The Story about Rebecca

The Novel

German Edition by Fischer Verlag
German Edition by Fischer Verlag

Rebecca is a novel by Daphne du Maurier. When Rebecca was published in 1938, du Maurier became – to her great surprise – one of the most popular authors of the day. Rebecca is considered to be one of her best works. Some observers have noted parallels with Jane Eyre. Much of the novel was written while she was staying in Alexandria, Egypt, where her husband was posted at the time.

 

Author Daphne du Maurier
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genres Crime, Gothic, Mystery, Romance
Publisher Victor Gollancz
Publication date 1938

 

 

Plot summary

 

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again" is the book's often quoted opening line, and from here its unnamed narrator recollects her past. (The opening line is an iambic hexameter. The last line of the book "And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea" is also in metrical form but not quite an anapestic tetrameter)

 

While working as the companion to a rich American woman vacationing on the French Riviera, she becomes acquainted with a wealthy Englishman, Maximilian (Maxim) de Winter, a reasonably young widower. After a fortnight of courtship, she agrees to marry him, and after the marriage accompanies him to his mansion, the beautiful West Country estate Manderley.

Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, was profoundly devoted to the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca. She continually, psychologically undermines the second Mrs de Winter, suggesting to her that she will never attain the urbanity and charm that Rebecca possessed. Whenever the new Mrs. de Winter attempts to make changes at Manderley, Mrs. Danvers describes how Rebecca ran Manderley when she was alive. Each time Mrs. Danvers does this, she implies that the new Mrs. de Winter lacks the experience and knowledge necessary for running an important estate such as Manderley; that she's just a middle class upstart, not a real lady like the late Rebecca. The second Mrs. de Winter is cowed by Mrs. Danvers' imposing manner and complies with the housekeeper's suggestions.

 

Lacking self-confidence and overwhelmed by her new life, the protagonist commits one faux pas after another, until she is convinced that Maxim regrets his impetuous decision to marry her and is still deeply in love with the seemingly perfect Rebecca. The climax occurs at Manderley's annual costume ball. Mrs. Danvers manipulates the protagonist into wearing a replica of the dress shown in a portrait of one of the former inhabitants of the estate—the same costume worn by Rebecca to much acclaim the previous year, shortly before her death.

 

In the early morning hours after the ball, the storm that had been building over the estate leads to a shipwreck. A diver investigating the condition of the wrecked ship's hull discovers the remains of Rebecca's boat. It is just prior to this shipwreck that Mrs. Danvers reveals her contempt for and dislike of the second Mrs. de Winter. Taking the second Mrs. de Winter on a tour of Rebecca's bedroom, her wardrobe and luxurious possessions, which Mrs. Danvers has kept intact as a shrine to Rebecca, she encourages the second Mrs. de Winter to commit suicide by jumping out of an upstairs window, but is thwarted at the last moment by the disturbance created by the shipwreck.

 

The revelations from the shipwreck lead Maxim to confess the truth to the second Mrs. de Winter; how his marriage to Rebecca was nothing but a sham; how from the very first days of their marriage, the husband and wife loathed each other. Rebecca, Maxim reveals, was a cruel and selfish woman who manipulated everyone around her into believing her to be the perfect wife and a paragon of virtue. She repeatedly taunted Maxim with sordid tales of her numerous love affairs and suggested that she was pregnant with another man's child, which she would raise under the pretence that it was Maxim's and he would be powerless to stop her. Rebecca tries to convince Maxim to kill her, taunting him continuously. He, truly hating her, shoots Rebecca, killing her. Worried that he might have to spend the rest of his life in jail, Maxim disposed of her body on her boat, which he then sank at sea. The narrator is relieved to hear that Maxim had never loved Rebecca, but really loves his new wife.

 

Rebecca's boat is raised and it is discovered that holes had been deliberately drilled in the bottom and the sea-cocks were opened, which would have caused it to sink. There is an inquest and despite it not being clear who drilled the holes, a verdict of suicide is brought. However, Rebecca's first cousin (and also her lover) Jack Favell appears on the scene claiming to have proof that Rebecca could not have intended suicide. Favell attempts to blackmail Maxim because he believes that Maxim killed Rebecca and then sank the boat.

 

Rebecca, it is revealed, had an appointment with a Doctor Baker shortly before her death, presumably to confirm her pregnancy. When the doctor is found he reveals Rebecca had been suffering from cancer and would have died within a few months; furthermore, due to the malformation of her uterus, she could never have been pregnant. The implication is that knowing she was going to die, Rebecca lied to Maxim that she had been impregnated by another man because she wanted Maxim to kill her, rather than face a lingering death. Maxim feels a great sense of foreboding and insists on driving through the night to return to Manderley. However, before he comes in sight of the house, it is clear from a glow on the horizon and wind-borne ashes that it is ablaze.

 

It is evident at the beginning of the novel that Maxim and the second Mrs. de Winter now live in some foreign exile. The events recounted in the book are in essence a flashback of the narrator's life at Manderley.

The Movie

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Rebecca has been adapted several times. The most notable of these was the Academy Award winning 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film version Rebecca, the first film Hitchcock made under his contract with David O. Selznick. The film, which starred Laurence Olivier as Max, Joan Fontaine as the Heroine, and Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers, was based on the novel. However, the Hollywood Production Code required that if Max had murdered his wife, he would have to be punished for his crime. Therefore, the key turning point of the novel – the revelation that Max, in fact, murdered Rebecca – was altered so that it seemed as if Rebecca's death was accidental. At the end of the film version, Mrs. Danvers perishes in the fire, which she had started. The film quickly became a classic and, at the time, was a major technical achievement in film-making.