Who’s Buried in Rebecca’s Crypt? The Existential Specter in Daphne du Maurier
by Blake Allmendinger
[page 89] Abstract: While acknowledging the influence of the Gothic romance and the Victorian novel on Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, this article considers the unexplored influence of contemporary philosophy, specifically existentialism, on the author’s best-known work. An existentialist interpretation of Rebecca enables the reader to glean additional insights into the novel, proposing answers to questions that the author leaves unresolved.
Keywords: Daphne du Maurier, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gothic romance, Victorian novel, existentialism
In Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca, the unnamed female narrator meets Maxim de Winter at a Monte Carlo resort, where he has come to rest after the death of his wife Rebecca. The two marry and return to the de Winter estate in southern England, where the new bride learns about Rebecca’s accidental drowning and her burial in the family crypt. Like a Gothic heroine, Maxim’s naïve young wife becomes trapped in the equivalent of a haunted castle, a dungeon, or a chamber of horrors. She is held spiritually captive by her husband, by the ghostly presence of Rebecca, and by Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper of Manderley’s original mistress. She ultimately frees herself from the mesmerizing control of Mrs. Danvers, flees from Manderley with her husband, and settles into a low-profile life of self-selected exile in which she has become the dominant partner, admitting that “his dependence upon me . . . has made me bold at last” (9). These events are precipitated by the retrieval of a body from the sea that is identified as Maxim’s first wife, and this discovery raises the question: Who’s buried in Rebecca’s crypt?
The narrator has several things in common with the [page 90] unidentified woman. First, her name is a mystery. Her parents are dead, she has no other family or friends, and where she comes from is never revealed (du Maurier 24-25). Second, once the first corpse is removed from the crypt, it is never mentioned again. The reader never learns how the woman died, whether anyone eventually claimed her, and where she was finally interred. The narrator and Maxim go into exile after the events of the novel, moving to an unknown country, where they drift from one “little hotel” to another (6), essentially lost to the world that they once inhabited.1
Rebecca has been linked to the eighteenth-century Gothic romance and the nineteenth-century Victorian novel,2 but I propose that existentialism, a philosophy that began to flourish, though as yet unnamed, at the time that du Maurier wrote her best-known work of fiction, is a third influence. Rebecca has many of the same thematic concerns and ideological characteristics as works by Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. The events of Rebecca suggest that, like Sartre, du Maurier believes that human beings are condemned to be free (Sartre, Existentialism 29). Like de Beauvoir, she argues that women must challenge patriarchal authority and reject the sexist institution of motherhood. As in the novels of Camus, du Maurier’s characters realize that they live in a nihilistic, random, or meaningless universe, where neither religious nor secular institutions can be trusted and relations with their fellow human beings are impossible to sustain.3 Like the titular character in Camus’s The Stranger (1942), du Maurier’s unnamed narrator is enigmatic, a loner, and conscious of living in a state of exile, the result of having committed—or at any rate, participated in covering up—a crime.4 Camus’s “stranger” murders a man in Algeria, while Maxim has broken the laws that bind him to society by killing Rebecca. His new wife becomes an accomplice after the fact, encouraging him to lie on the witness stand during the inquest brought about by the discovery of Rebecca’s [page 91] body. As a result, Maxim and the narrator achieve freedom in the existential sense, having to live with their own guilty knowledge and memories of Manderley, burned to the ground by Mrs. Danvers. But the narrator, not Maxim, becomes the existential anti-hero in du Maurier’s novel, attaining a position of power and reversing the conventional relationship between husband and wife.
Throughout Rebecca, various characters control the narrator’s destiny. Initially, the protagonist depends on the patronage of Mrs. Van Hopper, a social-climbing American tourist who hires the narrator as her paid companion. After marrying Maxim, the young woman with the “dull personality” fades into the background at Manderley, where she feels “buried” (3), living in the shadow of his deceased first wife. She also allows Mrs. Danvers to rule the household, reversing the power dynamic between mistress and servant. Later, a London doctor with previously unknown information about Rebecca holds the narrator’s “future in the hollow of his hand” (363).
