Dark Shadows and the Gothic Lights: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca
by Osmond Chien-ming Chang
[page 33] Widely accepted and read as romance fiction since its publication in 1938, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca often confounds readers with its ambiguous gothic elements because of its heterogeneous, hybrid, or cross-generic narrative. As Verena-Susanna Nungesser notes, the richly complex meanings of Rebecca do not merely present “a comeback of Gothic fiction,” but the novel itself also further leads its readers to witness “the establishment of new multi-selling genres, such as the Modern Gothic or the Harlequin novels” (214). In a similar fashion, Christopher Yiannitsaros also points out that du Maurier’s Rebecca “establishes itself as a Gothic romance in its portrayal of the feminine experience of domestic life as a nightmare space” (290).
Yet, intricate as it is, the generic classification of Rebecca, along with many other cross-generic fictions, is significant to the ways in which the text gets read. As a romance, Rebecca in some ways enlarges the traditional scope of that genre. More than traditional romance fictions, its plots–though set within the paradigm of romantic stories like “Cinderella,” where an orphaned female heroine attains a better social and economic status–are threatened by gothic atmosphere. As Richard Kelly points out, “Du Maurier’s Rebecca is the first major gothic romance in the twentieth century” for its “mysterious and haunted mansion, violence, murder, a sinister villain, sexual passion, a spectacular fire, brooding landscapes, and a version of the mad woman in the attic” (54). In the same vein, these compounded features of the gothic tale and the romantic story in Rebecca, as Gina Wisker indicates, not only expose “the fabrications of romantic and Gothic fictions,” but also explore a loss of prosperity, wealth, a never-returning past, and so forth (88). Especially with the dream of returning to Manderley as an opening remark, its narrative strategies disclose a sense of nostalgia for the past and the glory days of the English upper class, and show us its gestures toward an imaginary realm in which tension is created between reality and fiction and between natural and supernatural worlds.1
In spite of du Maurier’s Rebecca being dedicated to gothic elements, it does not follow traditional Gothic fictions in sketching supernatural incidents or exotic magic in horrific tones. In contrast, for most critics, Rebecca is regarded as gothic romance after Ann Radcliffe instead of pure gothic or classic romance fiction. Indeed, like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the novel blends features of romantic fantasy with mysterious supernatural elements, and yet, its genre remains arguable and [page 34] questionable. Reading Rebecca in connection with Jane Eyre, for example, Bernadette Bertrandias unveils the secrets of Manderley, though not so much focusing on features of the romantic story as drawing attention to Rebecca’s transformation of Jane Eyre. Bertrandias writes that “[m]ore than in Jane Eyre, the world of Manderley is presented as a dream world, with areas specially related to legend and myth,” and the novel itself is “not so much a story of romantic love as one of initiation” because it concerns the issues of “the unveiling of a mystery, the mystery of the house and the mystery of the Master.” This mysterious atmosphere leads Rebecca’s readers to oscillate between the romantic fantasy and the gothic mystery genres, and also engenders a sense of hesitation hovering between natural and supernatural explanations.
While it is acknowledged that many plots of Rebecca are parallel with gothic tales, what it presents to us is not just a classic gothic novel but an experimental elision between reality and the supernatural in the gothic genre, and introduces a new setting, the mansion instead of the castle. Gina Wisker specifies that the mansion “not only looks like, but is, a Gothic (fictional) construction”; and it, to a certain degree, “resonates with the power of the Gothic to manipulate illusion and disillusion, to promise and to threaten” (88; emphasis added). These variations reflect the narrative of the fantastic gothic and, as Neil Cornwell argues, “allow the genre to overlap with, or merge into the fictional modes of psychological realism, the uncanny, the fantastic, or the marvelous” (66). In this respect, the plot of Rebecca, fits the poeticization of the fantastic gothic for its quasi-supernatural and uncanny characteristics.2
As in the status of the fantastic formulated by Tzvetan Todorov, the reason that Rebecca can be read as fantastic gothic lies in its ambiguity between certainty and doubt, between rational (realistic or natural) explanation and the inexplicable that leads readers to hesitate. Although readers must adopt a certain attitude to read the text and decide its generic category, Rebecca often troubles readers’ judgment because its plots at all times hover between two opposite polarities (the uncanny and the marvelous). Rebecca does not belong to the uncanny nor can it be categorized into the marvelous; instead, it travels between them.
