“What’s in a name?” William Shakespeare famously queried—a pertinent question when dealing with a book bearing a single name as its title. In the case of the name “Rebecca,” the meaning has to do with tying and binding, even captivating. This etymology was doubtless known to Daphne du Maurier when she used it as the title of her bestselling 1938 novel.
The story is told in flashback, narrated by a shy, insignificant young woman of uncertain origins. Her name, in stark contrast to Rebecca’s, is never even mentioned. When the tale begins, she is employed as a companion to a wealthy lady on vacation in Europe. In the course of their travels they cross paths with Maxim de Winter, a widower who owns a famous English estate called Manderly.
Our narrator quickly falls in love with Maxim, and he unexpectedly asks her to marry him. She presumes he merely pities her, but he seems genuinely drawn to her childlike simplicity, and their first days living at Manderly as Mr. and Mrs. de Winter are perfectly happy.
However, the shadow of the first Mrs. de Winter — a.k.a. Rebecca — is ever-present and steadily growing. Her ghost somehow seems to hold Manderly captive. The servants all knew her; the main housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, was especially devoted to her. The neighbors remember her fondly. Maxim’s family have strong recollections of her. As the months go by, Mrs. de Winter’s fear grows that Maxim will never love her, but will forever be comparing her to the beautiful and vivacious Rebecca. But Maxim has a few secrets that might just turn his wife’s perceptions upside down . . .
In many ways, “Rebecca” is a very introspective novel. The first-person format is well-suited to this approach, providing the perfect conduit for the heroine’s thoughts, imaginations, and daydreams. Thus, while we never learn her name, the reader comes to know her quite intimately.
Memory is another important element of the novel; du Maurier eloquently demonstrates both its positive side (from the perspective of the young and innocent heroine) and its ugly side (in the mind of the tortured Maxim de Winter). The destructive nature of secrets and guilt is a driving force in the novel. Mrs. de Winter comments on the communication barriers put in place by all the characters involved, and rejoices in the release of bitterness and “pent-up hatred” that accompanies the tearing down of those barriers. It is only after all secrets have been laid bare that the spell of Rebecca’s power is finally broken.
As a modern Gothic romance, “Rebecca” is somber, mysterious, and beautifully written in a dark way. Daphne du Maurier was a master of description, and her depictions of the landscape play a significant role in setting the mood of the novel. Forces such as stormy weather, Rebecca’s lovely flower gardens, and even Manderly itself are described so vividly as to almost become characters themselves.
The novel contains a number of elements that may raise questions from thoughtful readers. Its presentation of love and relationships must be taken with the caveat that this is, indeed, a romance novel. Love is the only thing that matters, the thing to be pursued at all costs. At one climactic moment, the heroine reflects, “I was not shy. I was not afraid. I would fight for Maxim. I would lie and perjure and swear, I would blaspheme and pray.”
Similarly, not being “in love” grows into a valid justification even for murder. Murder is, in fact, a major plot element, and is described in detail in more than one place in the book; and the view that the central characters take of it should raise a few red flags. Parents will probably want to discuss this presentation of the subject with their kids. (Suicide is also portrayed, though in an indirect fashion.)
Marital infidelity comes into play as well, although it is certainly not treated sympathetically; nor is it described graphically. Parents may also want to be aware that the novel contains numerous mild profanities, as well as many references to smoking and drinking. As was fashionable in the mid-20th century, many members of the cast enjoy cigarettes and moderate amounts of alcohol. Only the villain of the story is depicted as indulging to excess.
“Rebecca” is in many ways the quintessential modern Gothic romance. It combines love and suspense with masterful mood-painting and a suggestion of the supernatural. For the reader seeking romance, intrigue, and a skillfully told and thought-provoking story, this classic novel is unquestionably first-class entertainment. But those searching for justice, moral integrity, and uplifting Christian standards may well have some issues with it.
Image copyright William Morrow Paperbacks. Review copy from the reviewer’s personal collection.
Katrina King is a freelance writer and classical musician from upstate New York.