Like the unidentified corpse after it is removed from the tomb, the narrator feels dispossessed while living at Manderley. Whatever “self-possession” she had gained on her honeymoon disappears once she arrives at the de Winter estate (63). Self-confidence gives way to self-consciousness (71), something like an out-of-body experience and attendant loss of control, and she becomes preoccupied with Rebecca, whose spirit seems still to linger in the home now occupied by Maxim’s second wife (79, 126, 140). When she answers a ringing phone and is asked if she is Mrs. de Winter, she responds, “Mrs. de Winter has been dead for over a year” (86). As she looks around Rebecca’s bedroom, the narrator compares herself to an “uninvited guest” who has “strolled into [the room] by mistake” (168). When she goes outside to escape from her gloomy surroundings, she sees Mrs. Danvers observing her “from one of the windows” (178), adding to her sense of paranoia, and the housekeeper tells [page 92] her, “It’s you that ought to be lying in the church crypt, not her. It’s you who ought to be dead, not Mrs. de Winter” (250). But Rebecca’s remains aren’t enshrined in the tomb. Mourning for the stranger in the crypt, the narrator says, “It’s the body of some unknown woman, unclaimed, belonging nowhere” (270).
De Beauvoir contrasts a self-conscious loss of control with a sense of freedom, which she defines as an aspect of the existential human condition: liberating oneself from the influence of “external powers” is a philosopher’s ultimate goal, as well as a terrifying notion to contemplate. According to de Beauvoir: “Freedom comes from an awareness of nothingness, which is an essential aspect of [one’s] ability to be self-aware, to be conscious of [oneself]” (Ethics 7). In her exploration of feminist existentialism, de Beauvoir distinguishes between self-possession and otherness. A woman is always perceived as the “other” because she lives in a patriarchal society (The Second Sex 280), and in du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca and the narrator are both defined by their relationships to Maxim, seemingly “necessary for the construction of the masculine self” (Horner and Zlosnik 105). After her marriage, the narrator becomes known as the “other” Mrs. de Winter, having no independent identity,5 “non-existent yet appearing” (Munford 121). Her disembodied voice—her narration—is the only sign of her presence.
By contrast, Rebecca manifests her presence in Manderley and the novel through writing (Williams 9). Her monogrammed handkerchief has a “tall sloping R, with the letters de W interlaced” (du Maurier 120). The narrator is also haunted by Rebecca’s inscription in a book of poetry: “Max from Rebecca” but doesn’t reveal the name of the poet because the book belonging to her husband is less important than the reminder of his first wife’s existence: “How alive was her writing,” the narrator marvels, “how full of force” (58). By comparison, her own handwriting lacks “individuality” and “style” (89). Narrative, however, is an expres-[page 93]sion of consciousness, and by narrating the novel, the second Mrs. de Winter asserts her identity and her power. When the truth about Rebecca’s death is revealed, Maxim’s first wife loses her power over the newlywed couple. The narrator declares: “She would never haunt me again” (290). She and her husband use Rebecca’s words against her, reading her engagement diary, which indicates that the writer visited a doctor shortly before her death (348). When the doctor reveals that Rebecca had uterine cancer (373), the narrator exerts control over the events around Rebecca’s death and rationalizes that her husband isn’t a murderer since Rebecca was already doomed to die. She paradoxically achieves freedom by committing—or, in this case, by not reporting—a crime.6
Rebecca is not presented entirely chronologically, and the timeline and limited knowledge of events provided in the first few chapters create a sense of uncanniness also associated with the Gothic, representing “the alienation of the human subject” from the physical world (Botting 11-12). An experience of the uncanny also occurs when “writing bends back” on itself, dislocating the narrative by revealing “another writing embedded within it” (Smith 301). Rebecca begins with the narrator living in exile and dreaming of Manderley: “It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.” The forest surrounding the house “had come into her own again and little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long tenacious fingers,” says the narrator, comparing the trees to Rebecca and referring to their branches by using the first-person female singular pronoun, and “[t]he tree branches intermingled in a strange embrace, making a vault above my head like the archway of a church” (du Maurier 1).
Over the course of the first few chapters, the narrator returns to the past, beginning the novel a second time by describing her arrival with Mrs. Van Hopper at their Monte Carlo hotel. Several chapters later, the newly married [page 94] protagonist returns to England and describes her first impressions—the first she would have shared in a chronological narrative—of the de Winter estate. The two scenes describing Manderley are remarkably similar, an uncanny doubling: the driveway is “twisted and turned as a serpent, scarce wider in places than a path, and above our heads was a great colonnade of trees, whose branches nodded and intermingled with one another, making an archway for us, like the roof of a church” (65). These scenes blur the distinction between dream and reality, a perception further reinforced by the duality within each passage: the woods are predatory yet welcoming, enchanted yet dangerous. The woods are holy, with vaulted ceilings, like a church, or like a crypt or family sarcophagus. They make the newlywed couple feel unheimlich, uncanny, “not at home in the world,” a sensation associated with the existential condition (Burr 49, 76).
