★★★★★ 5 Stars
Genre: Suspense / Mystery
Publication Date: August 1938 / December 2007
Publisher: Virago Press
“I believe there is a theory that men and women emerge finer and stronger after suffering, and that to advance in this or any world, you must endure ordeal by fire.”
Rebecca and her mansion of Manderley crawl with unease – unspoken secrets threatening to burst into something horrible. The tension here is thick enough to form its own phantom, a frost blooming on the spine that dares to expose itself. Drawing from the destructive powers of envy and doubt, Rebecca is a testament to atmos, haunting our mind even 80 years after its initial publication.
The protagonist is a young woman who marries a wealthy heir a decade or so older than herself, Maxim de Winter, on something of a whim and goes to live with him at his house of Manderley. Manderley is haunted by not only the memory of his dead wife, Rebecca, but also the living – the disturbed housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, who has a poisonous animosity towards the new Mrs. de Winter simply because she is not Rebecca. Rebecca was glamorous, ordered, and the polar opposite of the protagonist in any aspect you can name.
Mrs. Danvers’ twisted, almost romantic obsession with Rebecca becomes an increasing distress the more it breaks into the open. In private, Mrs. Danvers doesn’t bother to hide that she hates the protagonist and even tries to coerce her into suicide at one point.
Everyone at Manderley refuses to confront or discuss anything regarding Rebecca, her “ghost”, in a sense holding them in her vice even after her death. Maxim gets angry with his new wife for trying to connect in some way with Rebecca, and needless to say Mrs. Danvers torments her for failing to be more like Rebecca.
The protagonist famously remains nameless. I was struck off-guard once during the ball scene where someone refers to her costume as being like Caroline, one of the de Winter ancestors’ names, which is about as close as she gets to ever being called a name besides “Mrs. de Winter”. Even her title is a cruel reminder of a woman she feels she will never live up to. The worst is that it’s hinted as the riddle starts to make more sense to the protagonist that maybe Rebecca isn’t someone she should try to be, and was not the angel that Mrs. Danvers and the others saw her as.
Atmosphere is the shadowed soul of horror, and I do hesitate to call this a “horror” novel, but in a sense it truly is more frightening than any entity or demon. For one, it is painfully real and relatable for me. I cringed with… severity during quite a few scenes in this book, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. They are just incredibly unnerving and mirror almost to a T things I have gone through. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. I think anyone who reads it would feel the same dread and start to remember their own.
They say that the inexperienced are at an advantage because of youth, but anyone who’s tried to get their bearings in the world knows this isn’t true. One feels like they have missed out on something that is irretrievable, and I think that despite any appearances, what a person has done is always valued above who they were born or what they seem. This is a double-edged sword.
‘Comparison is the thief of joy’, as Theodore Roosevelt is quoted as saying. If you add bashfulness or insecurity to inexperience, like the protagonist who has simply never had the chance to get out in the world, you’re in for a slew of judgments and comparisons that slowly eke away your sense of self. You’re not sure who you are, but you are sure that you will never be this ideal. Comparison leads the young and the unlucky to dire ends.
“The fever of first love – it is a fever and a burden too, whatever the poets may say.”
Maxim seems to really love the new Mrs. de Winter, but even he is patronizing when she is clumsy or doesn’t automatically sense these unsaid “taboos” about mentioning Rebecca or touching the things that were Rebecca’s. Oh, and the early scenes with Mrs. Van Hopper are the worst for this. If you’ve ever seen the comedy Keeping Up Appearances, imagine Hyacinth Bucket multiplied by about six, and you’ve got Mrs. Van Hopper. I’ve never disliked a character who is only there for like two chapters so instantly before.
Are there any actually poor aspects in this book? Even anything abject that I didn’t think was great? Not really. Not that wouldn’t be petty nit-picking or to one’s personal taste. In technical and storytelling aspects, Du Maurier is a quality that suspense writers should aspire to. I can see a potential rebirth of Rebecca‘s themes even in books that have tried to imitate it, but the prose alone inspires me. It is a book to look up to, despite the irony that it will make someone really doubt their writing skills.
Rebecca is a story contained – breeding poetic beauty from the small area and cast that it has to work with. Manderley is the heart of its own dimension, something of a twisted dream with its sprawl of blood-red flowers and hollow rooms.
Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel and Rebecca I’ve always felt served as counterparts. Even if the former was never quite as popular, a mirror of the same deadly unease is apparent. If possible, I would suggest reading them together. My Cousin Rachel is not exactly alike, but the setting is also one of opulence and loneliness and you can see in it the same traits that made Rebecca so great.
Du Maurier based Rebecca on reflections of her own life and relationships, and as would show later in retrospect, Daphne Du Maurier’s path was eerily parallel to her own opus. Rebecca’s foreboding legacy carries even past her pages.
There are no villains nor are there heroes here. Just those who manipulate and those who have succumbed to their emotions. The novel is a true human tragedy, with the sin of jealousy at its core – ever growing new faces to hide the ones that have decayed.
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…”
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