Sunday, November 8, 2015

Du Maurier's Rebecca: Some Disturbing Elements Thereof


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

(Note: This post contains several spoilers.
They had to be included, in order for
the topic of this post to be fully explored. . )

I am hereby emulating my book blogger friend, Brian Joseph, who blogs at Babbling Books, in writing more than one post about a book I've read. Some books do lend themselves to such treatment, as one review cannot possibly encompass everything a reviewer would like to state about a given book. 

My recent rereading of this novel (which I have recently reviewed) has left me feeling very disturbed, and I can't seem to be able to shake off this feeling. There are two reasons I feel this way; first of all, the novel's male protagonist -- Maxim de Winter -- commits a horrible crime, and actually gets away with it; second, the unnamed female protagonist, who is his second wife, completely supports him, helping him to cover up this crime.

I had been enjoying the novel until these events took place; Du Maurier's writing is lush, elegant, full of vivid, poetic imagery, while her expert buildup of suspense, and equally vivid characters, make for truly riveting reading. Thus, I was utterly shocked and disappointed with the eventual denouement of the story.

My first reading of this novel, years ago, did not affect me this way, but I now think that I must not have finished it; I really don't remember. Shortly thereafter, I also saw the Hitchcock movie, which changes this crucial plot element so as to completely exonerate Max de Winter. Hitchcock thus turned the story into a more romantic tale, although his film is still full of suspense and mystery, with the Gothic touches present in the novel. His version made the book more akin to another famous Gothic novel, Jane Eyre, with which Du Maurier's novel has been somewhat unfairly compared, in my view. So I think that my subconscious mind probably substituted Hitchcock's version for the book version. I can't think of any other reason for my previous, unequivocal, acceptance of Du Maurier's novel, although I still regard it as a literary masterpiece.

Equally disturbing to me is the afterword that accompanies this edition of the novel. It was written, in 2002, by writer Sally Beauman, who has also penned a 'sequel' to Rebecca, titled Rebecca's Tale. Beauman's take on the famous literary character strikes me as ironic, inaccurate, and totally unacceptable, although I haven't read her novel. In her afterword to the original book, however, she makes it very clear that she considers Rebecca to be a feminist heroine. She even states that "...there are indications throughout the text that the second Mrs. de Winter would like to emulate Rebecca, even to be her -- even when she knows Rebecca has broken every male-determined rule as to a woman's behaviour." This quote totally irritates me; I would love to have a personal discussion of it with Beauman. Why she defends Rebecca, a woman whom Du Maurier presents as cruel, vicious, and blatantly unfaithful, is beyond me. A feminist heroine? Ah, I see. This means that women who imitate male patterns of cruelty and promiscuity are to be lauded as progressive leaders of the fight for gender equality. Right..... In contrast, Jane Eyre is certainly to be regarded as a feminist heroine, yet she never descended to the depths of depravity Rebecca did.

Readers are free to side with Beauman, of course. They can go along with her contention that Max deliberately maligned Rebecca in order to justify his reprehensible actions. And they would be totally entitled to their opinion, too, were it not for one thorny little matter -- the character, jack Favell. Why would this man be so interested in a deeper investigation of Rebecca's death, if he had not, in fact, been her lover? Why does he hound Max so relentlessly, unsatisfied as he is at Rebecca's death having been officially ruled a suicide?

So it's very clear that Rebecca was indeed as evil as Max had portrayed her. She was no 'feminist heroine', but a ruthless, cold, calculating woman who wanted nothing more than to exploit and use her husband. These truths about her do nothing to justify her husband's actions, of course. That they are indeed true, however, is borne out by the presence, and actions, of Jack Favell in the novel

As for the nameless 'heroine', the second Mrs. de Winter, I can relate to her to some extent. We both tend to be shy and not very assertive at times. However, she is so self-effacing as to go along with Max's attempts to cover up his murder of Rebecca. I would under no circumstances do such a thing! This is utterly abhorrent to me, and totally unacceptable. Why this novel has remained so popular over the years truly baffles me. Mrs. de Winter's strongest wish -- to be loved by her husband -- comes true, but at the expense of her submission of her will to his, a sacrifice she gladly makes, much to my horror and dismay. She's actually desperate to help him cover up his crime, in order to prove how much she loves him! This is unconscionable. Furthermore, it's the very antithesis of feminist ideals. 

That a woman's only goal in life should be that of getting a husband, and then making him her entire world, to the exclusion of her own interests, needs, and even conscience, is totally deplorable. Mrs. de Winter has no self of her own, even though she could have become an accomplished artist. She fails to pursue art as a career, even though, as the wife of a very wealthy man, her freedom from financial concerns would have enabled her to do so. At the time of the novel -- the 1930s -- there were few opportunities for women artists to make it on their own. Mrs. de Winter certainly should and could have taken advantage of her position, hopefully with Max's total support and encouragement. Instead, she mopes around, going on solitary, melancholy walks with Jasper, the de Winters' dog, and endlessly ruminating on Rebecca's reputation as a flawless first wife, which makes her feel inferior to her dead 'rival'. She becomes totally obsessed with Rebecca, worrying that Max still loves her. Hardly a page can be turned without some mention of her depressing thoughts regarding the dead woman.