A division of the fantastic-marvelous and the fantastic-uncanny thus becomes imperative in order for us to situate Rebecca within the context of the fantastic gothic. In his popular critique, The Fantastic, Todorov posits two categories or transitory subgenres according to the explanations of phenomena that the text provides. As the diagram below shows, if seemingly supernatural phenomena receive a natural explanation, the reader is in the fantastic-uncanny, but if the unlikely events are given a supernatural explanation, the reader is in the fantastic-marvelous: [page 35]
The uncanny | The fantastic-uncanny | The fantastic-marvelous |The marvelousFig. 1. Todorov’s Sub-divisions (The Fantastic, 44; my revised version)
At the two extreme opposite ends of this diagram, the uncanny has no supernatural explanations but rather strange, incredible, and horrific events like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw; conversely, the marvelous has supernatural events that are accepted as supernatural at once and without hesitation, as in fairy tales. In the fantastic narrative, however, both the uncanny and the marvelous are emphasized for the ambiguity between the natural and supernatural elements. This ambiguity is the key point in the fantastic that leads readers to explore plausible possibility within the implausible text. Henry James’s The Lesson of the Master and “The Figure in the Carpet,” for example, are not really rooted in supernatural events because in these texts, interpretation, as Christine Brooke-Rose suggests, focuses on psychological possibility, not ghosts (65). In this case, the supernatural is not necessary as events can be resolved by natural explanation. The plot of Rebecca echoes these characteristics, evoking ambivalence and uncertainty. In light of these premises, the following paper will illustrate Rebecca’s potential as the fantastic gothic, particularly focusing on the anthropomorphic implications of Manderley that center the whole novel around the idea of haunting from the dead.
In the opening line of Rebecca, the nameless narrator, the young and naïve second wife of a rich man, introduces us to the dream of returning to an English country house, a mysterious, secretive, fictional construction or space: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. . . . I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited” (du Maurier 1). Here, Manderley is for some critics, such as Alison Light and Louise Harrington, to name but a few, a representative of the British Empire, and at the same time expresses the waning of its glorious past. Yet, Manderley, I argue, functions not primarily to lament the decline of English aristocracy and memories of past grandeur. Rather, it evokes a sense of a horrific and grotesque atmosphere:
The house was a sepulcher, our fear and suffering lay buried in the ruins. There would be no resurrection. When I thought of Manderley in my waking hours I would not be bitter. I should think of it as it might have been, could I have lived there without fear. (4) [page 36]
By this passage, we realize that Manderley is not an ordinary house where people feel comfortable in either an emotional or physical sense. It is, of course, not a site for family intimacy but a place associated with terror and fear. Though Manderley is ruined with no possibility of resurrection, it somehow signifies as a ghostly body of Maxim de Winter’s first wife (Rebecca) that haunts the narrator several times in her dreams.
