A couple months ago, I posted about some of the foundational female writers of gothic literature. There was one woman on that list whose works I had not read before, and so I decided to seek her out. Thus, I found myself downloading the audiobook of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Rebecca is essentially a Gothic novel in the traditional sense, though it was written much later than its 18th– and 19th-century fellows. Ambiguously set in the 1920s or ‘30s, Rebecca contains no elements of the supernatural, no true evil villain, and no attacks on the heroine’s life. Instead, what makes Rebecca a Gothic novel is its focus on the core Gothic trope: the present haunted by the past—although in Rebecca’s case, this haunting is purely psychological.
In the novel, a nameless narrator encounters a handsome widower–Maxim de Winter–on vacation in Monte Carlo, and they make the impulsive decision to get married. Once the new Mrs. de Winter returns with her husband to Manderley, his estate, she begins to have doubts. Not born to power and luxury like her husband or his first wife, the narrator feels awkward and out of place at Manderley, a feeling enhanced by the contemptuous stares of the terrifying housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. The narrator’s crippling social anxiety adds to her difficulties as she tries to take up the reigns as mistress of a grand manor. But what worries her most of all are the reminders of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca. The narrator sits at Rebecca’s desk in the morning, reads notes and labels written in Rebecca’s handwriting, takes over Rebecca’s role in the house, and even borrows Rebecca’s old raincoat. With every reminder of Rebecca comes the feeling that she can never live up to her predecessor. She becomes convinced that everyone around her is comparing her to Maxim’s first wife, and that the memory of Rebecca prevents her from having a true relationship with her new husband. It turns out, though, that the truth is even more terrifying…
Most of the novel is spent building up the narrator’s sense of anxiety and inferiority. The book isn’t quite scary, like one might expect from a Gothic novel, but the narrator’s nervousness is contagious. If you’re an extremely empathetic reader like I am, prepare to feel a little stressed as you read these chapters. Nothing much happens for the first half of the novel after the narrator returns with Maxim to Manderley and attempts to adjust to her life there. It might even start to feel boring, except that the narrator’s ominously growing obsession with Rebecca and the general pervading sense of anticipation keep you desperate to continue reading.
The book does have one genuinely scary moment towards the end, shortly before the big secret is revealed. This moment of terror is brought to you by the book’s creepiest character, Mrs. Danvers. Hopelessly devoted to her former mistress, Mrs. Danvers is even more obsessed with Rebecca than the narrator is. She keeps Rebecca’s rooms in pristine condition, with everything exactly as Rebecca had left them before she died. Her love for Rebecca drives her to despise the woman who has taken her place. And when the narrator is at her most vulnerable, Mrs. Danvers uses her anxiety against her to try to convince her to commit suicide. Standing beside an open window, Mrs. Danvers whispers in the narrator’s ear, confirming her worst fears and uttering this truly creepy line:
“Rebecca is still mistress of the house, it is you who are the ghost!”
Luckily, the novel does not end there with the narrator’s death. After chapters and chapters of slowly building up tension, everything suddenly happens all at once at the end. The narrator uncovers the truth about Rebecca. A hostile acquaintance attempts to reveal this truth to the rest of the world. The last several chapters are fraught as the secret threatens to spill out any second. And just when everything seems to have worked out at the end, the last line brings it all crashing down.
The true beauty of this book is in du Maurier’s artful use of language. Rebecca is filled with fantastic one-liners, from its famous opening line (“Last night, I dreamed I went to Manderley again”) to the closing sentence that abruptly reverses the trajectory of the ending. The story is also peppered with painstaking descriptions of Manderley that bring the beautiful estate to life. Du Maurier is so skilled at pairing details with emotions that by the end of the book, mentions of looping handwriting, red rhododendrons, or the smell of azaleas will have you cringing. Overall, Rebecca is a great read for anyone who appreciates the darkness of the mind and can be thrilled by mere suspense and the threat of the unknown.
Have you read Rebecca? What did you think? Share your thoughts in the comments!