The post contains minor spoilers for Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.
When I first picked up Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, I read it slowly. It felt so perfect that I wanted to savor the reading experience. I found myself lost in the world of a nameless narrator, a meek young woman who falls in love with and marries a rich widower, only to feel oppressed by the shadow of his first wife, Rebecca.
As I began to read Rebecca faster and faster, instead of hanging onto every single phrase, I tried to pinpoint what exactly about it lured me into the story.
Was it the plot? Not entirely – in fact, the plot is the novel’s weakest part, with not a lot happening for long stretches of time.
Was it the characters, then? That’s closer. Although I can’t say I admired her, I sympathized with our heroine, who feels too young and simple to be mistress of so great a house as Manderley. Du Maurier wrote Rebecca in the first person through the heroine’s insecure eyes.
So maybe it was the prose. We’re almost there. Something about du Maurier’s prose gripped me completely. Although the opening line is deservedly famous, there’s so much more to the prose: the simple but powerful way each chapter ends, the metaphors, the repetition of certain phrases, the mood.
And there we have it: I enjoyed Rebecca so much for the mood. Du Maurier sets it right from the beginning with her lauded opening line:
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
With those words, Daphne du Maurier swept me into a dream of my own. But soon, the dream darkened, as du Maurier clouded it with images of desolation and loneliness, culminating with this end of the first chapter:
“We would not talk of Manderley. I would not tell my dream. For Manderley was ours no longer. Manderley was no more.”
If that doesn’t set the tone of the novel, I don’t know what does. The mood only intensifies as the narrator hears hints of the dead Rebecca, who signed her name with such a large and formidable R that it symbolizes her unspoken power. When the narrator first moves to Manderley, she sees hints of Rebecca at every step: the servants hint at how Rebecca used to run the house, the narrator has to use Rebecca’s desk in the morning room, and down by the beach is a little cottage full of Rebecca’s things. But those elements are nothing compared to the sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, who ensures that no one will forget the memory of Rebecca. The mere echo of her footstep haunts the heroine.
But is Mrs. Danvers really so evil? And is the shadow of Rebecca really so oppressive? They are for our nameless narrator, and since we see everything from her eyes, yes, they are. And that’s ultimately why Rebecca is so powerful: we see everything from the eyes of a shy, small young woman who may very well be exaggerating all the signals she receives. But we have no other benchmark with which to measure the events of the book, so like our narrator, we become trapped in Manderley. And it’s a haunting, powerful experience.
I’ve deliberately avoided talking about the ending here, but I plan to do so when I write a novel to film analysis of Rebecca, which I hope to do later this month. In the meantime, for those of you who have read Rebecca, what about it did you like (or not like)? Did you too find the mood to be the most compelling part?
This was the Book #8 off my Classics Club list. To see the rest of it, click here.