views updated

Daphne du Maurier

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study


"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." This opening line from Rebecca is one of the most powerful, most recognized, in all of literature. For more than sixty years, audiences around the world have praised Daphne du Maurier's novel as a spellbinding blend of mystery, horror, romance, and suspense. In this book, readers can see the traditions of romantic fiction, such as the helpless heroine, the strong-willed hero, and the ancient, imposing house that never seems to unlock its secrets. Using elements familiar to audiences of romances through the ages, from the moody and wind-swept novels of the Brontë sisters in the 1840s to the inexpensive entertainments of today, Rebecca stands out as a superb example of melodramatic storytelling. Modern readers considered this book a compelling page-turner, and it is fondly remembered by most who have read it.

The story concerns a woman who marries an English nobleman and returns with him to Manderley, his country estate. There, she finds herself haunted by reminders of his first wife, Rebecca, who died in a boating accident less than a year earlier. In this case, the haunting is psychological, not physical: Rebecca does not appear as a ghost, but her spirit affects nearly everything that takes place at Manderley. The narrator, whose name is never divulged, is left with a growing sense of distrust toward those who loved Rebecca, wondering just how much they resent her for taking Rebecca's place. In the final chapters, the book turns into a detective story, as the principal characters try to re-veal or conceal what really happened on the night Rebecca died.

Author Biography

Daphne du Maurier was born in London, on May 13, 1907. Her grandfather was artist and novelist George du Maurier, who drew cartoons for the satiric humor magazine Punch and illustrated books, including a few of Henry James' novels; his own novel Trilby included a mystic character named Svengali, which has since become a common word in the English language. Her father was Sir Gerald du Maurier, one of the most famous actors on the English stage in the 1910s and 1920s, who first performed the role of Captain Hook in Peter Pan. Daphne, along with her sisters, was educated at home. She began publishing short stories in 1928, with the help of her uncle, who was a magazine editor, and her first novel, The Loving Spirit, was published in 1931. The following year, she married Major-General Sir Frederick Arthur Montague Browning II. Literary success came quickly. In 1936, she achieved international success with Jamaica Inn, a tale of smuggling along the Cornish coast. It was followed in 1938 by Rebecca, which became a huge bestseller. Alfred Hitchcock filmed both novels in 1939 and 1940, respectively. Hitchcock also made one of his best-known films, 1963's The Birds, from a 1952 du Maurier short story.

For more than twenty-five years, du Maurier lived at Menabilly, a country estate that was the inspiration for Manderley. Her marriage to Browning was a friendly one but not a loving one, and she kept herself occupied by writing and entertaining friends. The couple's social circle included some of the most famous people of the day, including Sir John Gielgud, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and the actress Gertrude Lawrence, who was rumored to have been her lover. Browning's death in 1965 came as a blow to her. She moved from Menabilly to another famous house, Kilmarth, which dated back to the 1300s. The novel The House on the Rock is about Kilmarth.

In addition to novels and short stories, du Maurier also published biographies of Branwell Brontë (the brother of Anne, Charlotte, and Emily), of her father and grandfather, and of Sir Francis Bacon. She wrote several plays, including a three-act adaptation of Rebecca. Among her autobiographical works is Myself, When I Was Young and The "Rebecca" Notebooks, and Other Memories. She also wrote several books of local history about Cornwall, where she lived.

Daphne du Maurier died in Par, Cornwall, England, on April 19, 1989, at age of eighty-one. She had not written anything in years, and it was decades since her last important piece of fiction, The House On the Strand, was published in 1969.

Plot Summary

The Future

The first two chapters of Rebecca take place at some undetermined time in the future. The narrator remembers events that happened in the past at Manderley, an English country estate. She and an unidentified male companion are traveling around foreign countries, reminding themselves of the life they once lived by reading the English news in newspapers. This section gives readers a description of Manderley and vaguely mentions other characters that will be important as the story progresses: Mrs. Danvers, Favell, and, of course, Rebecca.

The final paragraphs of the second chapter take the action back in time, to the very start of the story, when the narrator was a companion to Mrs. Van Hopper and was staying at the hotel Cote d'Azur at Monte Carlo.

