Saturday, October 31, 2015

Book Review: Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier (second review for The 2015 R.I.P. X Reading Challenge)

This is my second and last review for this challenge, which is hosted by 
It runs from Sept. 1st to Oct. 31st.
Click HERE to access all of
the posted reviews.

Daphne Du Maurier
Trade Paperback, 428 pages
Virago Press, Reprint Edition, 2012
(first published 1938)
Classics,Gothic Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Mystery, Romance, Suspense, Thriller

Book Synopsis: Working as a lady's companion, the heroine of Rebecca learns her place. Her future looks bleak until, on a trip to the south of France, she meets Maxim de Winter, a handsome widower whose sudden proposal of marriage takes her by surprise. She accepts, but whisked from glamorous Monte Carlo to the ominous and brooding Manderley, the new Mrs. de Winter finds Max a changed man. And the memory of his dead wife Rebecca is forever kept alive by the forbidding housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers...

Not since Jane Eyre has a heroine faced such difficulty with "The Other Woman". An international bestseller that has never gone out of print, Rebecca is the haunting story of a young girl consumed by love and the struggle to find her identity.

My Review

Some books -- usually the classics -- make readers feel as if they have lived an entire lifetime in the reading of the tale enclosed between the covers. This is one of those books. it is undoubtedly a classic literary masterpiece, one that is totally unforgettable, as well as a rather unsettling one. At least, if left me with a feeling of uneasiness even as I enjoyed the lush, descriptive writing, the masterfully-drawn characters, and the highly suspenseful plot. It is highly ironic, I think, that, at the time of its publication, this novel was immediately dismissed by literary critics as popular fiction -- specifically, 'just a romance novel'.

Although the book has been compared to Jane Eyre, I feel this comparison to be unfair to its brilliant author. Du Maurier's masterpiece stands entirely on its own. True, it does fit into the genre of Gothic Fiction, as Charlotte Brontë's own masterpiece does. True, there is a huge, mysterious mansion, owned by a brooding, very wealthy man who holds a terrible secret. But there the resemblances end. 

First of all, Du Maurier's female protagonist is the very antithesis of Brontë's Jane Eyre. She is no strong feminist, but instead, a very insecure, naive young woman who, at the beginning of the novel, is employed as a lady's companion, quietly suffering the daily humiliations that accompany such employment, simply because she needs the money. She is very shy, and totally unable to stand up for herself. This is especially evident in her interactions with other characters in the novel. For instance, she doesn't confront her husband, Maxim de Winter, about his apparent indifference to her, until much later in the book. In fact, when they meet, she quickly and hopelessly falls in love with him in a few weeks' time, and, although she is surprised by his sudden marriage proposal, immediately accepts, even though she hardly knows him. One also gets the feeling that she does so not only because she does love him -- although this love is more of a girlish crush than anything else -- but because she sees an escape from her debasing situation as Mrs. Van Hopper's companion. Furthermore, she constantly craves acceptance from people, whereas Jane is entirely free from such worries. Both heroines, of course, are based on the Cinderella fairy tale, but their personalities are vastly different.

There are other differences, as well. Maxim de Winter is no Edward Rochester. His motive for marrying this young girl -- she is never named in the novel -- does not seem to be an entirely honorable one, and the reader remains in doubt as to his true feelings for her throughout most of the novel. True to the conventions of Gothic Fiction, he is a tortured man. It is the past, of course, that endlessly torments him. However, I never felt much sympathy for him, and never had a crush on him, as I had on Rochester. His personality is less passionate than Rochester's, as well; he is not as dynamically virile as the hero in Brontë's novel. Unfortunately, I even came to feel contempt for him, based on his actions in the latter part of the book.

Another difference is the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. Unlike Mrs. Fairfax in Jane Eyre, this woman is a very sinister presence throughout the entire novel. She makes no secret of her hatred toward the second Mrs. de Winter, whom she violently resents for "daring to take the place of" Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter. Having been her personal maid since Rebecca's childhood, Mrs. Danvers totally doted on her.

Another typical convention of Gothic Fiction is also present in this novel, and that is the symbolism of nature, as well as of the house itself, named "Manderley" in this novel. Both reflect the inner states of the narrator of the novel -- the second Mrs. de Winter. There are beautiful landscape scenes, just as there are sinister ones. The vegetation is lush, and some of the flowers -- such as the gigantic, blood-red rhododendrons -- symbolize and echo the underlying, disturbing theme of the novel. They serve as a prophetic message, and also symbolize Rebecca herself -- a beautiful woman adored by everyone, a woman who remains a mysterious presence almost to the end of the novel. 

As for the house, it, too, mirrors Rebecca. It's beautiful, comfortable, deceptively inviting, with its expertly decorated rooms, all reflecting the first Mrs. de Winter's taste. Yet, the house harbors a deadly secret. The West Wing, which had been occupied by Rebecca and Max,  is meticulously preserved by Mrs. Danvers. There are creepy passages in the house, as well, all frequented by the housekeeper, she of the 'skull's face', as described by the second Mrs. de Winter. These details give a macabre feeling to the narration.