There are many uncanny moments in Rebecca. Most of them involve the estate that Maxim’s first wife no longer inhabits yet continues to haunt, especially the house where his second wife lives while never feeling at home. One evening after dinner, the narrator thinks uncomfortably to herself as she sits next to Maxim, “I was not the first one to lounge there in possession of the chair, someone had been before me, had surely left an imprint of her person on the cushions, and on the arm where her hand had rested” (du Maurier 79). Rebecca possesses the chair instead of merely sitting there. The narrator also imagines Rebecca working in the morning room, writing invitations to a party that she plans to host (126). Maxim acknowledges that everything beautiful at Manderley was made or designed by Rebecca: “The drawing room as it is today, the morning room—that’s all Rebecca. Those chairs that Frith points out so proudly to the visitors on the public day, and that panel of tapestry—Rebecca again” (278-79). At other times, the narrator experiences the uncanny as she moves back and forward in time. When she stares in a mirror, she thinks, “This is the [page 95] present. There is no past and there is no future . . . [and] this moment will not pass” (45), yet the next moment she claims: “I am another woman, older, more mature” (46). She thinks to herself late in the novel, “I would never be a child again” (290) and does not recognize herself: “I got up and went to the looking glass. A face stared back at me that was not my own. It was very pale, very lovely, framed in a cloud of black hair. Her eyes narrowed and smiled” (285). An uncanny sensation occurs when the narrator imagines or encounters two versions of the same person, thus forcing her to question the notion of the existential self, an individual alone in the universe, creating its own rules by which to live.
Manderley also operates according to its own unnatural laws. A masquerade ball honoring Maxim’s new bride slowly transforms into a surrealist nightmare, described by the narrator in a stream-of-consciousness style reminiscent of the era’s more experimental writers, a reflection of their rejection of social conventions as well as literary norms. The grotesque performers include an unknown woman wearing a “salmon-coloured gown hooped in crinoline form.” Each time she passes the narrator, it coincides with a sweeping bar of the waltz “to which she dipped and swayed, smiling as she did so in my direction.” Maxim’s new wife also recognizes a woman who looks “monstrous in purple, disguised as I know not what romantic figure of the past” (227-28). The narrator sits on the sidelines, comparing the participants to “marionettes” who are manipulated by an invisible hand; however, she, the new mistress of Manderley, has been similarly manipulated by Mrs. Danvers and has unwittingly copied a dress worn by the previous Mrs. de Winter. Maxim is shaken by the uncanny resemblance between his two wives, and the ball ends with the disgraced protagonist sitting on the stairs, having been humiliated and banished, like a puppet with “a smile screwed to its face” (229).
The puppet scene foreshadows one in which the narrator imagines Maxim being hanged for murdering Rebecca, a scene that is reminiscent of the stream-of-consciousness [page 96] often employed by existential authors as their antiheroes decide whether to obey the law or to commit a crime that would ostracize them from the world for the rest of their lives:
Hanging was quick. Hanging did not hurt. It broke your neck at once. No, it did not. Someone said once it did not always work. Someone who had known the governor of a prison. They put that bag over your head, and you stand on the little platform, and then the floor gives way beneath you. It takes exactly three minutes to go from the cell to the moment you are hanged. No, fifty seconds, someone said. No, that’s absurd. It could not be fifty seconds. There’s a little flight of steps down the side of the shed, down to the pit. The doctor goes down there to look. They die instantly. No, they don’t. The body moves for some time, the neck is not always broken. Yes, but even so they don’t feel anything. Someone said they did. Someone who had a brother who was a prison doctor said it was not generally known, because it would be such a scandal, but they did not always die at once. Their eyes are open, they stay open for quite a long time. (321-22)
This internal monologue shares certain characteristics with the opening dream and actual descriptions of Manderley. The passage reads quickly, its short sentences suggesting panic, fear, and confusion. While listening to the coroner question her husband on the witness stand, the narrator feels trapped: “Why didn’t they open a window? We should be suffocated if we sat here with the air like this” (314). Readers may assume that they are eavesdropping on the narrator’s thoughts, though the voice in this passage bears no resemblance to hers, suggesting a loss of narrative control or similar uncanny dissociation. This narrator speaks in the second person, not the first,7 and asks “you” to imagine what it feels like to hang by envisioning various conflicting scenarios. The speaker prefers to believe that the [page 97] victims “don’t feel anything,” but how can they know? Indeed, the subjects of capital punishment seem like victims because they are killed in an inhumane manner, but they also have been convicted of serious crimes. The passage offers realistic, graphically violent descriptions, but some of these scenarios are “absurd”—not laughable or tragic, but meaningless in the existential sense. As hardboiled detective writer Raymond Chandler writes in “The Simple Art of Murder” (1950), “It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization” (17).8
