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I’ve been re-reading Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) recently and the power of its symbolism struck me once again. I love how on first reading the meaning behind du Maurier’s words simply creeps into your consciousness, while on re-reading it expands and resonates. So this month I thought I’d write a bit about how it works in Rebecca to see if it inspires you to try some in your writing. Let’s start with the delayed start of the story; the long drive to Manderley (Chap. 1 & 7).
When we first read that the drive to Manderley (the home of our hero, Maxim de Winter) ‘twisted and turned like a serpent,’ we’re plunged into a sinister atmosphere in a realm we already suspect belongs to Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca. It has deeper meaning though. Consciously or not, we are plunged into the twists and turns of Rebecca’s nature; her changing faces from social icon to social subversive. If we re-read the novel though (and who wouldn’t?), the power of du Maurier’s symbolism penetrates even more. On second reading we’re aware that rhododendrons symbolize Rebecca, so that the ‘nameless shrubs’ (or the new, insipient, Mrs de Winter) which disappear in favour of the ‘blood red rhododendrons’ evoke the overarching and lingering presence of Rebecca.
Names are always worth considering and the name Manderley, whilst accepting its similarity to Menabilly, the house on which it was based (Daphne Du Maurier, Enchanted Cornwall, 1989, p.128-9), does contain more than a hint of the patriarchal society of the time, as does the name of our heroine’s new husband, Maxim, which can mean both “codes of conduct” – ‘it was as if he had set himself a standard of behaviour (Chap. 3) – and a powerful gun. Maxim (capable of murder?) and his home then, stand as a beacon of patriarchal society. It’s also interesting that our heroine was almost envious that Rebecca abbreviated the name Maxim to Max, (Chap. 4) which, with its possible connotations of castration might imply Rebecca’s contempt of that society (or hints at lesbianism?), while she “had to call him Maxim,” (Chap. 5), implying some timidity but also perhaps, a longing to rebel like Rebecca.
Our heroine is as nameless and insignificant as the overpowered and nameless shrubs on the drive. Throughout the novel she is known only by the second-hand title of Mrs de Winter, the name given by her husband, and so is depicted as merely a possession with no identity of her own. Daphne du Maurier has said the reason she has no name is because she couldn’t think of on, and that it presented a writerly challenge (Daphne Du Maurier, Enchanted Cornwall, 1989, p.132). Nevertheless, the moniker Mrs de Winter, in comparison to Rebecca, does nicely illustrate the heroine’s plight and could well have contributed to du Maurier’s challenge!
We are introdued to Rebecca via her signature between the covers of a book she once gave Maxim (Chapter 4); ‘a curious slanting hand … black and strong, the tall and sloping R dwarfing the other letters’. But someone else, it seems, is also present; ‘A little blob of ink marred the white page opposite’. Then in chapter five Rebecca’s signature is recalled with explicit reference to its symbolic intent; ‘That bold, slanting hand, stabbing the white paper, the symbol of herself, so certain, so assured’. Does this savage attack on the white paper – twice now – imply Rebecca’s attack on the innocent Mrs de Winter (the inferior reflection of the original?). Or might the ‘white paper’ represent papers of Governemental “authority”? Or both? Certainly ‘slanting’ suggests someone who deviates from the established norm.
Initially we’re led to believe Rebecca an icon of perfection which the narrator could never match but we come to know that, amongst other things, she symbolises the sexuality a woman could not reveal in the society of the time. Her socially ideal outward appearance masks a web of deceit, created to conceal an alternative life. Indeed, some have questioned whether a lesbian relationship between Rebecca and Mrs Danvers is hinted at. Either way, Rebecca certainly didn’t conform to society’s demands.
If Maxim is master of Manderley, Rebecca still possesses a bedroom there – her haunting presence again. And possessions are another good way of conveying character.
In the electric light Rebecca’s bedroom resembles ‘a setting on the stage’ (Chap. 14), suggesting the domain of an actress. Then; ‘The bed was made up, I saw the gleam of white linen on the pillow-case, and the tip of a blanket beneath the quilted coverlet’, hints at Rebecca’s double sex life with pure white linen hiding rough blanket. When the shutters are swung open however, the real Rebecca comes to life.
The room looks out to the sea, which may be symbolic of Rebecca’s life away from the confines of Manderley, or society, and Rebecca’s nightdress case is surely symbolic with its ‘interwoven and interlaced … R de W … corded and strong against the golden satin material’ while inside the nightdress was ‘cold, quite cold.’
Within the rigid walls of tradition and authority or Manderley, then, Maxim is Master and Mrs de Winter a gauche, insignificant innocent living in Rebecca’s shadow. Rebecca appears to be everything society demands while secretly she rebels against it – and her character (and ideals?) are not without attraction. Mrs de Winter saw herself as ‘sallow and plain’ when compared with Rebecca and would have ‘loved and almost worshipped’ her possessions (Chap. 14).
Rebecca is loaded with layers of meaning which multiple readings will reward. Beneath du Maurier’s words her symbolism feeds more into the reader’s imagination than the simple narration of plot, and might even allude to her own difficulties with patriachal society. For me this is just one of the qualities which add depth to Rebecca, raising it from the Gothic romance genre to a serious literary classic.
Du Maurier, Daphne (1989) Enchanted Cornwall, Guild Publishing.
Du Maurier, Daphne (2005) Rebecca, Virago Press.