The Hotel Cote d'Azur

Mrs. Van Hopper is presented as a greedy, vain, patronizing woman who likes to think of herself as entering European high society, although she clearly is too ill-mannered to do so. Her companion is a poor young woman who could never afford to be in such an expensive resort by herself. When Mrs. Van Hopper sees Maxim de Winter, she recognizes him and asks to sit at his table, using the excuse that he and her nephew know each other. She does not recognize his impatience with her, although the narrator does. Later, after they have gone back to their room, de Winter sends a note to the narrator, apologizing if he has been rude.

The next morning, Mrs. Van Hopper becomes ill, and her companion finds herself with free time. She has lunch with de Winter, and then they start meeting regularly for rides in the country in his car. She tells him about her life, but he hardly talks about his. From Mrs. Van Hopper's gossip, she knows that his wife died in a boating accident about eight months earlier, and that he owns the estate known as Manderley.

When Mrs. Van Hopper decides that she wants to return to America, the narrator tells de Winter. He returns to Mrs. Van Hopper's room with her and explains that her companion will not be going with her, that they are in love and going to be married.

The Uncomfortable Months

After a few weeks of honeymooning in Italy, Maxim de Winter returns to Manderley with his wife. Not having come from a wealthy background, she is intimidated by the responsibilities of being the mistress of a huge estate. She is uncomfortable with giving orders to the servants. They respond to her discomfort in different ways. Frith, the senior butler, is patient with her uncertainty and is willing to offer polite suggestions as to ways that she might want to handle things, if she wishes, always making it clear that domestic situations are hers to command. On the other hand, there is Mrs. Danvers, who came to Manderley when de Winter was first married to his first wife, Rebecca. Mrs. Danvers does not allow anything to be changed in Rebecca's bedroom, keeping it exactly as it had been when she was alive. She also corrects the new Mrs. de Winter when she tries to change the way that Rebecca did things. Maxim is hesitant to talk about Rebecca, and so the narrator assumes that he is tortured by the memory of their love.

Once, while walking out near the shore, her dog (who had been Rebecca's dog) leads her to a cottage that is falling apart in disrepair. There, she meets Ben, a retarded young man who talks in mysterious half-sentences, frightening her. When she tells Maxim that she met Ben in the cottage, he is upset to hear that the cottage was unlocked, making her suspect that he wants it to remain unchanged, the way Rebecca left it.

One afternoon, while Maxim and the other servants are away, she finds Mrs. Danvers with a strange man, who introduces himself as Jack Favell. He is loud and aggressive, although he asks her not to tell Maxim that he was in the house. Later, from Maxim's sister, she finds out that Favell was Rebecca's cousin. Maxim finds out that Favell was there and reprimands Mrs. Danvers, who, walking away, gives Mrs. de Winter a scornful, piercing stare.

The Masquerade

After local people keep asking Mr. and Mrs. de Winter if they are going to have the grand costume ball, which has been a long-standing tradition at Manderley, Maxim agrees to go ahead with it. Mrs. Danvers suggests to Mrs. de Winter that she might want to have her costume patterned after one of Maxim's ancestors, pictured in an oil portrait in the hall. She agrees and draws a sketch of the picture of Caroline de Winter, which she sends to a costume maker in London that Mrs. Danvers has recommended. She waits with growing excitement for the day of the ball, certain that it will be her chance to show off as the mistress of the house.

Before the party begins, she walks downstairs in her costume, only to find Maxim and her close friends horrified: the costume is the same one that Rebecca wore to the last ball at Manderley. Maxim, in a rage, shouts at her to go upstairs and change. She thinks about staying in her room all night, but Maxim's sister Beatrice convinces her to attend the ball in a regular dress and explain to the guests that the costume makers had sent the wrong package. Throughout the whole evening, Maxim stays away from her, and when he does not come to bed that night, she becomes convinced that he hates her for desecrating the memory of Rebecca.

The Sunken Boat

The next day, while she and Mrs. Danvers are arguing, word comes that a ship has run aground in the bay. The divers who are sent to assess the damage find a greater surprise: at the bottom of the sea is Rebecca's boat, with a dead body in it. That night, Maxim explains to his wife that he lied when he identified Rebecca's body, miles upshore, months after her disappearance. The body in the boat is hers. He put it there after he killed her, and then he sank the boat. He was not, after all, living with grief over Rebecca because she was a cruel, spiteful, promiscuous woman. His love for his new wife is true.