In the Gothic romance, the heroine is eventually rescued from her captors, her virtue still intact; in the existential novel, the anti-hero escapes from society but is nonetheless haunted by the choices made to do so and forced to live with the guilt that comes with freedom or self-possession. The fact that the narrator escapes with her husband after the inquest is at odds with the fate of characters like Camus’s Meursault, but is evidence of de Beauvoir’s theory that “separate existants” can be “bound to each other,” merging their “individual freedoms” into a meaningful union (Ethics 18). In an unpublished epilogue to the original manuscript, which extends the story beyond the details revealed in the published first chapters, the author states that Maxim (originally called Henry) became “crippled” and his wife “disfigured” while trying to save Manderley from the fire (401, 409), binding them to one another through loss, but in the final chapter of the published novel, which ends with the fire rather than the aftermath and their exile, the narrator already feels “better and stronger”: “It was I who was now taking care of [Maxim]. He was tired, pale. I had got over my weakness and fatigue and now he was the one to suffer” (381). In the frame narrative that opens the novel, she says that he is now dependent upon her (9).
Additionally, while de Beauvoir believes that a woman [page 98] can partner with a mate while maintaining her freedom, she posits that becoming pregnant and having children significantly limit her options, reducing a woman to nothing more than “a womb” (The Second Sex 21). There are no children in du Maurier’s novel; what Rebecca thought was an illegitimate child with whom she could torment Maxim was a cancerous growth in her uterus (373). Maxim and his second wife consider having a family when they go into exile (325), but there is no suggestion that they do. For de Beauvoir, pregnancy is a form of colonization, a feeling of being possessed and controlled by outside forces, and having escaped from Manderley, where she was possessed by Rebecca’s spirit and controlled by the dead woman’s housekeeper, the narrator may have no desire to give up her freedom.
Sartre’s theory that existence precedes essence is a fundamental tenet of existential philosophy (Existentialism vii). Sartre believed that people merely exist once they are born; they have no opinions, no feelings, no personalities, no interest in the world around them. As one matures, one makes certain choices (exercising one’s freedom to do so), which define one’s nature or essence, and realizes that life is inherently meaningless. Those who never achieve this level of consciousness are defined by their attachments, which are essentially meaningless. Rebecca, then, merely exists—in both material and corporeal form—through her possessions: her portrait on the staircase, her appointment calendar, her autograph on a book of poetry, her monogrammed handkerchief, her bedroom with its luxurious furnishings; when those things are destroyed, she ceases to exist as she had previously, haunting the narrator as well as Maxim and Mrs. Danvers. The narrator is the only one of the novel’s three major characters who becomes stronger by the end of Rebecca. She is free: free from Manderley, from its former mistress and housekeeper, even from the power that her love for him once gave Maxim.
As one sympathetic critic suggests, readers begin to hope [page 99] that Maxim will escape from justice because if his wife is implicated by his criminal actions, so are they (Beaumann 54). Rebecca’s opening chapters, set in the narrator’s present, suggest the monotony and routine of yet another day. As the narrator realizes, freedom has condemned the couple to “a restless existence,” consisting of nothing but “trouble and pain” (Wartenberg 37).
1. Du Maurier originally drafted an epilogue that provided more details about the fate of the de Winters, but she writes in an Author’s Note that “the original epilogue somehow merged into the first chapter, and the ending was entirely changed” (390). However, there are some suggestive points in that epilogue that will be discussed later in this essay.
2. Du Maurier’s protagonist has also been compared to Jane Eyre, the Victorian proto-feminist heroine of Charlotte Brontë’s eponymous novel who escapes from an orphanage and a series of domestic prisons and institutional spaces, eventually uniting with Mr. Rochester, her former Byronic master and now chastened husband.
