that something’s off-kilter, from the very first sentence, and this feeling doesn’t let up even in the last sentence of the book. Because so much of the plot relies on class and gender privilege, and we know something is wrong, it’s not difficult to look beyond the mystery and find rich material for a social critique.
For brevity’s sake, the rest of this post will assume you’ve read the novel. If not, the Wikipedia entry provides a thorough (spoilers included!) synopsis.
When we meet the narrator, she’s the hired companion of an obnoxious woman who all but stalks celebrities in Monte Carlo. For a young woman without means or family, it’s either work jobs like this or get married. And she figures her prospects for marriage dim at best, given she’s not beautiful, charming, witty, talented or any of the things prized in women. She’s shy, naive, insecure, and even bumbling – prone to anxiety fantasies that go on for pages.
Then she meets Prince Charming in the form of Maxim De Winter, a wealthy Englishman best known as the owner of a famous estate, Manderley, vacationing in Monte Carlo to recover from the death of his wife, Rebecca. But this is no Cinderella story. As Maxim begins to see the narrator socially, there’s no hint of romance in their encounters, and yet he suddenly asks her to marry him when she tells him she’s to move to America with her employer.
More disconcertingly, the narrator reveals herself as someone who has no idea what romantic love is or what she’s dealing with here. Maxim is sometimes casually thoughtless – cruel even – but our narrator lacks the life experience to recognize when she’s being mistreated. The same social codes that limit her options for financial support have made her easy prey. (The modern reader may at first assume his insensitivities are merely the casual sexism of the time, but when he later apologizes for being selfish and changes his behavior, it becomes clear his former actions were meant to make the reader uneasy.)
When they go to live at Manderley, Maxim reverts to his former lifestyle, leaving the narrator to run the place as Rebecca once did – assuming, perhaps, that the ability to manage a household of any size is coded into female genes. There’s an entire staff of servants with discrete functions, and our narrator has no idea what she’s doing. Worse, the head servant is Mrs. Danvers, who raised Rebecca, accompanied her when she married and stayed on after her death. She deeply resents the narrator and takes every opportunity to undermine her confidence and humiliate her. Maxim is, of course, oblivious to the goings on of servants and wives. The narrator, of course, doesn’t confide in him for fear he’ll blame her and the marriage will fail.
The narrator spends most of the book thinking Maxim still misses Rebecca, who was beautiful, elegant, knowledgeable, talented, witty, charming: the perfect lady. The ideal woman, according to the patriarchal view which ignores both the good and ill effects women can have through their actions and instead judges them only on their sexual allure and their ability to fulfill the role of wife.
But it turns out Rebecca got up to a lot of ill effects while playing the perfect lady. While the characters describing her talk more about her adultery (their points of view also hampered by what the patriarchy conditions us to notice in women), it’s clear she was pathologically lacking in empathy. She enjoyed neither sex nor seduction; what she liked was wrecking lives, controlling people, and having a laugh at men who fell for her, who could never mean a thing to her. We learn that on her honeymoon with Maxim, she told him what she was really all about (and he refuses to repeat precisely what she divulged, which suggests there was more than infidelity going on) but promised to take perfect care of his dear estate for him and be the “perfect wife”. Maxim, in his embarrassment at having been so mistaken about her, agreed to the farce. Nothing in Maxim’s experience, which assures him women are harmless, prepared him to recognize or cope with emotional abuse – a disadvantage which allowed Rebecca, just after learning she had untreatable cancer, to goad him into killing her. This saved her the trouble or shame of suicide, and caused her to continue to consume his thoughts after her death: he must keep up the facade that he loved her, or someone may become suspicious and look more carefully into the “accident” that hid his crime.*
There’s a very telling scene when Mrs. Danvers recounts a story of Rebecca whipping the daylights out of a horse because it wouldn’t do precisely what she wanted. That scene reveals not onlyRebecca’s nature, but Mrs. Danvers’. She tells her tale with such pride – the quintessential “that’s my girl” story – and credits herself for teaching Rebecca to approach life and people in that way. And as we come to realize what Rebecca had that Mrs. Danvers lacked – beauty and high class breeding – we begin to see that Mrs. Danvers was a frustrated sociopath who conditioned a young girl to mistreat and mock the world that wouldn’t bend to her will. Mrs. Danvers lived vicariously through Rebecca, and without her has no more identity than our young protagonist, suddenly thrust into the role of Mrs. De Winter without a script.
When Rebecca’s body is unexpectedly found and Maxim believes he’s going to be caught, he tells the narrator the truth of how Rebecca lived and died. She never even considers the fact that he’s admitting to murder and might be lying about how Rebecca provoked him; she immediately dives into the romantic idea that she will stand by her man through the inquest and whatever comes next. For all she knows at this point, Maxim was the abuser and not Rebecca; but again, she makes the choice she’s been conditioned to make, and the novel does not romanticize it. She is Mrs. de Winter, and no one else.
Du Maurier never gives the narrator a name other than “Mrs. De Winter”, and it is this choice that convinces me at least some social critique was intended with this narrative: only Rebecca, the villain, has a name of her own. Even Mrs. Danvers lacks a first name. Only by avoiding or betraying the servitude that was every woman’s destiny, by ruthlessly harming those she could and charming those she couldn’t, did one woman in this story manage to carve out an identity.
All the narrator got was a husband who lost the identity he’d been handed by privilege of birth – owner of Manderley – when someone burned down the estate in posthumous revenge for Rebecca.
*I hope no one uses this point to compare Maxim to a battered wife in a world where his class and gender gave him more options for dealing with his abuser than women have traditionally had. While the comparison is not completely without merit, abuse is a very complicated subject, and the only point I’m trying to make is how patriarchal values set up men for mistreatment as well as women and use shame and denial to keep us there.