Nandakishore Varma's Reviews > Rebecca

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
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Oct 06, 12

bookshelves: classic, gothic

** spoiler alert ** 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 Story

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.

The Analysis

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.
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Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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message 1: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Great review, and very insightful. I love the comparison with fairy tales because it just triggers so many insights into the novel. It is only when Mrs de Winter breaks the spell that Rebecca has over Max and the place that she is able to win. It seems entirely fitting that Rebecca, as the dead "mother" figure, loses her power when it is discovered that she is not only not a mother, but incapable of being one. And being discovered to be infertile, she becomes the crone, leaving the position of nymph vacant for Mrs de Winter to step into.


Nandakishore Varma Thanks, Whitaker. You have given me some new insights. It just goes to prove that when two book-lovers discuss a story, how it enriches the reading experience.

Which is why I come to Goodreads! :)


Navaneeta You can't help having a reluctant admiration for Rebecca, can you? I really loved your analysis. However, I felt that you did not do justice to the beautiful images that the author forms through her words. The imagery in this book is much more detailed than in any other Gothic/noir/thriller that I have come across. I had read the book in an Assamese translation; I don't know how evocative it is in English. But for me the entire book was in pictures.

I specially appreciate your idea of the 'maiden-nymph-crone' triad. That never came to my mind before. Thanks for the excellent review!


message 4: by Nandakishore (last edited May 11, 2012 03:17AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nandakishore Varma Navaneeta,

Thanks! I could have dwelt at length on Daphne du Maurier's beautiful prose: it is very picturesque, as you say. Unfortunately I do not have the book to hand, and I do not get time to write lengthy reviews. I am also afraid I lack the expertise. :(

What you say is correct: Rebecca is actually the heroine of the book, and I was in love with her by the time I finished the novel. (I read it as a young man, still very susceptible to the magic of "wicked" ladies! ;)

I suggest that you read the original.


message 5: by Jurgen_i (new) - added it

Jurgen_i Really good review, Nandakishore! You raised my interest to this book a lot, hope to read it soon.


Aruna Kumar Gadepalli Interesting review, for those who want to read a good book reviews of this sort will be really good help, please keep the good work


Nandakishore Varma Thank you!


Neena wonderful review, really intriguing:)


Nandakishore Varma Thanks!


Julie I just finished rereading Rebecca-the first time was thirty years ago, so a true rediscovery. Wonderful review!


Nandakishore Varma Thanks, Julie.


Margitte Wonderful review!


Nandakishore Varma Margitte wrote: "Wonderful review!"

Thanks!


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