I read this book because it was the 2018 Sept/Oct book of the month(s) for Our Shared Shelf. I didn’t read the synopsis, I was just told it would tackle feminist subjects and contain some horror related theme.
Out of all the selections OSS had, this was probably the most disappointing so far. Our narrator was such a doormat! At least in The Handmaid’s Tale, our narrator was willing to rebel. But let’s continue with the review before I get into this.
The Introduction is overdone in my opinion. It starts out with her having a dream about Manderley. That sets up the mystery behind our setting. It also potentially foreshadows the story. However, once we get to Chapter 2, the author spends more time trying to sound mysterious than actually developing characters or storyline for that matter. It just feels like an abrupt stop of motion. I understand the purpose behind it, I just felt like it wasn’t necessary, or it could have been written more effectively.
By Chapter 3 we get into a background story. This is where the story begins. We are introduced to Mrs. Van Hopper and Mr. de Winter. The author spends more time trying to foreshadow an event than focusing on the characters. It’s written in First Person Past Participle and the narrator keeps remembering how “young” she was (no real age was given for how old she really is when she is recalling the tale. We are just to assume that she is much older).
Eventually, Mr. De Winter proposes to our narrator (a first name is never mentioned but she is eventually addressed as Mrs. de Winter or the Second Mrs. de Winter) and they set off to live in Manderley. Mr. de Winter used to be married to a Rebecca (that’s where the title of the book originates). Rumor has it, “she was drowned […] in the bay near Manderley”. The beginning of the marriage consists of our narrator trying to survive the ghost (figuratively) of her (Rebecca).
Before our narrator (since saying Mrs. de Winter is too formal, we will now call her Thelma…like from Thelma and Louise since although they never met, and one of them is dead, they seem inseparable) leaves with Mr. de Winter (from this point on, I will refer to him by his first name: Maxim), Mrs. Van Hopper tells her “You know why he is marrying you, don’t you? You haven’t flattered yourself he’s in love with you? The fact is that empty house got on his nerves to such an extent he nearly went off his head.” That little statement stayed with her for the duration of the marriage, well up until the plot twist (more on that later).
Thelma (see, it’s better than just saying our narrator, isn’t it?) is constantly questioning whether she belongs in Manderley, with Maxim (the dream man. He’s rich, non-abusive and non-controlling….to a degree). After the first few chapters, it gets annoying. She spends most of the time daydreaming and thinking what others of thinking about her. She also spends more time comparing herself to Rebecca (You can’t compete with a dead person!).
We didn’t get to any real action until 66% of the book. I continued reading because many comments on Goodreads suggested it got better, but, it didn’t. The action itself was dragged along to the point where towards the end, I didn’t care about any of the characters. You know it’s bad when you think “maybe I should just watch the movie instead.”
In the defense of Du Maurier, if I were to have read before the millennium, I might have considered this book brilliant. She does have the attributes of a good book (character development, a plethora of rhetorical devices, drama). Rebecca is scattered throughout the book so much that you do get the sense that at any moment, she’s just going to walk through the doors. And, just like The Great Gatsby, we come to understand that our narrator isn’t our protagonist.
Our protagonist is supposed to be Maxim (because of course, for its time, it would revolve around a man. Although, what might constitute this as a “feminist” book is the fact that the most important people were women. Maxim is often treated as an afterthought since Rebecca is so much more…desired. But, it is Maxim’s story and Thelma is just the witness to see how it unfolds). Our antagonist is supposed to be Rebecca. Rebecca is out to destroy Maxim’s life and Thelma’s marriage. We’re supposed to hate her but we (or at least, I) don’t. That’s the point. She is such a threat! She gains the favor of both men and women. Everyone who meets her loves her (with the exception of Maxim and his sister).
The remaining paragraphs have spoilers
The story goes that Rebecca was drowned while sailing during heavy waters. When I first read the sentence “she was drowned,” for some reason, my brain read “he drowned her.” Therefore, when Maxim confessed that he killed his wife…I wasn’t surprised.