Manderley and its ghosts besiege the heroine in her dreams and influence people living in it before it collapses. Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper of Manderley, preserves Manderley’s gothic atmosphere and resurrects Maxim’s glamorous first wife through the indelible traces that she has left behind, evidence of her presence and her thoughts. What Manderley presents here is a haunting mansion that symbolizes the physical body of Rebecca on the one hand and her coming back from the world of the dead on the other. Through the eyes of Ben, a young man who grew up at Manderley, Rebecca’s phantasmagorical power and her wraithlike presence are tested, which not only forces us to believe in these mysterious and eerie events in Manderley, but also provides us with supplementary information about Rebecca:
“Tall and dark she was,” he said. “She [Rebecca] gave you the feeling of a snake. I seen her here with me own eyes. By night she’d come. I seen her.” . . . “I looked in on her once,” he said, “and she turned on me, she did. ‘You [Ben] don’t know me, do you?’ she said. ‘You’ve never seen me here, and you won’t again. If I catch you looking at me through the windows here I’ll have you put in the asylum, she said’” (169; emphasis added)
It is significant that Ben acknowledges Rebecca’s evil nature and her appearance (“tall and dark”) from the very beginning of the story. Other people in the novel, including the narrator, know little about Rebecca, but Ben, though he is potentially an unreliable witness due to mental and emotional instability, is the one who first describes Rebecca as a snakelike and aggressive woman. Whether or not Ben’s words are reliable here, they emphasize Rebecca’s spectral image covered by a veil of darkness instead of appearing in the daytime. Mrs. Danvers’ reflective descriptions again allow this distinctly gothic atmosphere to permeate the whole house, and at the same time strengthen Rebecca’s nocturnal images:
“Sometimes, when I walk along the corridor here, I fancy I hear her [Rebecca] just behind me. That quick, light footstep. I could not mistake it anywhere. . . . I’ve seen her leaning there, in the evening. . . . Do you [the narrator] think she can see us, talking to one another now?” she said slowly. “Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?” (188-89; emphasis added)
As borne out by the above passage, nighttime helps to produce the horrific and terrifying effects of the gothic in the novel. The witnessing of [page 37] the spectral forces illustrated by both Mrs. Danvers and Ben also characterize Manderley as a haunted house that forces us to believe that the dead may return for revenge. Additionally, this supernatural invasion is enhanced by the discourse of hunting through plants, the rhododendrons in particular.
Those toxic rhododendrons planted around the house were once crazily loved by Rebecca, and implicitly refer to her lascivious desires and passions. Even though they look fantastic, powerful, and beautiful, unlike any ordinary domestic things, their excessive colors and blood-red appearance make the narrator breathless and she even consider that they are “not plants at all” but “monsters, rearing to the sky, massed like a battalion” (71). These flowers, planted by Rebecca, expose her prideful and aggressive character through natural things. Through the nocturnal images and monstrously natural plants, a gothic horror is created to strengthen the sense of a psychological thriller that invades and problematizes the romantic plots. As indicated by Wisker,
At the novel’s start—before the flashback—and at its close, the couple are rootless and collusive, the second wife haunted with horrific dreams of a Manderley entirely taken back by monstrous plants, its neat borders breached and overgrown, previously excluded wild plants rampant among its grand rooms. The excluded and the hidden—those cracks and fissures—open up and grotesque, wild growth overtakes. (89)
Through reading Rebecca, we are led to witness this gothic invasion and the return of the dead. Via this natural symbolism, it could be said that Rebecca is invading Manderley, and Manderley, both inside and outside of it, is Rebecca, or, more precisely, a representation of her.
More than just Rebecca’s embodiment, Manderley also manifests the power relationship between the dead and the living. Even though the house is on its surface governed by Mrs. Danvers and kept by Maxim, Mrs. Danvers serves Rebecca with great loyalty and Maxim cannot get rid of Rebecca’s influence nor forget her. These words from Mrs. Danvers to the heroine certainly show that Rebecca’s influence has not declined since her death:
We none of us want you. He doesn't want you, he never did. He can’t forget her. He wants to be alone in the house again, with her. It's you that ought to be lying there in the church crypt, not her. It's you who ought to be dead, not Mrs. de Winter. (270)
Even though Rebecca is absent, and in fact dead, from the start of the novel, her lingering presence is everywhere both inside and outside the house, the former mistress’s rooms of the West Wing in particular. As Viktoria Rall reminds us, there is one thing repeatedly emphasized in [page 38] Manderley: “there do not exist any photographs or paintings for her [Rebecca] . . . she still exists as a ‘sign,’ for instance, her initials on handkerchiefs and pillows, her address book, her handwriting in books, etc.” (qtd. in Nungesser 218). In a similar vein, Bertrandias points out that, unlike Bertha in Jane Eyre, Rebecca presents herself as more independent and aggressive through various samples of her handwriting, and her mind, desire, and energy all are presented in the writings.