When the body is identified as Rebecca's, there is an inquest. Just before the case is closed, with the finding that she became trapped in the boat when it sank, it is revealed that the boat would not have sunk on its own, that someone pounded holes into it from the inside. Mrs. de Winter, fearing Maxim's exposure, leaves the courtroom in a faint, but she later finds out that the verdict was that Rebecca committed suicide.

Favell shows up that night with a letter that Rebecca sent him on the day she died, asking him to meet her that night; he says that it proves that she did not plan suicide. When Maxim refuses to pay blackmail, the local magistrate is called. He does not believe Favell's claim that he and Rebecca were lovers, and when Ben is called in to testify about seeing them together, he refuses to say anything, afraid that they mean to commit him. The next day they all drive to London to see the doctor that Rebecca had consulted. He tells them that she had cancer and was going to die a painful death. The magistrate accepts this as evidence of her suicide, and on the drive home, Maxim guesses to his wife that Rebecca goaded him into killing her.

The narrator explains that they later found out that Mrs. Danvers received a long-distance call, probably from Favell, and that she packed her belongings and left Manderley in a hurry. The last paragraph of the book describes the closing scene in which, returning from London, Mr. and Mrs. de Winter come around a corner to find the house engulfed in flames.



Ben is a mentally retarded man who lives near Manderley and spends his time near the cove where Rebecca kept her boat. When he first shows up, speaking in riddles that she does not understand, he frightens Mrs. de Winter. When Favell is trying to prove that he and Rebecca were lovers, he sends for Ben as a witness that he was a frequent night visitor to the cottage where she often slept. Ben is confused, however, and afraid that the authorities have sent for him to put him in an asylum, and he refuses to say anything about what he knows.

Media Adaptations

  • In 1977, as part of the celebration of her seventieth birthday, Daphne du Maurier participated in a television biography about her life. This rare interview by Cliff Michelmore, entitled The Make Believe World of Daphne du Maurier, is available in VHS cassette from Banner Films in London.
  • Rebecca is one of director Alfred Hitchcock's most celebrated films, made in 1940 with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.
  • Rebecca was also adapted to a television series on the British Broadcasting System in 1978 starring Jeremy Brett, Joanna David, and Anna Massey, with direction by Simon Langson.
  • A 1996 adaptation of the book, co-produced by Carlton-UK television and WGBH-TV in Boston, stars Charles Dance, Diana Rigg, and Faye Dunaway. This version is directed by Jim O'Brien with a screenplay by Arthur Hopcraft.
  • A 1993 abridged audiocassette version of the book, read by Jean Marsh, is available from Audio Renaissance.
  • There is an unabridged audiocassette version, released in 1999 by Audio Partners Publishing Company, which is read by Anna Massey, who played Mrs. Danvers in the 1978 British television version.

Frank Crawley

Frank is the manager of business affairs at Manderley, an efficient and faithful employee who, though boring, is always extremely tactful about what he says in social situations. Soon after she meets him, Mrs. de Winter feels that she can trust Frank. When she is uncomfortable about how Maxim might feel about his dead wife, Frank assures her that she is just what Maxim needs, making him one of her first friends at Manderley. She even feels comfortable enough with him to ask him directly if Rebecca was beautiful, and he replies: "I suppose she was the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life." From this she assumes that he, like everyone else, was in love with Rebecca. Later, when Maxim tells her the truth about Rebecca, he explains that Frank had wanted to quit his job because she kept pestering him sexually and would not leave him alone. When Maxim is accused of killing her, it becomes clear that Frank knows he really is guilty and probably knew all along, although he has remained quiet.

