This book has been on my TBR list for quite sometime. I was first introduced to this story about 30 years ago when my husband and I were just dating. He told me several times that his favorite movie of all time was Rebecca by Alfred Hitchcock. Now Geoff is the romantic one in this relationship and I avoided the book because, to be quite frank, I thought it would be either too romantic and/or too scary for me. However last year I had a student present a report on Daphne du Maurier, and Rebecca was the novel she analyzed. After reading and listening to her presentation, I was very intrigued and knew that this would be a book I would personally enjoy. It only took me year to get around to reading it — but I was not at all disappointed.
If I were to classify the story I would say it is more of a gothic romance than anything else, as it has many of the required elements of a gothic novel:
- The setting is in a castle: Well, not a castle, but definitely a large estate called Manderley – which is quite somber and mysterious. In fact Manderley is as much a character in the novel as it is the setting.
- The atmosphere is suspenseful: Not only does the setting set the stage for mystery and suspense, but one of the major characters in the novel, the housekeeper, Ms. Danvers, is an ominous character and not trustworthy from the moment she is introduced. While Ms. Danvers appears to be sane, she is very reminiscent (at least to me) of the madwoman in the quintessential gothic novel, Jane Eyre.
- Woman threatened by powerful/impulsive male: The owner of Manderley, Maxim de Winter, is just recently widowed from his first wife, Rebecca. We are first introduced to him while he is on vacation in Monte Carlo, where he meets a young girl whom he eventually marrires and takes back to become the mistress of Manderley. Maxim at first appears very calm, stoic, and almost withdrawn. There are times in the book, however, when this serene exterior is completely overshadowed by an irrational, angry personality that seems to suddenly appear with little to no provocation.
- Woman in distress: Maxim’s new wife is very young, naive, and self-conscious. She has little self esteem and while she feels comfortable being Maxim’s wife, she has little confidence in being the mistress of Manderley. Her distress is caused by the overbearing personality of Ms. Danvers, and the irrational changes in her husband’s demeanor.
- Melo-dramatic emotion: due to her young age, her lack of confidence, and the unsettled household, the young Mrs. de Winter is often highly emotional and is easily overcome by it all.
What adds to this gothic element is the style with which Daphne du Maurier wrote the novel. The novel is told in the first person from the young Mrs. de Winter’s point of view. What makes it highly unusual, and therefore adds to the thrilling suspense, is that the reader is never told this young girl’s name nor her age. We only know that the two of them meet briefly in Monte Carolo before marrying, and that she is significanltly younger than Maxim, who is in his early 40s. The title of the book is the name of Maxim’s first wife, who was loved by all her met her and served her. It is only natural that his new wife be somewhat threatened by Rebecca’s memory, and the reader often suspects her as a reliable narrator. It is this element of distrust in the reader’s mind that constantly has us questioning the reliability of the story as it is presented to us — and which allows us to be thoroughly surprised at the twist in the end.
I will most certainly re-read this novel – and perhaps again and again. I am giving serious thought to including this as the 20th century novel we study in my British Literature class. I think it will hold the attention of the graduating seniors, both male and female, and it provides an educational lesson in gothic literature and 1st person POV reliability. If you enjoy suspense, then I strongly recommend this modern-day classic.