Daphne du Maurier's Major Themes in Her Novel, Rebecca
The Story of Rebecca
In 1938, Daphne du Maurier published her novel, Rebecca. A bestseller from the beginning, the book has been the subject of a Hitchcock movie, and several stage and television dramas, and it has never been out of print.
The story centres about a mousy young woman—whose first name we never learn— working as companion to a rich American woman in the south of France. Due to illness, the rich woman retires to her apartment for a few days—and the companion embarks on a whirlwind romance with the rich and dashing Maxim de Winter.
Within a few pages of text, the pair marry. The companion leaves behind her life of servitude—forever, it seems. Now Mrs de Winter, she and Maxim honeymoon briefly in Italy. They return to England and arrive at his country house, Manderley, for a life of domestic comfort and secluded county grandeur.
But from the beginning, Mrs de Winter feels alienated from the household that surrounds her. In addition to coping with this totally unfamiliar way of life, she encounters mystery at every turn. Mrs Danvers, the haughty housekeeper, treats her with contempt. The presence of Danvers’ male friend, Jack Favell, provokes much anger from Maxim, as does the instance of Mrs de Winter wearing a copy of a dress in an old portrait in Manderley, on the night of a fancy dress ball. Slowly, the strangeness mounts up. When a sunken sailing boat emerges from the sea following a stormy night, Mrs de Winter finds herself at the heart of a maelstrom that involves the name of person that has been upon everyone’s lips from the beginning of the narrative, Rebecca.
At a superficial level, Rebecca is a gothic tale, involving romance, mystery and death. Horror creeps in when we learn that Maxim had identified a mutilated female corpse as that of his late wife, earlier in the narrative. The true Rebecca rises to the surface, quite literally, many months later. But these gothic elements are worked so subtly into the many strands and themes that form the narrative, that the novel rises above genre and classification.
The Four Elements
One theme that runs through the novel is that of the four elements, earth, air, fire and water, in other words, nature. Mostly, the author presents nature as positive, possibly because she was a native of Cornwall and loved her surroundings: “I read of chalk streams, of the mayfly, of sorrel growing in green meadows”.
But Du Maurier also presents the dark side of nature. The famous opening line of the book: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” is followed by graphic descriptions of the plants that threaten to suffocate the ruined house: “Nettles were everywhere, the vanguard of the army. They choked the terrace, they sprawled about the paths, they leant, vulgar and lanky against the very windows of the house.”
When Mrs de Winter arrives at her new home, she perceives the air surrounding it as a thing of beauty: “little flickering patches of warm light would come in intermittent waves to dapple the drive with gold”. However, she also senses a decadent undercurrent in the house: “whatever air came to this room, whether from the garden or from the sea, would lose its first freshness, becoming part of the unchanging room itself”.
Water features strongly in the novel, represented by the sea that is more than a tenuous connection between Monte Carlo, where Mrs de Winter meets Maxim, and Manderley in Cornwall. As with earth and air, the sea is both benevolent “the sea was whipped white with a merry wind” and is imbued with melancholy: “Even with the windows closed and the shutters fastened, I could hear it, a low sullen murmur”.
The fire that eventually destroys Manderley is initially comforting and welcoming to Mrs de Winter: “I was thankful for the warmth that came from the steady burning”, before it wreaks havoc and reduces the fine house to ruins.
Evil in Paradise
In addition to natural imagery, Mrs de Winter’s narrative includes other dichotomies of good and evil. When the newly-married pair travel up the drive towards Manderley, for the first time, Mrs de Winter reacts positively when she sees her new surroundings: “the first swallows and bluebells". But as the journey progresses, the imagery becomes more ominous: “This drive twisted and turned as a serpent…”. The serpent could be a reference to the tempting serpent of Genesis, an evil that has invaded the natural paradise. This sense of lurking evil is augmented by Mrs de Winter’s description of the garden of rhododendrons as: “slaughterous red, luscious and fantastic”.
But the sense of horror provoked by inanimate rhododendrons pales into contrast alongside the unease evoked by the personal servant of the former Mrs de Winter. On first encountering Mrs Danvers, the new Mrs de Winter’s description of her includes the phrase: “great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face, parchment white set on a skeleton’s frame”. This use of “dead” imagery reminds us that though Rebecca is no more, her former servant lingers about Manderley, like the avenging heap of bones that she eventually proves to be. But in spite of this connection with the dead, a jarring sensuality surrounds Mrs Danvers.
This is evident when she tries to tempt Mrs de Winter into stroking Rebecca’s clothing: “Put it against your face. It’s soft, isn’t it? You can feel it, can’t you? The scent is still fresh, isn’t it?” This act of temptation by Mrs Danvers evokes the “serpent in paradise” theme, once again.
This imagery resonates more strongly when the reader remembers that Mrs de Winter has already described Rebecca’s nightdress as “apricot in colour”, and an apricot is also a fruit. It is as if Mrs Danver’s is “tempting” Mrs de Winter to taste forbidden fruit.
The author expands this theme when, in a later episode, Mrs de Winter exercises her habit of masquerading feelings of what it may have been like to be Rebecca. She is unaware that Maxim is watching her. Presently, he rebukes his new wife and recounts to her the various facial expressions she has just used and charges her with being in possession of “not the right sort of knowledge”. This phrase brings to mind the forbidden Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.
Food and Class
The world of Rebecca is one of rigid, social hierarchies, with the theme of food acting as a pivot upon which this social distinction is enunciated.
Throughout the narrative, characters are fed according to who they are and where they stand in the class system. In the opening pages, Mrs de Winter’s employer, Mrs Van Hopper, enjoys fresh ravioli, while Mrs de Winter—still the poor companion—is reduced to eating cold meat.
This chilly fare presages the cold food, left over from the party, that Mrs de Winter rejects as the daily lunch in Manderley. Her insistence upon a hot lunch from the servants is, from her point of view, a triumph and a symbol of her status as the Mrs de Winter. Following the incident, Mrs de Winter glories in this exercise of power, her most major assertion since marrying Maxim. A little later in the narrative, Maxim stresses this social elevation by telling Robert the servant to take poor, simple Ben to the kitchen and offer him “cold meat”.
Food is also the vehicle by which the cyclical nature of the narrative is expressed.
The Cycles of Life
The opening of the novel is actually the end of the story, and in it we learn that the now-reduced De Winter couple eat “two slices of bread and butter each, and China tea” every afternoon. Immediately, Mrs de Winter contrasts this humble fare with the sumptuous high teas that she and Maxim had enjoyed while at Manderley.
A few pages later, the narrative reverts to Mrs de Winter’s life as a companion, and we learn that while in the employ of Mrs Van Hopper, she sat down to an afternoon tea of "bread-and-butter dull as sawdust".
The narrator is ever aware of the continuity of life in Manderley, charting details of Maxim’s parents and grandparents—Mrs de Winter actually meets his extant grandmother. Later, Mrs de Winter fantasises about what the grandmother had been like, as a young woman: “when Manderley was her home”. The senile woman serves as precursor to what the vigorous Maxim is reduced to at the end/beginning of the narrative.
Through the eyes of Mrs de Winter—now reverted to her former status of companion —we see Maxim's reduced mental capacity: "he will look lost and puzzled suddenly". He is also chain smoking, that is, destroying himself with fire as Manderley has been destroyed. Rebecca’s revenge is complete.
All quotations have been taken from
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (Virago Press, London, 2003)
© 2018 Mary Phelan