Mrs. Danvers

Mrs. Danvers came to Manderley as Rebecca's maid soon after Rebecca and Maxim were married. She is very formal and intimidating toward the new Mrs. de Winter, showing her how things are done at the house and practically insisting that the traditions that Rebecca started be continued. She has two encounters with Mrs. de Winter that are particularly odd. In the first, Mrs. de Winter goes for the first time to the rooms that Rebecca occupied after seeing Mrs. Danvers in the window with a strange man, who turns out to be Jack Favell. While she is in the room, Mrs. Danvers comes in and, as if she is a curator in a museum showing off a prized collection, shows her Rebecca's belongings. She touches the bed, the clothes, and the hair brushes adoringly. She says that she allows no one else into Rebecca's rooms, that by keeping them intact it is like Rebecca has never really left, remarking that "It's not only in this room…. It's in many rooms in the house. In the morning-room, in the hall, even in the little flower-room. I feel her everywhere. You do too, don't you?"

It is Mrs. Danvers who suggests the costume for the ball that makes Maxim angry with his wife because it is the same one that Rebecca wore. The evening of the ball, she sees Mrs. Danvers in the hall, an evil smile on her face: "The face of an exulting devil."

On the day after her humiliation at the masquerade ball, Mrs. de Winter finds Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca's room. Mrs. Danvers tells her directly that she should never have come to Manderley, and, recognizing her misery, stands beside her at the window, urging Mrs. de Winter to jump and kill herself before they are interrupted.

Later, it becomes clear to Mrs. de Winter that it was Mrs. Danvers, with the help of Favell, who set Manderley afire before disappearing.

Maxim de Winter

When he first appears at Monte Carlo at the beginning of the novel, Maxim is the mysterious, handsome forty-two-year-old stranger who has suffered the tragic loss of his wife eight months earlier. After a brief courtship, he asks the book's narrator to marry him, and he takes her back to his country estate, Manderley, which is famous all over the world. Whenever his late wife, Rebecca, is mentioned, he becomes excessively emotional. He and his new wife move into a wing of the house on the far side of the one he occupied with Rebecca. He encourages her not to do things that Rebecca did. She assumes this to mean that he still mourns the memory of his late wife and is not willing to let Rebecca's place in his heart be taken by another.

Once the boat that Rebecca died in is found, Maxim confesses the truth to his wife: Rebecca was, in spite of the glowing praise of almost everyone who knew her, a spiteful, bitter woman who threatened to make him responsible for her child by another man, and in a fit of rage he killed her. The most incriminating piece of evidence against him is that he identified a body that washed up on the shore far away, months after her disappearance, as Rebecca. Because he is well liked in the community, the officials are willing to accept that his identification was a mistake. There is no evidence of foul play on the corpse that they find on the sunken boat because Maxim's shot passed through her heart without touching any bone.

For several of the book's final chapters, Rebecca's cousin, Jack Favell, questions Maxim's innocence, first trying to blackmail him and then, when Maxim calls his bluff, insisting that the authorities investigate further. Maxim does not lose his composure by denying Favell's accusations or trying to prove them wrong; instead, he risks exposure by agreeing to any steps that might prove him guilty. In the end, when it is found out that Rebecca was not pregnant but that she was, in fact, dying of cancer, he guesses that she actually wanted him to kill her, that she wanted to die without suffering and to leave him with the guilt of her murder.

Mrs. de Winter

The narrator of this book is never called by her given name. Not until she is married to Maxim de Winter is she directly referred to by name. She was a poor orphan, whose parents both died within five weeks of each other. She took a job as companion to the wealthy American, Mrs. Van Hopper, with whom she is staying at Monte Carlo in the south of France when they meet Maxim de Winter.

After Maxim marries her and takes her back to his estate, Manderley, she feels self-conscious about her position as mistress of the house. In her embarrassment, she leaves the details of the house to the servants, thus permitting them to continue with the patterns they had become used to under Maxim's late wife, Rebecca. She allows herself to be bullied by Rebecca's personal maid, Mrs. Danvers, who continually corrects her about how things should be done, remarking that "Mrs. de Winter," meaning Rebecca, arranged things. Mrs. Danvers is always ready to embarrass the new Mrs. de Winter by pointing out her timidity; however, the other servants and laborers at Manderley, as well as people who live nearby and stop there, are kind to her.

When Maxim agrees to throw a grand costume ball at Manderley, his wife, at the suggestion of Mrs. Danvers, orders a costume that reproduces the gown and wig worn by a de Winter ancestor in one of the mansion's oil paintings. As the party approaches, her childish excitement rises to a fevered pitch, but when Maxim sees her costume, he loses his temper and tells her to take it off—it is identical to the one Rebecca wore at the last ball before her death. She hides in her room, but eventually comes out in an ordinary dress from her closet and performs her duties as a hostess although she feels that she has insulted Maxim and has been humiliated by him.