It is therefore important to note that, unlike Rebecca, who is in a strong and powerful position, Bertha is a mere physical presence because she has no power over Jane’s mind, nor haunts her like a ghost. In Rebecca, the title character’s writing accordingly plays an important role, proving her presence and pushing the narrator to discover all the secrets in Manderley. Through reading Rebecca’s writing, the narrator inevitably touches the intricate web of Rebecca’s social life, for example, her aggressive desire and energy for social interaction and communication. In spite of Rebecca’s physical absence, her presence is inscribed throughout Manderley, leaving various traces and continually influencing people in the house, above all, the narrator. This is the main reason that the narrator admits that Rebecca is still Mrs. de Winter, the mistress of Manderley: Rebecca and her soul never left the house (du Maurier 255). This also proves to be a turning point in the story because the new Mrs. de Winter has to redefine and relocate her position in Manderley, who is she and what roles she must play in the house after Rebecca.
While the girl takes the positions that once belonged to Rebecca, as the mistress of Manderley and the wife of Maxim, she is, for Mrs. Danvers, a second-rate person, like another servant and a poor replacement for the vacant position in the house after Rebecca. For Maxim, she is meant to be a doll, an innocent angel, and a perpetual girl, which forces her to live for Maxim, not for herself. Whether or not the girl is willing to accept or ignore unfair treatment, her situation may not be open to change. With regard to this point, what Rebecca presents to us is not simply a romantic story, but again, a story employing features of psychological thrillers and the gothic, such as the endangered heroine, the devilish hero with hidden secrets, etc. At this point, Rebecca in some ways follows the Bluebeard myth rather than “Cinderella” to develop its plots. In Bertrandias’s words, Rebecca finds different ways to “rewrite the Bluebeard myth from the woman’s viewpoint” and tries to “escape the murder that is the inevitable lot of Bluebeard’s wives.”
Thus far, it seems that the unfathomable and unknown secrets are reinforced by the murder-mystery events, and the quasi-supernatural phenomena are located in the realm of the repetitive dreams, even when seen through other characters’ eyes as well. In this respect, Rebecca indeed draws much more attention to the gothic than the romantic plots. Several [page 39] critics, however, tend to “read the novel as an exploration of the split subjectivity inherent in becoming woman” (Horner and Zlosnik 27). Whether or not the narrator embodies symptoms of this “split subjectivity” and looks for her own mature self remains unsolved because the narrator’s unreliability may affect the reader’s judgment.
In comparison with other characters in Rebecca, the nameless narrator, though granted the narrative authority to recount things in the past, is the only one without identification. However, the events of the narrative are in fact addressed from a restricted position: even though the narrative takes the position of zero-focalization (an omniscient and unrestricted point of view), the narrator is one of characters in the story. In other words, the narrator, though telling the story from a third-person point of view, is a focal character who cannot speak from the outside. The events that comprise Rebecca are a combination of the past and the experiences of the narrator. As a participant in the later events, the narrator is not able to describe earlier events without any limitations, as a traditional third-person narrator can. In this sense, the way of the narration is thus changed to a fixed internal focalization because the narrative is presented by a single focal character’s point of view, a character-narrator.
Further, the voices recalling events from the past or transcribing memories are obviously not from an omniscient point of view, nor from an objective position. Instead, they reflect the narrator’s thoughts subjectively. In light of this viewpoint, once the focalizer is not a narrator functioning outside the story, then that character, as indicated by Göran Nieragden, has “a technical advantage over the other characters,” and the reader in turn has no other choices but must watch “with the character’s eyes and . . . accept the vision presented by that character” (688). In addition, the subject of focalization is another important point with regard to the reliability and the completeness of the account of events.
