Daphne du Maurier’s gothic mystery novel Rebecca (1938) starts out as a lover’s lament: The narrator recalls a beautiful place she once called home. Manderley has been lost but not forgotten. A heavy mist of gloom fills the very first pages of the book and imparts a cool-toned somber hue on the story.
Going back in time to seek the origins of the tragedy, a plethora of surprises await the patient reader, revealing a most suspenseful and unexpected love story, full of turns and twists – each one more shocking than its forerunner.
Entering into the story feels almost like starting with an epilogue – the introduction is the end, an afterthought of things lost. The narrator is silently recalling Manderley’s glory and magnificence while remaining in her state of grief. The expectation of tragedy has already been presented in the tone and detail of writing, and a deep sense of pain can be felt inside the narrator’s loving descriptions of her great loss.
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been […]. Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, nor the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand. […]
The day would lie before us both, long no doubt, and uneventful, but fraught with a certain stillness, a dear tranquillity we had not known before. We would not talk of Manderley, I would not tell my dream. For Manderley was ours no longer. Manderley was no more.
It is inclined that there has been cause for an emotional rift, a tragic loss and a reason to stay quiet on the topic that has torn the lovers apart. This great loss keeps being teased, but remains in the background for quite some time.
To top off the dreamlike state of recalling a memory from the mists of one’s recollection, the narrator’s descriptions of Manderley and its gardens are exceptionally emotional. Every flower, tree and spot of grass seems to be familiar and dear to her heart, every stone and step of the property appears as an extension of her feelings – simultaneously diminishing her sense of happiness along with them vanishing.
While the amount of sentiment could easily overflow from such an intense lament, du Maurier continuously manages to upkeep both a sense of mystery, an element of sadness, and a state of silent reflection with her young protagonist.
The plot chronologically starts with the female protagonist acquainting Mr. de Winter, a mysterious and handsome gentleman who has recently lost his wife in a tragic accident.
As circumstances lead to their companionship, the main character stays grounded and, really quite uncharacteristically for a young woman in love, does not float into a state of idealizing neither her betrothed nor their situation.
Her rather cynical observations about herself, the people surrounding her and her love story are surprisingly wise, her self-awareness and her earnesty refreshing. For any situation where someone more vain or egoistic would be either flattered or offended, the protagonist acts purely out of love. She truly gives her soul to her betrothed – and overcomes the fear of the previous mistress of the house, whose memory and ghost seem to be lurking in every shadow behind her, endangering her footing in the new home.
“I am glad it cannot happen twice, the fever of first love. For it is a fever, and a burden, too, whatever the poets may say. They are not brave, the days when we are twenty one. They are so full of little cowardices, little fears without foundation, and one is so easily bruised, so swiftly wounded, one falls to the first barbed word.”
Although this reflection is made after the fact, the main character’s sense of self is still astonishing. Of course, considering her circumstances, she has nothing to lose, and can devote herself completely to her new future and possible happiness after marrying Mr. de Winter.
The female protagonist starts out being carried by fear entirely:
“I wanted to go on sitting there, not talking, not listening to the others, keeping the moment precious for all time, because we were peaceful all of us, we were content and drowsy even as the bee who droned above our heads.
In a little while it would be different, there would come tomorrow, and the next day and another year. And we would be changed perhaps, never sitting quite like this again. Some of us would go away, or suffer, or die, the future stretched away in front of us, unknown, unseen, not perhaps what we wanted, not what we planned. […] This was secure, this funny little fragment of time he would never remember, never think about again…
For them it was just […] like any hour, like any day. They did not want to hold it close, imprisoned and secure, as I did. They were not afraid.”
And when the most shocking of all plot twists is unveiled (no spoilers here), the young mrs. de Winter surpasses herself in manners of resolve and composure, to achieve her goals and save the people she loves. The twist itself, and the following character development are rather unexpected from both protagonists, which gives the novel even more edge.
Not a single element about Rebecca is a cliché: the gothic features of the property, the impending sense of a haunting gloom by the figurative and literal ghosts of the house’s past; the vastly differing stories and myths that veil the real truth about the late mrs. de Winter – and the actual reason behind the threat she poses to Manderley, both while alive and dead. All of it is fully fascinating and keeps a reader occupied, interested and, at times, very nervous.
Du Maurier has created a mystical ghost character out of thin air, reviving Rebecca solely thorugh stories from other characters, giving her an aura of unmatching elegance and sensuality, convincing the young bride she will never be loved by the man she adores.
And yet, it slowly turns out how the dead have living secrets that change their legacy to the core.
It is during her character development and journey through Manderley, through pushing herself to enquire and discover about things she thinks she knows and sees, that the protagonist manages to conquer her fear of enemies and threats both dead and alive, and to carry herself more upright and aware of her worth as the days in Manderley go on.
The way du Maurier plays with suspense is absolutely masterful: For one, the reader thinks they are given the entire plot because of the prologue.
However, they are quite mistaken, as the reader has the pleasure of arriving at the base of the mystery at the same time as the main character.
Psychologically, Rebecca dissects a young woman’s self-doubt, fear and uncertainty, giving the protagonist ideas and notions about other character dynamics, feeding herself with untrue images that stem from her own insecurities. To observe her gaining insight on the reality behing those imaginary issues and subsequently qoncuering her fears is rather empowering.
On top of it all, the morbid and gruesome twist to the love story truly elevates the real love story of Rebecca onto a romantically goth platform and imparts a baroque sense of beauty onto the chronological succession of events that aesthetically mirrors Manderley’s very core, it’s dark and majestic high walls and trees, its secretive hidden gardens and its dazing scents.
All of those aspects have an extraordinary combined impact, leaving the reader shocked, possibly disturbed – yet in a dreamlike, stunned state.
Du Maurier’s Rebecca is an extraordinary piece of literature, and I am very excited to read more by the author.
Have you read du Maurier’s books and did you enjoy them? Let me know in the comment section.