It is the day after the ball that the boat in which Rebecca died is found. A series of events, which include accusations of murder aimed at Maxim and a formal inquest, follows. Throughout the rest of the book, the narrator relates the action and describes her concern, but her involvement is minimal.

Jack Favell

When the narrator first encounters Favell, he has been sneaked into Manderley by Mrs. Danvers. He is there on a day when the other servants are off, and his car is hidden behind the house. He is a bold, annoying man, who makes leering, suggestive remarks, offering Mrs. de Winter cigarettes and asking her to go for a ride in his car. He is obviously familiar with the estate: the young dog, Jasper, knows him, and he refers to Mrs. Danvers as "old Danny." She later finds out that he is Rebecca's cousin and that Maxim does not want him in the house. In addition, he and Rebecca were lovers; Favell contends that at the time of her death, Rebecca was planning to run away with him and marry him.

Favell is the driving force for the action in the book's later chapters. Upset that an inquest has determined that Rebecca died by suicide, he shows up at Manderley with a note that she sent him on the afternoon of the day she died, asking him to meet her that night as she had something important to tell him. Using this as proof that she did not intend to kill herself, he attempts to blackmail Maxim, and when that does not work, he insists that the authorities be called to investigate, leading them to call Ben as a witness, to go through Rebecca's diary, and, finally, to drive to London to interview her doctor. At last, Favell gives up. Outside of the doctor's house, he is feeling sick. Maxim and his wife find out later that Favell actually returned to Manderley to take Mrs. Danvers away, starting the house on fire before they left.


Frith has been a servant at Manderley since Maxim was a child. He is faithful, performing his duties without ever letting any opinions or suspicions be known.

Colonel Julyan

The Colonel is the magistrate of Kerrith, the leading law official in the county. He is a guest at the masquerade ball, and, two days later, he dines at Manderley after Rebecca's sunken boat has been raised and her skeleton found. In spite of the tension in the room, the Colonel makes small talk with Mrs. de Winter until the servants have left the room, and it is only then that he is open about the sunken boat.

When Favell makes accusations against Maxim, Colonel Julyan is brought in to investigate. At first, he is obviously disgusted by Favell's drunken state, but he weighs the evidence carefully. His eventual determination is that there is plenty of evidence for believing that Rebecca committed suicide and little reason to think that she did not. Maxim de Winter, however, believes in the end that the Colonel can tell he is guilty but content to let the matter be forgotten.

Beatrice Lacy

Maxim's sister, Beatrice, is the opposite of his wife. She is tall, athletic, and outspoken. At first, she seems intimidating, and the narrator does not think that they will get along. Still, Beatrice (or "Bee," as her friends call her) is fond of the narrator. Her wedding present to the couple, a set of books about the history of art, is chosen because one of the few things she knows about her new sister-in-law is her interest in drawing. She takes Maxim's wife along with her when she goes to see their grandmother, to introduce her to the only other member of Maxim's family.

When Mrs. de Winter mistakenly upsets Maxim by wearing the same costume to the Manderley ball that Rebecca once wore, Beatrice helps her get over her humiliation, picking out an ordinary dress from her closet and telling her that it will look fine on her. Although her assertiveness in social affairs is useful in that case, it becomes dangerous later. After a coroner's inquest finds that Rebecca committed suicide, Beatrice, not knowing that Maxim killed her, tells her sister-in-law to insist that they open the case again because she thinks that a suicide verdict is a humiliation to her brother. At the time, her son is home from school with the measles, and no one is allowed to leave the house, so she is not able to raise a fuss that could have exposed her brother's guilt in the crime of Rebecca's murder.

Major Giles Lacy

Beatrice's husband is something of a stereotype: a big, dull, jovial man, who recedes into the social background behind his brash, domineering wife. When Maxim discloses the truth about Rebecca, he mentions that it was obvious from Giles' loud, boisterous manner when he and Rebecca came back from an afternoon of boating that they had had a fling.


