“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
Perhaps one of the most enduring lines in fiction. That is how Daphne du Maurier’s best known and most widely read work, Rebecca, begins. The book is essentially a bildungsroman of the nameless protagonist. Chance and fortitude land her in a marriage with the dashing Maxim de Winters, a widower. On arriving at Manderley, Maxim’s beautiful estate Mrs. De Winters finds the atmosphere stifling and intimidating. Her constant comparison with Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife and the malicious Mrs. Danvers make things difficult for her. Rebecca had drowned in an unfortunate accident a year back while out sailing. Maxim careworn attitude adds to the tension in the house. Things take an ugly turn with the Annual Ball where Mrs. De Winters wears a replica of Rebecca’s dress. Maxim’s anger knows no bounds and adds to the gloominess. Will Maxim ever be able to forget Rebecca? Will the marriage of these seemingly different individuals last? Questions abound in the readers mind making it an enduring saga of love, hatred, romance and shocking revelations.
Rebecca is not only a fictional tale but also a mark of respect for Cornwall and the adjoining countryside, which Du Maurier loved. The fond descriptions of the scenic countryside enthrall the reader, making it a visual delight. The desolation experienced by the protagonist is often offset by the picturesque landscape of Manderley. The descriptions like that of the driveway where rhododendrons make a canopy overhead bring alive the place for us. By the end, the loss of Manderley is heartbreakingly felt not only by the Winters’ but also us. The pictorial images are definitely a high point of the book.
Another captivating feature is the characterization and Max, Rebecca and the second Mrs. De Winters which linger in our minds for a long time. Max seems to be the typical romantic hero, dashing and brooding but it is only by the end that we are allowed an insight in his mind, which makes him seem more human. Rebecca is drawn up as the perfect wife figure, loved and admired by all. Even when the truth about her is revealed(shocking, no doubt), the enigma remains. The most insipid character though is the most layered and that is the second Mrs. De Winters. Her namelessness just adds to the aura around her otherwise dull character. She is the ideal foil to Rebecca who epitomized life and verve. In conjunction to her character can be read one of the underlying themes of the novel, that of the role of domesticity which women must adhere to. Rebecca transgressed, primarily using her sexuality and paid for it by her death. The interesting bit I must mention here is how greatly she was admired by everyone around her, especially women. The second Mrs. De Winters makes a less successful but a better wife by coding herself in the feminine mold. Victorian prudishness at work, you see! At the end of the novel, Mrs. De Winters dreams of herself as Rebecca which probably implies her longing to break out of the patriarchal hegemonic society binding her.
This book also marks the fusion of two genres, the romantic and the mystery novel, a not so prevalent practice in the 1900s. A great work of fiction which has endured the test of time!
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