For analyses of Rebecca and the Gothic romance, see for example Richard Kelly (Daphne du Maurier, Twayne, 1987, pp. 53-70), and Horner and Zlosnik (99). For more about the Victorian novel, its proto-feminist roots, and its influence on du Maurier’s work, see for example Kelly (54), Bernadette Bertrandias (“Daphne Du Maurier's Transformation of Jane Eyre in Rebecca.” Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, vol. 4, no. 4, 2006, pp. 21-31), and Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. Yale UP, 1984).
3. Like other works in the existential tradition, Rebecca presents a world in which God either is absent or doesn’t exist. Characters survive by making hard choices, instead of relying on prayers or religious institutions to [page 100] guide them. Maxim and the narrator don’t get married by a priest (56); however, Manderley’s library smells like “a silent church, where services are seldom held” (69), and the home is a shrine to Rebecca, whose flame is kept alive by Mrs. Danvers. The acolyte makes the narrator feel “as one does in church, self-conscious” and guilty (71).
4. David E. Cooper writes that “an authentic existence in which [existential] freedom is exercised requires a person to disengage himself from the ways of the ‘Public,’ the ‘herd’ or the ‘they.’” This “self-estrangement” is commonly achieved by breaking the laws or codes of society (33). The narrator claims that she and Maxim have “paid for freedom” (5), unlike the characters in Alfred Hitchcock’s film, which provides a conventional happy ending for the beleaguered couple.
5. Nikola Havlová also sees this process of othering as a feature of the Gothic romance, noting that women become dependent on men “by acquiring the marital status and accepting the values it stands for” (41).
6. Early in the novel, du Maurier suggests that the narrator has the spirit it takes to become independent. Maxim’s new wife destroys Rebecca’s autograph by cutting the page out of the book, tearing it to pieces, and burning it. After symbolically murdering her rival, however, the narrator looks over her shoulder “like a criminal” (58).
7. In the epilogue that du Maurier rewrote to open the novel, the narrator uses the second person throughout. This newly explicit relationship between the narrator and her readers suggests that the new Mrs. de Winter is now in total control of the narrative as well as her husband. Unlike her husband’s first wife and the unknown woman who was buried at Manderley, the narrator is neither a corpse nor a memory; she is the consciousness that presides at the end of the novel. [page 101]
8. Interestingly, the Gothic novel was also known as le roman noir. Later, the term noir became associated with both hardboiled detective fiction and existential literature. Neil Matheson considers similarities between the Gothic and noir, including an interest in “non-conformity, the irrational, ‘otherness,’ madness and melodrama” (8-9). When the narrator declares that she and Maxim have “paid for freedom,” she admits she sounds like a melodramatic actress ranting in “an indifferent play” (du Maurier 5). Tania Modleski also notes that the twentieth century “Gothic revival” occurred “at the same time that ‘hard-boiled’ detective novels were attracting an unprecedented number of male readers.” However, she distinguishes between the two genres, claiming noir “scapegoat[ed] women,” sexually objectifying and demonizing them as femme fatales, while the modern Gothic romance or the “gaslight genre” reflected women’s fears about losing “their freedoms” after World War II, when men returned to their jobs, forcing women “back into their homes” (21).
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---. The Second Sex. Translated by H. M. Parshley, Knopf, 1953.
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Horner, Avril, and Sue Zlosnik, editors. Women and the Gothic: An Edinburgh Companion. Edinburgh UP, 2016.
Matheson, Neil. Surrealism and the Gothic: Castles of the Interior. Routledge, 2018.
Modleski, Tania. Loving With a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women. Archon Books, 1982.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism Is a Humanism. Translated by Carol Macomber, Yale UP, 2007.
---. Nausea. Translated by Richard Howard, New Directions, 1993.
Smith, Alan Lloyd. “The Phantoms of Drood and Rebecca: The Uncanny Reencountered Through Abraham and Torok’s Cryptography.” Poetics Today, vol. 13, no. 2, 1992, pp. 285-308.
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Blake Allmendinger is a professor in the English and American Literature Department at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he specializes in literature of the American West. Allmendinger is the author of eight previous books, including most recently Geographic Personas: Self-Transformation and Performance in the American West (2021). A ninth, Tongues of Settlement: Where the World Becomes Basque, is forthcoming in 2023.
MLA citation (print):
Allmendinger, Blake. "Who’s Buried in Rebecca’s Crypt? The Existential Specter in Daphne du Maurier." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 8, no. 1, 2022, pp. 89-102.