Rebecca was my first tryst with a thriller, and at the impressionable age of 16, it became fundamental. Not that I hadn’t read my share of the ‘mysteries’ – the Famous Fives, the Sherlock Holmes, even the Miss Marple books, but Rebecca was different. I mistook it for a love story, a classic ‘Cinderella’ tale, until I got the shock of my life midway through the novel.
Between one of literature’s most famous first and last lines, Rebecca is a spectacularly haunting tale of marriage and a stunning study in envy and rivalry. And if you want to further the focus, a reigning work of women’s fiction, as essential a read when it was published in 1938 as it is today.
The book begins at the end, but the narrative is a befitting blend of the past and the present of the characters involved. It is written wholly from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, the second Mrs. de Winter, who marries Maxim de Winter of Manderley after the death of his first wife.
Most of the novel is made up of the narrator’s thoughts and thinkings. It begins and stays for quite some time, a mere tale of romance. But nothing is as it seems; it is constantly one surprise after the other.
The second Mrs. de Winter is a young, naive girl who is yet to be attuned to the workings of the world, especially the one she enters at Manderley. She knows nothing of being a mistress, managing a house or even issuing orders to the maids and the butlers. She fumbles and stammers, fails at the slightest of things. When she hears of Rebecca’s accomplishments as the first Mrs. de Winter, she is constantly comparing herself to her. She hears her voice in the corridors, she smells her scents and even senses a vision of how she would have been.
The real mystery of ‘Rebecca’, however, is Rebecca herself, the breathtakingly beautiful first wife, the charming socialite, who is as haunting to the narrator as she is to the reader.
While the novel opens long after Rebecca’s death, and Rebecca herself is never a breathing, speaking character in the book, yet she takes up all the space in the narrative. She’s an overbearing presence throughout, and constantly reminding of her presence is another living character in the house – Mrs. Danvers, who adored Rebecca like her own child. Mrs. Danvers is the classic villainess, deceitful and delusional. She skulks around in the corridor corners, maintains Rebecca’s room just as it was and even tries to convince the second Mrs. de Winter to commit suicide.
Rebecca, as described by her husband or her head mistress, was a rebel, a rule breaker, a free spirit. She was someone who could not be controlled. She did not conform to the patriarchal order of the society. She exuded such power that the characters could feel her hold still, long after she was gone.
She was also the perfect rival – more beautiful, more wordly, more independent. And perhaps, therein lies the impact of the novel, in the rivalry between the first and the second Mrs de Winter. Jealousy always creeps in from the tiniest of cracks, it brings out that archaic sense of rage over someone being there before you, and doing it better than you.
It is the classic case of rivalry between the good girl and the bad girl (presumably), only in this instance, I don’t think there is a clear winner.
When the second wife realises that her husband is not still in love with Rebecca, and in fact, it is he who killed her, she is relieved, even slightly joyous. What registers in her head is not ‘’My husband is a murderer’’, rather ‘’He’s all mine, Rebecca doesn’t matter’’. That’s the extent of the jealousy at work here. Another case of this jealousy can be seen in the burning down of the house by Mrs. Danvers, who clearly cannot see her mistress replaced. There’s a deranged delusion that envy brings about in those afflicted by it, and this novel makes for an in-depth study in that emotion.
In Rebecca, the author Daphne du Maurier takes you to Manderley, painting a vivid picture of the house and its surrounding sceneries. She makes you wander down to the beach from the house, taking in the aroma of the azaleas and discover Rebecca’s seaside shack for the first time. Just like the landscape, she helps you deep dive into the hidden-most feelings. She is astonishingly adept in making the frightening, the shocking live alongside the beautiful, the glamourous.
By beginning at the end, the readers are assured of the well-being of the characters, it is already known that they are living quite contentedly, and yet it doesn’t take away from the suspense of the story.
Why I loved Rebecca back when I first read it and why I loved it even more on my second read is because of the well-kept secret and the enduring, unsolvable ‘mystery’ of it. We don’t know Rebecca, we only know of her through others. The most remarkable part of it is that Rebecca is left to the imagination, as she should be. She’s more powerful there!