Robert is the assistant butler at Manderley. He performs the duties, such as going to the post office, that Frith is incapable of doing.

James Tabb

Tabb is the shipbuilder who performed yearly maintenance on Rebecca's boat. After it is pulled from the harbor, people said that he had not maintained it properly, and Tabb, to save his professional reputation, inspected it. He testifies at the inquest that the boat sank because of holes deliberately put in it from the inside, a fact that nearly causes great trouble for Maxim before the coroner declares it an act of suicide.

Mrs. Van Hopper

At the beginning of the book, the narrator is employed as a companion to Mrs. Van Hopper, a rich and pretentious American woman. She is a social climber, trying to ease into upper-class European society by introducing herself to its finest members. In the case of Maxim de Winter, she uses snapshots that some mutual friends have sent her from their vacation as an excuse to sit at his table and have lunch with him. After de Winter tells her that he is in love with her companion and is taking her away to marry her, Mrs. Van Hopper offers her congratulations, but when he leaves, she raises doubts in the narrator's mind:

"Of course," she said, "you know why he's marrying you, don't you? You haven't flattered yourself he's in love with you? The fact is that empty house got on his nerves to such an extent he merely went off his head. He admitted as much before you came into the room. He just can't go on living there alone …"



The driving force behind the actions of this book's characters is loyalty. This is seen most clearly in the characters of Frank Crawley, the business manager of Manderley, and Frith, the head butler. Crawley expresses his loyalty by being congenial, never shying away from a topic of conversation and yet never expressing exactly what he thinks either. Mrs. de Winter can sense that Crawley is on her side, but she also knows that he will not be completely honest about what he thinks of Rebecca because his sense of loyalty to Maxim would forbid it. Frith is just as deeply loyal, but it is easier for him to keep up his attitude of detachment because, as a servant, he is not involved in family matters nor expected to know about the de Winters' affairs anyway.

Like Frith, Mrs. Danvers is a family servant, but her sense of loyalty makes her negligent in her duty. She is loyal to Rebecca, the dead member of the family, and, in her attempt to preserve Rebecca's memory, she is disrespectful to the current Mrs. de Winter. At first, her loyalty appears as just an annoying, but almost respectable, personality tic, as when she tells the narrator that certain practices are followed because "that is the way Mrs. de Winter wants it done," ignoring the fact that the person she is talking to is now Mrs. de Winter. After the costume ball, her hostility becomes open, and she tries to capitalize on the narrator's grief at her inability to fit in by urging her toward suicide, because "You tried to take Mrs. de Winter's place." In the end, her loyalty to Rebecca's memory makes it impossible for Mrs. Danvers to accept that the new Mrs. de Winter and Maxim can be happy together, so she burns Manderley down.

The narrator's greatest concern, however, is her suspicion that, despite having married her, Maxim is loyal to the memory of Rebecca. She reads his moodiness to mean that he is still grieving over his lost wife. His refusal to use the bedroom that he used with Rebecca, his refusal to go near the cottage Rebecca used, and his anger at seeing her wear the same costume Rebecca wore all seem like signs that he is not willing to give up the memory of her. In the end, when he admits to having actually hated Rebecca and killed her, the narrator does not even think of leaving him because he is a murderer; she stays loyal to him throughout the investigation because she loves him.

Flesh versus Spirit

Part of the narrator's sense of inferiority results from the fact that she is competing with the memory of a dead woman. Her sense of what Rebecca was like builds up slowly from isolated clues: the inscription in a book, her formal agenda left in her desk, Mrs. Danvers' description, and the descriptions of all of the people who knew her. The most uncomfortable comparison comes from Maxim's grandmother who, at eighty-three, is senile and unpredictable: in the middle of their conversation, she loses touch with reality and calls out, "I want Rebecca, what have you done with Rebecca?" There are several practical reasons that the narrator feels she cannot compete with Rebecca, as she finds out about her beauty and social grace. She also is unable to compete because Rebecca is just a memory and therefore is incapable of doing wrong, while she, being human, is quite fallible. Rebecca's continuing presence in Manderley is manifest in the way she decorated it, in her schedules and customs (such as the daily approval of the menu), and in the words of praise visitors have for her. She haunts the narrator as much as if she actually occupied the house like a ghost. "Sometimes I wonder," Mrs. Danvers tells her, as they are looking at Rebecca's belongings. "Sometimes I wonder if she comes back here to Manderley and watches you and Mr. de Winter together."

