“Je Reviens”: The Many Faces of Rebecca
Written by Angela Gualtieri
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” starts Daphne du Maurier’s gothic classic, drawing readers into the privileged life of the de Winters and the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Maxim de Winter’s first wife, Rebecca (1). Mrs. de Winter, Maxim’s second wife, serves as our eyes as we learn about the house’s inhabitants and customs, unraveling the multiple sides of Manderley and all its occupants. This is especially apparent in the novel’s titular character, Rebecca, although she never appears on the page herself. Rebecca’s larger-than-life presence casts a unique shadow upon each person she encounters. The people who survive Rebecca carry her memories and shape her legacy, not unlike some of history’s famous and forgotten women. As Mrs. de Winter searches for Rebecca’s truth, we begin to understand the impossibility of knowing a person, particularly, a woman, through the many layers of gossip, history, and bias.
The First Face: Mrs. de Winter
du Maurier’s protagonist, only ever referred to as Mrs. de Winter, introduces the mysterious first wife of Maxim de Winter after she begins spending time with him while staying at a hotel in Monte Carlo. Maxim gifts her a book of poetry, and as she thumbs through it, the soon-to-be Mrs. de Winter pauses on the dedication from Rebecca: “‘Max – from Rebecca. 17 May’, written in a curious slanting hand…. And then as it bubbled through the nib, it came a little thick, so that the name Rebecca stood out in black and strong, the tall and sloping R dwarfing the other letters” (36). From the onset of solely her name, Rebecca leaves an imprint on Mrs. de Winter, prompting her to tear the page to shreds.
This careful inception only increases once she becomes Maxim’s wife and returns to Manderley. At every turn, Mrs. de Winter combats comparisons to Rebecca by each person she encounters, from the town bishop to Maxim’s family: “Rebecca, whom they described as beautiful, talented, and loved by all who knew her…” (338). Rebecca’s charming and charismatic nature hollows Mrs. de Winter, who considers her the epitome of perfection. She loses herself in what Rebecca did, said, and the life before her, descending into a pit of jealousy and insecurity. “I was following a phantom in my mind, whose shadowy form had taken shape at last…She had beauty that endured, and a smile that was not forgotten. Somewhere her voice still lingered, and the memory of her words” (47).
Like Mrs. de Winter, we are dwarfed by Rebecca’s extraordinarily presence and haunted by the fleeting traces of her person as we try to catch her. When those types of people overwhelm us, finding any fault regardless of size becomes an obsession. Mrs. De Winter’s extrapolation of Rebecca, built from elusive fractions of her untold story, is finally de-mythologized in Maxim’s confession. The moment Maxim reveals Rebecca’s greatest wrongs, Mrs. de Winter grasps on tightly, wanting with all of her being to believe them true.
The Second Face: Mrs. Danvers
The person who provides the most intimate commentary on Rebecca is the head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. As Rebecca’s lifelong secret-keeper and maid, Mrs. Danvers sings her late mistress’s praises: “No one got the better of her, never, never…. She did what she liked, she lived as she liked. She had the strength of a lion” (273). From Mrs. Danvers view, one cannot fault Rebecca for her strength, nor her wants in a society where women are little more than breeding machines without individual identities. Rebecca’s desire to live her life her way is a modern concept and a relatable one.
Rebecca’s desire to live her life her way is a modern concept and a relatable one.
Building on Rebecca’s perfect guise established by Mrs. de Winter, Mrs. Danvers highlights the addictive quality of being in Rebecca’s company. Like the sun, those around Rebecca swarmed to her light, soaking up as much attention as they could and were left cold when she was otherwise occupied. “Of course he was jealous. So was I. So was everyone who knew her. She didn’t care. She only laughed. ‘I shall live as I please, Danny,’ she told me, ‘and the whole world won’t stop me.’ A man had only to look at her once and be mad about her” (275). Rebecca was a magnetic presence, especially for men. However, the envy she drummed up is more a reflection of the people surrounding her than of herself.
Armed with an understanding of her own mind and the charisma to influence those around her, Rebecca was a strong person who took what she wanted from the world. The love and devotion she arouses begs the question of who or what Rebecca loved most. Mrs. Danvers’ answer is a life of freedom: “She was not in love with you, or with Mr. de Winter. She was not in love with anyone. She despised all men. She was above that” (382). For Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca was too good for this world; for the rest of us, she was a woman before her time, in charge of her own future.
