Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

October 5, 2008
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” So begins Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier's classic novel. The unnamed narrator begins this gripping story by telling of her recent nightmare of Manderley, the beautiful estate where she once resided. The story then flashes back to her memories as a young, gauche servant of the nosy Mrs. Van Hopper. On a visit to Monte Carlo, the two encounter the recently widowed and wealthy Mr. Maxim deWinter, owner of the estate. Mrs. Van Hopper introduces the narrator to deWinter, saying, “He looks ill, doesn't he? They say he can't get over his wife's death…” When Mrs. Van Hopper becomes ill soon thereafter, the narrator is left with nothing to do, and eats with deWinter when they go to the same restaurant for lunch. In the days that follow, the narrator and Maxim, as she now calls him, learn more about each other and the two different worlds to which they belong.

After Mrs. Van Hopper recovers, she prepares to return, with the narrator, to her home in New York. The narrator is heartbroken at having to leave Maxim, whom she has come to love. Maxim gives her another option. “I repeat to you, the choice is open to you. Either you go to America with Mrs. Van Hopper or you come home to Manderley with me,” he announces on the day that the narrator is supposed to leave. The narrator accepts Maxim's marriage proposal and the two leave for their honeymoon and then to their home, Manderley.

Even though the narrator has officially become the second Mrs. deWinter, it is clear that Rebecca, Maxim's seemingly perfect first wife, is still omnipresent at Manderley. As the story progresses, the second Mrs. deWinter learns more than she cares to know about her predecessor. The narrator despises the fact that everywhere she goes, her ordinariness is being compared to Rebecca's stunning beauty, her shyness to Rebecca's charisma. She always lives in the shadow of Rebecca, trying unsuccessfully to be accepted into Rebecca's high-class society. The narrator is constantly afraid even to touch the things in her own house, for fear of disturbing the order which Rebecca had kept. The servants, especially Mrs. Danvers, formerly Rebecca's maid, still follow Rebecca's rules.

One of the traditions which Rebecca set while alive was to have a dress ball at Manderley, and it is decided that, in honor of the new Mrs. deWinter, one should be held this year. Based on a tip from Mrs. Danvers, the narrator decides to design her own dress based on a picture hanging on Manderley's walls. When she shows off the dress to Maxim and a few others merely hours before the ball, it is clear from the horrified expression from their faces that she has done something terribly wrong. She later learns that Rebecca had worn the same dress for the ball only a few years before. Appalled at the grief which she knew this must have caused Maxim, the narrator begins to fear that her marriage is about to end. She barely makes it through the ball, not ever talking to Maxim.

When she wakes up the next morning, the narrator is horrified to find Maxim gone, his bed obviously not slept in. She searches desperately for him, and finds him trying to help save the people on a ship which had washed ashore. Along with this ship, however, a smaller sailing boat- Rebecca's boat, which had supposedly sunk years before- was found in perfect condition. The discovery of this boat sets off a sequence of thrilling events which leaves the reader questioning whether Rebecca really was the perfect woman everyone thought her to be.

Although she is never physically in action over the course of the book, Rebecca is, through her omnipresence, by far the most interesting character in the novel. She has a way of influencing things which transpire long after her own death. Rebecca twists the story into an exhilarating sequence of events which makes the reader question who exactly she is.

In Rebecca, du Maurier elaborates on the theme that everything is not necessarily as it seems. For the majority of the book, the narrator labors under the delusion that Rebecca was the perfect person, that Maxim loved Rebecca more than he loves her. As the tension in the novel increases, it becomes evident that she is mistaken. This theme is echoed on a smaller scale as the narrator learns that what she previously thought was an effortless high-society life has many of its own pitfalls.

When I was first recommended to read Rebecca by a friend, as a person who generally avoids overly-saccharine romance novels, I was suspicious of reading “The Classic Tale of Romantic Suspense”. Nevertheless, I decided to try it. I turned Rebecca to the first page, read the first paragraph, and I was hooked. I found Rebecca to be a fascinating read. Through du Maurier's words, I could picture the beautiful estate of Manderley, hear the music playing at the ball, and feel the painful despair of the narrator as she was haunted by the first Mrs. deWinter. The heated argument between the narrator and the deceased Rebecca was well-written and intense, and the suspense and excitement which filled the concluding pages of the book captivated me until the final period.

It is fitting, then, that I would recommend Rebecca to any reader who is looking for a book which is not a sickly-sweet romance, but rather a fascinating read. While the narrator's quest for love from Maxim is the driving force behind the book, there are almost no instances where love itself is explicitly mentioned. Although the beginning of the story is slightly slow to move, the story's progression quickly turns a romance novel into a stimulating murder mystery. Throughout the story, du Maurier writes with perfect emotion about this haunting tale of the psychological ghost of Rebecca.

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