The ironic thing is that the ghost of Rebecca that haunts Manderley is more a result of terror than of grief. Maxim de Winter remembers her as a mean-spirited woman who put on a sickly sweet image before the public. If he is haunted by her, it is because of his own internal struggle with the guilt he feels for killing her, not because he misses her at all. Frank Crawley's elusiveness about Rebecca, which the narrator thinks is because of his suppressed love for her, is actually discomfort, because she put him in an awkward position by making sexual advances toward him. Beatrice and Giles cannot speak of her memory clearly because they both know that she seduced Giles, and so, unsure of how to speak of her, they end up talking about her with polite praise. In the formal British setting of this novel, people find it better to speak well of the dead than of the living.

Topics for Further Study

  • Monte Carlo is still recognized around the world as a vacation spot for the rich. Research what it was like in the 1930s: what sort of people went there, what sort of activities were available, and so forth.
  • Using the descriptions in the novel, draw sketches of various locations at Manderley.
  • Write a short story about where Maxim de Winter and his wife will eventually end up after they finish traveling, as described in the very first chapters. Bear in mind that this novel ends at just about the time that World War II begins.
  • The novel describes how Rebecca threatened to have someone else's child and make Maxim de Winter raise it as his own. Research British law and try to find out how difficult it would have been, in the 1930s, for him to divorce her.
  • Several times in the novel, the characters predict what the weather will be like, with observations such as "the glass is dropping." Explain how a barometer works and how accurate its predictions are likely to be.
  • Rebecca is still popular today. Find out the sales figures throughout the years. Try to explain at least one period of high or low sales.

Guilt and Innocence

One of Daphne du Maurier's greatest achievements in this novel is to convince readers of the in-nocence of the murderer and the guilt of the murder victim. There are several reasons why, according to the novel's moral structure, Rebecca deserved to die. For one thing, she was cruel and a liar: as Maxim explains it, "They all believed in her down here, they all admired her, they never knew how she laughed at them behind their backs, jeered at them, mimicked them." Mrs. Danvers repeats Rebecca's falseness when she bursts Favell's delusion that she loved him: "Love-making was a game with her, only a game. She told me so. She did it because it made her laugh." Another reason Rebecca deserved her fate is the fact that she was promiscuous: when the truth comes out about her, the list of men she was with or tried to seduce includes Favell, Crawley, Giles, and, presumably, a lot of others, first in London, and then, increasingly, at her cottage at Manderley, where she would invite men for "picnics." In addition, there are perversities that are not described in the book, things that she told to Maxim that he says, with a shudder, "I shall never repeat to another soul." The ultimate offense, the one that drives him to shooting her, is that she threatens to have another man's child and tell everyone that it is Maxim's so that the child would be raised bearing his name: "And when you died Manderley would be his. You could not prevent it. The property's entailed."

Maxim's innocence in killing Rebecca stems from the fact that it is a selfless act: he is not protecting himself, but the good name of Manderley, which her exploits threaten to destroy. To the narrator, Maxim's pureness of heart, his love for her, and his devotion to Manderley are more important than the fact of the murder he committed. They find out in the end that Maxim was even less guilty than they had assumed him to be because Rebecca had cancer and was going to die anyway. One last factor in mitigating Maxim's responsibility for what he did is his guess that Rebecca goaded him into shooting her, so that she could die a quick and painless death and make him feel guilty about doing what cancer would have done in a few months anyway. Readers are left with the impression that Rebecca is guilty and that Maxim, who actually killed her and buried her at sea, is a victim of circumstances.



There are two main settings for this novel. The first is the resort of Monte Carlo on the southern coast of France. Since 1862, when the first gambling casino was opened there, the town has been famous around the world as a playground for Europe's rich. Starting the book in this setting serves to establish the wealthy social class of these characters. It also helps to raise readers' curiosity about Manderley, which is talked about constantly, even by characters who have never been there but who know it by reputation. The narrator buys a postcard of Manderley in a shop in Monte Carlo.