The Third Face: Maxim de Winter
Perhaps the most damning evidence as to the horrendousness of Rebecca’s character comes from Maxim himself. The soon-to-be Mrs. de Winter initially thinks Maxim consumed by grief, and his love of his first wife fuels her envy. However, in utter disbelief at Mrs. de Winter’s claims, Maxim makes his feelings about Rebecca very clear during his confession of murder: “You thought I killed her loving her? I hated her, I tell you. Our marriage was a farce from the start. She was vicious, damnable, rotten through and through. We never loved each other, never had one moment of happiness together. Rebecca was incapable of love, of tenderness, of decency. She was not even normal” (304).
Like Mrs. Danvers, Maxim’s opinion on Rebecca is colored, but by his anger rather than love. Through his own admission, Rebecca was never the priority: “I put Manderley first, before anything else. And it does not prosper, that sort of love” (306). This sheds new light on their marriage and Rebecca’s adulterous actions. To never be the priority, especially for a willful, lively woman like Rebecca, would be gut-wrenching. Maxim’s preference for his house of brick and stone makes her search for more attainable attentions more understandable. Even as Maxim recounts Rebecca’s deeds, his only concern is for Manderley: “What she did in London did not touch me – because it did not hurt Manderley” (308).
Maxim only presents one view of his relationship with Rebecca, hinging his guilt on Mrs. de Winter’s empathy. In the moment, he succeeds, and Mrs. de Winter forgets a very different side of Rebecca and Maxim’s relationship that Mrs. Danvers presented earlier. “Mr. de Winter used to brush [her hair] for her then. I’ve come into this room time and time again and seen him, in his shirt sleeves, with the two brushes in his hand. ‘Harder, Max, harder,’ she would say, laughing up at him, and he would do as she told him” (190). Maxim, in the present, might hate his dead wife, but Maxim in the past was just as enamored by her as everyone else. The degree to which Rebecca’s betrayal pains him suggests it all the more.
The Fourth Face: Manderley
Aside from character perspectives, du Maurier uses Manderley to showcase other traits of Rebecca. When Rebecca first arrives to Manderley, the house and the surrounding lands are in disarray. She sets her visionary mind to transforming the house and the gardens into something magical. Once she finishes, Manderley is an undeniable sensation, and even Maxim gives her credit: “The beauty of Manderley that you see today, the Manderley that people talk about and photograph and paint, it’s all due to her, to Rebecca” (307). This change shows Rebecca’s keen sense of design, creativity, and elegance. Manderley becomes less Maxim’s and more Rebecca’s with each passing day.
Rebecca’s Manderley is a place of fun and beauty. It’s the center of town. People are drawn to it in the same way they are drawn to its mistress. However, after Rebecca dies, a dullness overtakes Manderley, infecting everything and everyone around it: “It was very different of course when the late Mrs. de Winter was alive; there was a lot of entertaining then, a lot of parties, and though I managed for her, she liked to supervise things herself” (82). Mrs. de Winter’s approach to Manderley differs from Rebecca’s. She doesn’t inspire an abundance of company, she’s completely hands off, and she doesn’t change anything in the house or the surrounding areas. Although Mrs. de Winter lives there, Manderley will always belong to Rebecca.
The Final Face: Societal Legacy
If you were to ask me who Rebecca really is, my answer is this: Rebecca’s all of those things.
When examined individually, each character displays a biased opinion of Rebecca’s legacy, but a holistic view rounds out who Rebecca really was. Curiously, du Maurier never allows Rebecca to speak or defend herself, leaving her true nature hidden amongst the azaleas. The most insight we gleam comes when her doctor reveals she was dying from cancer. This paired with Maxim’s series of events assumes Rebecca controlled her fate right up until the very end, but even still, we cannot know for sure. Rebecca leaves a different imprint on each reader; each perspective shaping her character. Some will tell you she is the antagonist of the story and perhaps, deserved her end. They remember her vile actions toward Max, forgetting Mrs. Danvers’ portrayal of her character. How much easier it is to focus on only one side of a story, especially when it’s negative? We see it time and time again with stories targeting women like Rebecca: those of us who are too lively, too direct, too decisive, simply too much. If you were to ask me who Rebecca really is, my answer is this: Rebecca’s all of those things. Much like the women lost to history, whose legacies are shrouded in historical inaccuracies, assumptions, and sexism, Rebecca is a complex person –a human who wants to be free, just like the rest of us. A person who can’t be fully captured by another person’s gaze.