Rebecca has one of the most famous opening lines in literature: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
Where to begin with my discussion of Rebecca. Let me begin by acknowledging that du Maurier tells a ripping good story. The book, written from the perspective of the unnamed narrator, the second Mrs. de Winter, tells the tale of her whirlwind courtship and marriage to bereaved widower Max de Winter. The second Mrs. de Winter returns to Manderley, where she is ill-equipped by birth, education or confidence to take over the running of the great home. Du Maurier builds suspense as the second Mrs. de Winter clashes with Rebecca’s former housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who makes her feel inferior and generally lurks about in a way that is extremely creepy. This part of the book was excellent, and Mrs. Danver’s obsession with the beautiful Rebecca and her contempt for Rebecca’s replacement is well-drawn and successful.
Unfortunately, I had really high expectations of this book. And, also unfortunately, it did not meet my expectations. Let me warn now – this post is likely to get very spoilery in a paragraph or two. So, if you’ve never read Rebecca, if you don’t know what the big reveal is, and if you want to experience the suspense as du Maurier created it, then stop reading now.
I mean it. Stop reading. Now.
Okay, so I am now assuming that everyone left reading this post has already read the book, and knows about the big reveal: Max murdered Rebecca as she taunted him with her infidelity, and then he disposed of her body by scuttling her boat so that it will appear that she was lost at sea. Our narrator, a singularly weak and annoying character, learns this when she weepingly acknowledges that, in spite of her love for him, she recognizes that she can never measure up to Rebecca, and that he will never love her.
Astounded by this great confession, Max disabuses the narrator of her illusions. He hated Rebecca. Rebecca was an evil, two-timing monster.
But how can we present a murderer as a great romantic hero? The narrator, far from being repelled by the confession that her husband MURDERED HIS FIRST WIFE in a hail of bullets and blood, is overjoyed. Her only thought is: he never loved Rebecca. And this brings her great comfort.
In part, I think that Rebecca demonstrates how far we have come as a culture. Because I hope that it is fair to say that it would be unlikely for a writer to write a wife-murderer as a romantic hero in quite the same way that du Maurier did. What, precisely, was the great crime that was committed by Rebecca that rendered her worthy of slaughter in the boathouse? It appears to me that her great crime was that she acted just like a man of that time period. Rebecca is set well before the days of no fault divorce. During that era men of property often maintained mistresses and engaged in other extra-marital sexual liasons without repercussions, and which were accepted by society.
Rebecca, by Max’s account (and let’s leave aside the unreliability of his version given that he is, of course, a murderer) had affairs. She was promiscuous, slutty. She tramped around, and lived life on her own terms. She was a bloody rotten wife, and it would have been totally reasonable for him to have tossed her out on her ear, cut off without a shilling, for him to have moved to America with all of his money, divorced her and dragged her name through the mud. But he didn’t do any of those things. Instead, he murdered her. And then his second wife reacts to the fact that she has married a murderer by rejoicing in the fact that he didn’t love his first wife after all.
Are you kidding me?
What makes the second Mrs. de Winter think that she won’t end up just like Rebecca if she displeases Max? After all, he’s already gotten away with murder.
Let me finish this post by saying that I didn’t hate Rebecca. It is well-written, and interesting, and a lot of fun to read. But I just can’t get behind a murderer as a romantic hero. Because, actually, Max de Winter belongs in prison for what he did. What really distinguishes Max de Winter from someone serving a sentence of 25 to life for murdering his wife? Nothing, in my mind.
So, Rebecca, you didn’t work for me. I’m just not up for a book that uses female infidelity as a justification for a domestic violence homicide. As a reason for divorce, sure. But being a woman and having an affair (or three or ten) shouldn’t be a capital crime. Not even in 1938. And certainly not in 2013.