What did annoy is me is that as Maxim was explaining how he did it to his new wife (you now know her as Thelma) he kept saying “If only I knew what she [Rebecca] was before I married her” or “I didn’t know what she was then.” or “if only you knew what she was.” The what was never clarified. It could be that she was a monster (he referred to her as a monster. He hated her. She controlled everything and manipulated everyone. He didn’t love her, ever.) It could be that she was possibly bisexual (Mrs. Danvers, her caretaker, hinted that women favored Rebecca as well). Or it could be that she was transgender (Mrs. Danvers kept telling her she should have been born a boy since she acted like one — the acts were of determination and power, this was to be a compliment to her composure and abilities to get by in the world).
The conflict of the story is when the body of Rebecca is found in the boat. This leads us to the plot. Did she die by unlucky navigation decisions, or by suicide? Eventually, her cousin blamed Maxim for murder.
During this time, we get to strip Rebecca of her other secrets. This also brings Thelma and Maxim closer in their relationship. The most horrifying thing about this book is how little fear Thelma has over the fact that Maxim killed his former wife. She was just disillusioned by Maxim’s admission of love. Now I wouldn’t consider that love. Mrs. Van Hopper was right on the nose when she said Maxim only wanted to marry her because he was lonely. Maxim told Thelma that she helped him get out of his head. She was like a plaything. There were many instances where he called her a little girl. But what Maxim loved was the lack of judgment. How innocent Thelma was. He would then manipulate her into listening to him by saying how can she love someone like him…therefore sealing her loyalty.
Earlier I compared our narrator with The Handmaid’s Tale. I would like to address how powerful having narrators without names is. Firstly, it removes their identity. As humankind, our identity is everything! Especially in Western civilization where a community isn’t as valued. Much like taming a horse, you have to break their spirit first. Anyone who has been bullied or abused knows how hard it is to separate your self from your circumstances. Not giving them a proper name other than that related to the man they were “property” of, reveals the gravity of their situation. However, our narrator for The Handmaid’s Tale struggled to remember her identity while trying to survive, whereas our narrator from Rebecca was already surviving and the challenge came when she was given the opportunity to develop an identity.
The garden and its flowers felt like the symbolism of Rebecca. The day after the ball, when Thelma thought that Maxim was mad at her, the author wrote “The rhododendrons were all over now. They would not bloom again for another year. The tall shrubs looked dark and dab now that the color had gone. A fog was rolling up from the sea, and I could not see the woods beyond the bank. It was very hot, very oppressive.” This was when Thelma thought that Rebecca had finally won and that she could now forget about her because there was no more competition. Her life was already over but Rebecca’s presence would rise again.
Before the Inquisition, the author wrote: “I noticed for the first time how the hydrangeas were coming into bloom.” That was foreshadowing how Rebecca would come again and instigate Maxim’s and Thelma’s life.
A few times Thelma talked about how she could smell the azaleas. Azaleas symbolize feminity. She was haunted by the smell of and that is what made me think of Rebecca. Rebecca is the woman that Thelma always wanted to be. That is why she is obsessed with her. Another mention of the azalea is when she saw the dead azaleas on her way back to Manderley.
After everyone returned from seeing Doctor Baker, the song that Thelma heard as they were leaving was “Roses in Picardy.” The Rose is Rebecca and Picardy is Manderley. That is why after the whole case was “solved”, everything was burnt. You can’t have Manderley without Rebecca.
There was a dream that Thelma had where Maxim was brushing Rebecca’s hair, he wound it into a thick rope, he smiled at Rebecca as he put it round his neck. This would foreshadow how broken Maxim would be after everything was done.
Now I would not recommend this book. It’s considered a classic but I feel like some classics are best left in the past. We have books now that are more gripping for our new desynthesized society. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, for instance, has better drama and crazier characters. I will say this though, this book was definitely fun to write about.