The entire novel thus turns out to be a pathetic portrayal of the two prevailing patriarchal views of Woman -- either sinner or saint, although Mrs. de Winter's version of 'sainthood' is psychologically unhealthy. What, I wonder, was Du Maurier's real intention in writing this novel? Did she mean it to be an ironic, cautionary tale, in her depiction of Mrs. de Winter's lack of self-esteem and self-reliance, which she suddenly and almost magically acquires, once she is completely assured of her husband's love? Or did Du Maurier herself agree that Mrs. de Winter's complicity in Max's crime is totally acceptable, that her self-effacement is even admirable, as a 'necessary' requisite for attaining the love of a man?

I'm really not sure what conclusion I can come to, regarding Du Maurier's intention in writing Rebecca. The possibility remains that she might have intended the novel to be taken as a picture of the insidious triumph of patriarchal values, which condone even murder if necessary, in order to uphold these values.

That Max de Winter is willing to go to almost any extreme in order to protect his precious house, Manderley, and the surrounding lands, from any scandal or impropriety, is very obvious. It's also very cowardly, as well as contemptible, for he places more value on his property, which is a source of male pride, than he does on his relationships with women who are, after all, fellow human beings. He marries both Rebecca and the second Mrs. de Winter after a very brief courtship period. It seems that his sole intent is that of having 'a trophy wife' to complete the picture of the wealthy landowner with the grand old mansion. The only conclusion I can come to is that he views women as property, as well. However, Du Maurier depicts him as being Rebecca's 'victim'. Poor Max.....he wants to avoid scandal, so he gives in to the evil wife's outrageous, immoral demands....Why didn't he try to get to know Rebecca better before he married her? With his vast wealth, he certainly could have hired a private detective to get information about Rebecca's background, if he had any doubts about her.

And so this novel also depicts an unholy 'love' triangle -- one that embodies the gender stereotypes of the time in which it was written. There's Max, the trusting, unsuspecting man who is duped by an unscrupulous, evil woman, there's Rebecca, the very embodiment of the shrewdness and evil conniving traditionally attributed to women by the patriarchy, and the second Mrs. de Winter, who is otherwise nameless, she who represents 'the good woman' that sacrifices everything, including her own conscience and moral scruples, for the sake of 'love'.

This, my dear readers, is by no means a pretty picture. 

Beauman is correct in her assessment of the second Mrs. de Winter's personality; this character is, indeed, totally passive and submissive to her husband, with no will of her own. However, Beauman is totally mistaken about Rebecca. I do agree that women can and should rebel against limits placed on them by a male-dominated society. However, this does not mean that they are then to be applauded for imitating the worst, most immoral behaviors of that society. Therefore, Beauman's take on Rebecca is as deplorable as Mrs. de Winter's willing subjection to Max.

There is a lot to explore in this novel, especially since there is such a richness of psychological insights within it. Besides, I am still trying to process my initial reaction to it -- one of disbelief and horror. I will probably need to come back to Rebecca in a future post. The question still remains: is this novel to be considered a feminist manifesto, or a disgusting reaffirmation of traditional patriarchal values that serve to demean women?




Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much for the mention Maria.

Some books really do strike a chord with us and really lead themselves to multiple posts.

Your commentary on this book is so thoughtful and nuanced. I really need to read this.

Some of what you wrote reminds me of Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy which I just finished. I will be blogging about it in a few weeks. Hardy seemed to be very sympathetic to the plight of women. My interpretation is that this book illustrates the destruction of the feminine by a harsh, masculine society. A society that modern folks would call Patriarchal.

I have already written a rough draft of my post where I am also comparing that book to Jane Eyrie.

That book also ends in away as to instill horror in the reader.

Maria Behar said...

Hi, Brian!

You're very welcome for the mention! Indeed, I think you came up with a fabulous idea when you decided to blog about the same book in more than one post, in order to cover everything you wanted to mention about the book.

Thanks for the compliment on this post! This novel really gave me a lot to think about. And I've come to the conclusion that there's more to this particular novel than meets the eye. I don't think Sally Beauman has totally analyzed this novel correctly. However, she does make a very important point about Mrs. de Winter: that this woman has simply -- and all too willingly -- become submissive to her husband.

Here's a quote from Beauman's afterword (pg. 439 of this edition of "Rebecca") with which I mostly agree. I have some reservations, though.

"The second Mrs. de Winter's fate, for which she prepares herself throughout the novel, is to be subsumed by her husband. Following him into that hellish exile glimpsed in the opening chapters, she becomes again what she was when she first met him -- the paid companion to a petty tyrant. For humouring his whims, and obeying his every behest, her recompense is not money, but 'love'-- and the cost is her identity."

I wouldn't exactly call their exile 'hellish', but I would say it's dull in the extreme. But it's undoubtedly true that Mrs. de Winter (the nameless narrator) has no real identity of her own here. She's constantly mindful of his needs, while there's no mention of him being mindful of hers. He owes her a HUGE debt for helping him to cover up his crime. Not only is his reputation intact, but everyone sympathizes with him because the 'poor man' lost his first wife.

As for "Tess of the D'Urbervilles", I had a much different reaction when I first read it (I do need to read it again). This is a remarkable novel, all the more so because it was written by a man, and one who lived at a time when the double standard was rigidly held to. Although the end is very tragic, I consider this novel one of my favorites because of its message, which clearly points to the male society's destruction of the feminine, as you so well described it. I much prefer this book to "Rebecca", unless, of course, Du Maurier's intent was irony.

I'm eagerly looking forward to your thoughts on "Tess"! It's wonderful that you're comparing it "Jane Eyre", too!

Thanks for the great comment!! : )