The sea is an important symbolic element as well. It has different moods, also reflective of the second Mrs. de Winter's inner states of mind. Additionally, the sea represents Rebecca herself, with its sudden, capricious turbulence and deceptively placid surface. The sea cannot be tamed, even as Rebecca herself cannot be tamed. Also like Rebecca, the sea is a constant presence in the novel, as it is frequently mentioned by the narrator, who feels disturbed by it at several points in the novel.

The plot moves at a rather leisurely pace, with lots of beautifully descriptive passages. This is typical of literary fiction, but the book is also written this way because Du Maurier has created a novel of great psychological insights, one that reveals, in fascinating detail, the workings of the mind of a very naive young woman -- the second Mrs. de Winter -- who has self-esteem issues, a woman who, more than anything, is desperate to be loved by the man she adores, a woman who feels inferior and inadequate in the face of the memory of the first wife, one who was, as she comes to believe, based on the comments of those who had known her, someone who was far more beautiful and accomplished than she herself is. 

I was totally pulled in, totally mesmerized, as the author delved into the second Mrs. de Winter's thoughts.  How she compared herself unfavorably with Rebecca, whose memory seemed to linger along the very corridors of the house, how she totally assumed and believed that her husband still loved and could never forget his first wife -- these things were fascinating to read about. I could feel what this young woman felt, and lived through what she lived through....although I could not share her feelings for Maxim.

It's uncanny how Rebecca herself, although dead, is a central character in this novel.  A picture of this woman begins to emerge as the book progresses, and it's obviously a totally unrealistic one. No one could be that perfect. Yet, even from the grave, Rebecca dominates the events and feelings of the other characters in the novel. Her presences always overshadows and touches all the characters, especially the second Mrs. de Winter, who feels her to be a rival whom she cannot fight.

Even when the novel's central, horrible, secret is revealed, the plot doesn't move any faster. Instead, Du Maurier builds the suspense to an almost intolerable level, expertly letting the reader know little tidbits of the whole truth, sprinkling them along like bread crumbs, to be eagerly devoured by said reader. Certain things are set in motion, and this revelation is a major catalyst for the second Mrs. de Winter's rapid psychological growth, although the source of this growth totally appalled me. It also sets the stage for the novel's unexpected, and rather abrupt, end. 

Rebecca is riveting reading, especially after the revelation; I simply could not put the book down, but drove inexorably to the end, turning page after page, totally absorbed, as I accompanied  Maxim and Frank, his associate, while they went about the sordid business detailed in the last third of the novel. Although I reveled in the luscious, sonorous descriptions, in the emotions aroused in me by the characters' own feelings and actions, I still felt the uneasiness, the sense of foreboding, so expertly elicited by Du Maurier. I wanted to stop reading, as the feeling grew, as I approached the horror -- for such is what it is -- at the core of the novel. I could not stop, I had to go on to the bitter end....and again I must repeat that I have lived a lifetime in the reading of this novel. This was not my first reading of it; I originally experienced it in my late teens, and did not remember much of the plot. All I could recall was that the book had left me with a very disturbing, unpleasant feeling, similar to what I felt when I first read Wuthering Heights

Of course this book is a masterpiece, but it's the kind of masterpiece that I can't really say I wholeheartedly love, not only because of its depiction of evil, but because of its moral ambiguity. It tells a story in which evil is not totally vanquished in the end, but somehow persists beyond the pages of the book. I feel that books of this type should not be written, that authors should only give us novels in which the good definitely triumphs in the end. Some readers might feel, however, that books such as this one are necessary, in order to 'round out', or balance, the literary depiction of the human condition. That might be so, but the fact remains that such books leave me with very mixed feelings toward them. While I can admire their authors' skill at delineating character, at writing masterful prose and riveting plots full of surprising twists, they still leave me with that uneasy feeling, that certain something that tells me that the world can be a very cruel place, and evil frequently does seem to win out in the end.

Summing up, I must admit that Rebecca is a consummate work of art, unsettling as it was for me to read. I saw the Hitchcock movie years ago, and want to watch it again. As I was writing this review, I researched the film, since my memories of it are also sketchy. I discovered that Hitchcock altered the plot in one very important way, as he was concerned that the movie would otherwise not be accepted by audiences, had he left the plot as Du Maurier had originally written it.

I would like to read some of Du Maurier's other famous novels, such as Jamaica Inn and My Cousin Rachel. It would be interesting to see whether these novels also depict stories of moral ambiguity, as I suspect they will. If so, then I will avoid reading any other books by this author.