In Rebecca, the information presented is dependent primarily on the character-narrator, whose field of vision is subjective rather than objective, and the narrated events and scenes are not collective and constructed through other characters but selected and directed by a single focal character. In other words, the so-called reality is, perhaps, never presented within the narrative, possibly selectively chosen and manipulated by the narrator. At this point, what the narrator asserts and what the focalizer actually perceives raise several suspicious points. For the gothic scenarios, they may remain in questionable uncertainty because it is hard for reader to tell which parts of the story are “real” within the context of the novel or perhaps are all products of the narrator’s imagination rather than her the life experience. Given the opening scenario of returning to mysterious Manderley in a dream vision, there is a [page 40] suggestion of not only a certain nostalgia but also the introduction of doubt about the reliability of the narrator’s memories of falling asleep, dreaming, and so on. Moreover, this may provide a reason for the unexplained quasi-supernatural in Rebecca: not only are events narrated by a nameless participant whose identity is not provided, but from the very beginning, the narrator’s descriptions underscore that she speaks of memories (“I remember”). This method of narration calls into question her absolute reliability, and likewise, without other witness-participants offering heterogeneous visions and narratorial positions, there is no outside evidence that the narrator’s voice is a reliable and objective one. Therefore, what Rebecca presents is a kind of homodiegetic narration in which the whole story is viewed through an internal focalizer and woven by a sole voice. In other words, the girl in the novel is not just a character-focalizer (an observer) but also plays a narrator-focalizer (a reporter) who excludes other voices and forms the center of authorial power as well. As such, to believe or not to believe is indeed a question for readers: the entire story is not a polyphonic but monophonic performance.
What’s more, the boundary between the narrator-focalizer and the character-focalizer is blurred, and so the difference in identity between Rebecca and the narrator is obscured in the same way. Like the status of Rebecca, the girl’s name is absent or seemingly erased. On the one hand, it is hard for readers to recognize who Rebecca is and be sure that Rebecca is already dead because the evidence is given by the narrator without any proof from other persons. By the same token, focusing as it does on life at Manderley, the story ignores the girl’s previous life; unlike Rebecca, there is not enough information about the girl for readers to recognize her identity. At times, given the story’s focus on life after (a recognizable) Rebecca in Manderley, the nameless narrator can be seen as another Rebecca, without the name and now unrecognizable, and with no previous memories.
The title Rebecca, I argue, does not simply refer to Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca, but also designates two types of Maxim’s wife, or two different characters of Rebecca—one is presented in the first and another the second or the rebirth of Rebecca, that is, the girl without name and with no power to make decisions. In this way, the house, at the end of the novel, is meant to be destroyed not only as a symbol of patriarchal control, but for the girl to renew her life without being coded into dualistic opposition (either good or bad). In this sense, the gothic and supernatural atmosphere is thus eliminated.
In the case of Rebecca, however, both the natural and supernatural explanations are constantly possible since the novel derives its effects from both the uncanny and the marvelous. In Rebecca, readers’ emotional responses are not only influenced by Rebecca’s ambiguous identities, but [page 41] also directed toward a fictional and dream world where the richness of the reading and imagination is already given by the narrator’s past and her dreamlike memories. At this point, we may, therefore, be able to deem that Rebecca, though in some ways a romance fiction, exemplifies the fantastic gothic, which makes a considerable contribution to broadening our knowledge of romance fiction and at the same time reveals du Maurier’s skills in portraying the gothic elements in romance fiction.
1. In Bernhard Frank’s view, the opening mark with the narrator’s dream of returning to Manderley is referring to the “nostalgia for a Manderley lost,” and this aching loss is not simply for the estate of Maxim but for its symbolization of the glamor, ritual, and honor of the British Empire (240). As for its way of life, Frank further indicates that Manderley is “a microcosm for the British Empire,” in which it is not hard to find “upstairs/ downstairs servitude” and “exploitative, evil aristocrats” (240). See Bernhard Frank, “Du Maurier’s Rebecca.” The Explicator. 63.4 (2005), 239-242.
2. The Gothic genre is generally subdivided into two clear-cut types: the quasi-supernatural, ultimately explained Gothic (e.g. The Mysterious of Udolpho) and the actively supernatural (e.g. The Castle of Otranto).
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MLA citation (print):
Chang, Osmond Chien-ming. "Dark Shadows and the Gothic Lights: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca." Supernatural Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 2016, pp. 33-41.