The Rebecca effect

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again’—this line is regarded as one of the most famous lines in literature. Laced with mystery and intrigue, it provides the readers with a series of questions in the beginning of the novel, thus hooking them. What is Manderlay? Who is the narrator? Why a dream? What happened to Manderlay that she can’t go back in reality?

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is a murder mystery—a pretty straight forward one if you ask me. It has all the required elements—jealousy, rage, sexual intrigue and murder. Not to mention romance. The plot revolves around a lonely orphan, our unnamed narrator, who worked as a ladies companion to the loud and nosy American lady—Mrs. Van Hopper. This child woman meets our mysterious Mr. Max du Winter in the French Riviera and is swept off her feet entering into holy matrimony. She starts by viewing Mr. du Winter as someone from the ancient times. “He belonged to a walled city of the fifteenth century, a city of narrow, cobbled streets, and thin spires, where the inhabitants wore pointed shoes and worsted hose. His face was arresting, sensitive, medieval in some strange inexplicable way, and I was reminded of a portrait seen in a gallery, I had forgotten where, of a certain Gentleman Unknown. Could one but rob him of his English tweeds, and put him in black, with lace at his throat and wrists, he would stare down at us in our new world from a long-distant past.”

This image of du Winter is transformed into that of an older brother she never had and eventually to the man she loved as the story progresses. Now comes the question—who is Rebecca and what is Manderlay?

First question—Rebecca is the first wife of max du winter. She is regarded as exceptionally beautiful, talented in all respects and the female figure every woman wants to imitate and one every man dreams to be with. In short—perfection. She had died by drowning in the bay near their house and the readers are lead to believe that Max and Rebecca are the perfect couple. They have everything working for them. When Rebecca dies, Max is devastated or so every other character in the story thinks and escapes to Monte Carlo to get over her death.

Second question—what is Manderlay? It is where the du winters have lived for centuries. It is a picturesque house—one which is surrounded by rose gardens on one side and the sea on the other. Our hero has a strange connection to the house. He is in love with it. Whatever he has done throughout his life has been for the welfare of his estate. Yet he seems to want to escape from there? Why? What reason can he have?

There is another character who is also regarded as one of the best female villains in literature—Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper who is devoted to Rebecca and tries every trick in the book to get rid of our narrator.

Coming to our narrator. What do we know about her? She is an orphan. She speaks highly of her father, but we have no idea what her father did or who he was. The only thing we know is that he was a very lovely and an unusual person. Our narrator obviously comes from a lower section of the society- one can guess the middle class. She is shy, nervous and knows nothing about the du winter’s way of life. She is awkward in Manderlay and wanders where all the uneaten food goes. Other than that she is cloaked by an air of mystery when it comes to her origins. Her only occupation seems to be sketching, walking and loving her husband. This is not the type of woman who could stand a chance in front of Rebecca’s beauty and charm.

I will highlight some aspects of the book which I found posed a deep question.

  1. The narrator was haunted and taunted by Rebecca’s memories. It was as if Rebecca was omnipresent. She was everywhere without physically being there—embroidered in her handkerchief, in the portraits in the gallery, in the boathouse, inked in her book, and also in Mrs. Danvers, her representative in the living world. How is it that mere memories of a person one has never seen, can haunt them such? I don’t mean to sound like an advocate of the evil, but I somewhere have a feeling that du Maurier liked Rebecca. The book is centered around her life. She is the true heroine, in my opinion. We know more about her than we know about any other character. She gets her revenge despite being dead. From a sociological perspective, she represents everything that is unconventional for a woman of that era. She took her life in her own hands and made a man surrender to her.
  2. Manderlay in my opinion, is more than a house or an estate. It represents greed and power. It burns down in the end and it is only then that the narrator and max du winter are completely free. Though they miss Manderlay, the narrator admits that their current existence in a second star hotel is a much simpler and happier one. She secretly desires Manderlay, but never says it out loud. It is for her dreams only.
  3. You feel a sort of comradery with the narrator. She is the other woman- the inferior one who is lesser in most respects. We all as women, I am sure men too, start off in our journey as becoming a woman from a girl as shy and uncertain of ourselves. We look up to others of our respective sexes for instruction as to how to dress, how to behave, how to talk, how to walk, etc. The narrator, too, starts off as awkward but as the story progresses, she becomes that woman herself- a much better one. She jumps the hurdles in her path and lets her love for her husband dictate her actions. It is the process of her growing up.

Now for why I am such a huge fan of the book. For one, as I mentioned previously, I grew up with the narrator and will keep growing. I read this book first when I was 13 and from then to now, I am 20—I have read the book atleast 7 times. In other words I grew with the narrator and she became my nameless friend. The way the book is written is very cinematographic. You can imagine, drifting through Manderlay, the expressions of the face to Frith the butler and see Mrs. Danver’s cold and archaic face. In short while reading, I am not merely a reader, I am the narrator. I know as a little as the narrator about the things happening around me. I am her and she is me. The book has many layers. Numerous aspects. You should definitely give it a read if you are fascinated with human behavior. You are sure to find a Rebecca, a Beatrice, a Max du Winter, a Mrs. Van hopper in your life.


4 thoughts on “The Rebecca effect

  1. Have Read another review of the novel, but believe me, this is wAay better. Very well narrated. You have now budded in me the curiosity to know the character more. I have the same questions in my mind about Manderlay. And reading this novel would be the only way out. Thank you for the push, I badly needed it to dilute the confusion between books in my to-read list.

  2. Love the way this is written. In a few days time when my salary gets credited, I’m getting this book.

    When I was going through it I was getting this overwhelming feeling that I’ve heard about this story before. At first I couldn’t put my finger on it. I went online and searched about adaptations. I was sure it was some form of fiction that I read or heard in Malayalam. Eventually I figured out it was a Malayalam movie, “Sasneham Sumitra”. I must emphasize though that it was a very loose adaptation. The movie was quite mediocre and a lot of very mallu concepts were crammed in. They also tried and failed miserably to make it a mystery (meaning I wasn’t drawn into the mystery).

    I apologize for the digression. The point I’m trying to make is that the way you wrote this, the story came back to me very quickly. And of course, you have instilled in me the need to read it.

    Thank you. 🙂

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