About the Author

Daphne du Maurier was obsessed with the past. She intensively researched the lives of Francis and Anthony Bacon, the history of Cornwall, the Regency period, and nineteenth-century France and England, Above all, however, she was obsessed with her own family history, which she chronicled in Gerald: A Portrait, a biography of her father; The du Mauriers, a study of her family which focused on her grandfather, George du Maurier, the novelist and illustrator for Punch; The Glassblowers, a novel based upon the lives of her du Maurier ancestors; and Growing Pains, an autobiography that ignores nearly 50 years of her life in favour of the joyful and more romantic period of her youth. Daphne du Maurier can best be understood in terms of her remarkable and paradoxical family, the ghosts which haunted her life and fiction.

While contemporary writers were dealing critically with such subjects as the war, alienation, religion, poverty, Marxism, psychology and art, and experimenting with new techniques such as the stream of consciousness, du Maurier produced 'old-fashioned' novels with straightforward narratives that appealed to a popular audience's love of fantasy, adventure, sexuality and mystery. At an early age, she recognised that her readership was comprised principally of women, and she cultivated their loyal following through several decades by embodying their desires and dreams in her novels and short stories.

In some of her novels, however, she went beyond the technique of the formulaic romance to achieve a powerful psychological realism reflecting her intense feelings about her father, and to a lesser degree, her mother. This vision, which underlies Julius, Rebecca and The Parasites, is that of an author overwhelmed by the memory of her father's commanding presence. In Julius and The Parasites, for example, she introduces the image of a domineering but deadly father and the daring subject of incest.

In Rebecca, on the other hand, du Maurier fuses psychological realism with a sophisticated version of the Cinderella story. The nameless heroine has been saved from a life of drudgery by marrying a handsome, wealthy aristocrat, but unlike the Prince in Cinderella, Maxim de Winter is old enough to be the narrator's father. The narrator thus must do battle with "The Other Woman" - the dead Rebecca, and her witch-like surrogate, Mrs. Danvers - to win the love of her husband and father-figure.

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Brian Joseph said...

Outstanding commentary as always Maria.

I have not read this. My wife has and she was impressed with it as you were.

Thanks for the comparison with Jane Eyre. In the back of my mind I may have thought that the two books were so similar as to not read this one.

I have also seen the Hitchcock film, but my memories of it are also vague.

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

Thanks so much for the compliment!

This book has indeed been compared to "Jane Eyre", but I feel that the similarities are merely superficial. And I'm glad I re-read it, because it seems that I needed to refresh my memory of it. I definitely do NOT like the characters much at all. And I'm referring to the main characters, mind you. I dislike Max, and, once I discovered the horror at the core of the novel, I also began to dislike the nameless narrator.

When you read this book, you will also see that, in contrast to "Jane Eyre", it is actually anti-feminist. I'm not sure if that was Du Maurier's intention, or if she meant it to actually be a sharp critique of the upper-class, unwritten rules for women at the time. But the thing is, the female protagonist is just too self-effacing, and, even when she begins to gain some confidence, it's for all the wrong reasons. I can say no more without spoiling the book for you.

I would be interested in knowing what your wife thought of the moral ambiguity that is so disturbing to me, as well as what I perceive to be an anti-feminist bias. But of course, don't ask her until you read the book for yourself.

You know, the more I think about this novel, the more disturbed I feel. That's because there are things about it that I do love, so it's very distressing to me to find that this one issue is making me actually hate it.....although I don't hate it completely.

I could wholeheartedly love this novel if only things hadn't gone a certain way.....And I can't believe I didn't remember this from my first reading. I think that my subconscious mind subtly substituted Hitchcock's version of this one crucial event....

Thanks for the nice comment!! : )

Barb said...

What a wonderful review. I loved how in depth you went and the comparisons you made without really giving anything away. I know I have this book on my shelves somewhere, but I will admit I am not the best at reading "classics." I read "Sleepy Hollow" last month and although I posted my review to Goodreads, didn't even add it to my blog. Also read "The Fall of the House of Usher" last night so I could help my husband with a school project and as much as I think I like Poe, now I am not so sure. Glad we both accomplished our RIP challenges. I will make sure to subscribe to this blog as well- only had your other one before.

Maria Behar said...

Hi, Barb!

Thanks for the compliment!

I really try hard not to give much away in reviews, because then, what's the point of reading the book? Lol.

This novel has been compared to "Jane Eyre", and has even been criticized as being "inferior" to that book. So ridiculous! This book is just as good as "Jane Eyre" -- at least, in the technical sense, as it's masterfully written, and the characters are very vivid.

I do enjoy reading classics, and need to read more of them. In recent years, I've gotten into the YA genre so much!

I don't like Poe at all. I've only read some short stories by him, which were all high school assignments -- "The Tell-Tale Heart", "The Pit and the Pendulum", and "The Cask of Amontillado". I also remember reading "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", by Irving. Didn't like it much, either.

I much prefer Hawthorne, even though he does have some creepy elements in his works.

Yes, it's great that we both accomplished our RIP challenges! But I don't think I'll participate next year. I only did so this year because I was able to choose books that were not full of screaming terror. Lol.

Thanks so much for commenting, and for subscribing!! : )