Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” invites readers into the world of Manderly, an estate that’s like a juicy, red apple with a brilliant shine on the outside, but rot within. “Rebecca” seduces, satisfies and scintillates its readers. It opens with: “I dreamt I went to Manderly again.”
I read “Rebecca” for the first time the summer between my freshman and sophomore year in high school. I was stuck in a limbo state, alternating between the consistency and comfort of young-adult romances and the daunting classics. My English teacher suggested “Rebecca.” “I think you’d like it,” was all that she offered. And I did. On the surface, it checks everything off my list: Romance, Gothic, sardonic heroes, mystery and horror. In my naivety, I read it for its romance, crossing my fingers for our nameless narrator and aloof hero to get their happily-ever-after.
Fast-forward seven years. The sinister atmosphere of “Rebecca” still holds me captive.
To faithfully summarize Rebecca would be a feat in and of itself. Strictly speaking, “Rebecca” is about our nameless heroine. She retrospectively speaks about her brief period spent at Manderly starting with her interaction with Maxim de Winter, the man of the manor. Described as insipid and unsophisticated, our narrator falls deeply and irrevocably in love with Mr. de Winter, eagerly accepting to be his wife and to hold the proverbial reigns of Manderly. In their whirlwind love-story, we’re offered one very important detail: Maxim de Winter’s previous wife, Rebecca, died in a horrible accident.
Unlike traditional romances, the proposal occurs within the first few chapters of the novel instead of the end; in fact, the readers only get bits and crumbs of Mrs. and Mr. de Winter’s love story. The relationship at the forefront is between Mrs. de Winter and Rebecca. Rebecca haunts each page. It’s an iteration of Rebecca, Rebecca, Rebecca. Where our narrator is mousy, Rebecca was regal. From a handkerchief that smells of azaleas to her loyal companion, Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca is imprinted into the very walls of Manderly.
Yes, “Rebecca” isn’t simply a romance. It’s a twisty, mind-bending novel that psychologically questions our understanding of the entire narrative. As our narrator gets engulfed by Rebecca’s shadows, we begin to question her reliability. How much of the information she shares is accurate? How much of it is a projection of her desires? “Rebecca” is slippery — it simultaneously embraces and criticizes the decadent imagery of social class. We’re poisoned by the sickenly sweet air of old bloodlines, invaluable materials and sheer decadence. We watch our narrator’s trajectory from a fresh, doe-eyed schoolgirl to a character preoccupied with image. And still, Rebecca is there, reminding our narrator that she’ll never be good enough.
After all, there is no substitute for Rebecca.
Despite having read “Rebecca” before, the ending still shocks me. I remember zooming past the last quarter wondering how I could have possibly missed all the clues last time. Daphne du Maurier is a master of spell-binding literature. I recently ventured into her shorter works, particularly “Don’t Look Back,” and was struck by the chilling prose and equally terrifying ending. Because of “Don’t Look Back,” my walks back to my apartment at night are accompanied with a sense of unease. I wanted to see if “Rebecca” had that tangible element of horror that I glossed over in my teenage years. It did. Since its publication in 1938, “Rebecca” has remained a bestseller. It’s a hauntingly provocative novel that at once touches, critiques and weaves a slow-burn mysterious narrative. It has been, and always will be, one of my favorite books.