Most of the book tales place at Manderley, the English country estate that has been owned by the de Winter family for generations. The house itself is imposing to a young girl who was not raised in this wealthy social environment. It is so large that she gets lost, so large that one entire wing can be shut off with Rebecca's personal belongings with little effect. Ancient portraits hang on the walls, reminding the narrator of the responsibility of becoming part of a well-established dynasty. The place is decorated with expensive things that Rebecca put there, constantly reminding her of the presence of the first Mrs. de Winter.

The house is surrounded by trees, which can be inviting on a sunny day but frightening on a dark, rainy one. Past the trees is the bay. Manderley's proximity to the sea is important because it adds to the beauty of this rich estate but also because the sea hides the corpse of the murder victim, but hides it in a way that it can be found again. One other significant aspect of Manderley is the mysterious cottage where the narrator encounters Ben: this place is left to decay, obviously because Maxim cannot bring himself to go there, raising the prospect of mystery until the end, when it turns out to be central to the horrible events of the past.


Most of Rebecca follows a chronological path, from the time the narrator meets Maxim de Winter at Monte Carlo to the night that Manderley burns down. There is, however, a prelude that takes place some time after the events in the novel. There is no way to tell when this beginning section, which comprises the first chapter and a half, takes place, only that the events that happened at Manderley still haunt the narrator and her male companion, who is left unidentified.

The function of this beginning is to foreshadow events that the reader is going to read about. Mrs. Danvers is mentioned, and so are Jasper the dog and Favell. They are all brought up in the natural way that they might pass through the mind of someone thinking about the past. Because readers do not know what these names refer to, however, they serve in these first chapters to focus attention, to keep readers alert for the story that is about to unfold. The most important element of this introduction is the fact that the man travelling with the narrator is not identified: while reading the main story, readers have to be alert to signs that her love affair with Maxim de Winter might end and to look for clues that hint who her true love might turn out to be.


The true flowering of the gothic novel was during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when it was a sub-category of the much broader romantic movement in literature. While romanticism explained humanity's relationship with nature as one of mutual benefit, with nature providing an escape from the rules of society and offering artistic souls a chance to express themselves creatively, Gothicism stressed the frightening, dark, unsure aspects of nature. The most powerful example of the gothic novel is Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein, which is concerned with the tragic results that can occur when humans tamper with nature.

Gothic novels usually include elements of the supernatural, mystery, and horror. In Rebecca, all of the events end up being explained within the realm of commonly understood reality, but the haunting "presence" of Rebecca's personality gives the book a Gothic mood. Another key element of these works is their setting in ancient castles, usually decaying, which is an element that shows the romantic movement's fascination with ancient history along with the Gothic interest in death and decay. The short stories of Edgar Allan Poe contain many of the most recognizable Gothic elements. Many of the novels that modern readers associate with romance and horror use elements of Gothicism.


Readers are often so comfortable with the narrative voice used in this novel that they can finish the entire book without realizing how little they know about the woman who is telling the story. Du Maurier does not even provide a name for this person. She is described as being small and girlish, with a pageboy haircut. (Frank Crawley suggests that she might be Joan of Arc at the masquerade because of her hair.) The book does not, however, tell how old she is nor where she was raised nor how she came to work for Mrs. Van Hopper, her employer when the story begins. She does like to draw, but not so much that she practices her interest within the story, and she seems perplexed by the books on art history that Beatrice gives her. It is not until the seventh chapter that any of the other characters addresses her directly, and then it is as "Mrs. de Winter," a title that identifies her in relation to her husband.

Du Maurier manages to keep her readers from being curious by having this narrator describe the things around her with such fascination and loving detail that all attention is drawn to them. The people and events that she encounters fill her imagination, and she in turn fills the reader's imaginations with her descriptions. Maxim de Winter, in particular, is so important to her that she focuses her story on him. Furthermore, this narrator has such a complete, believable personality, which comes out through her telling of the story, that readers find that they are not curious about her past.

Historical Context

Post World War I

During the 1800s, Britain had built its empire by adding colonies, dominions, and protectorates. These were the great years of the British Empire: Queen Victoria, reigning for over sixty years, gave the nation a sense of stability and progress. Her conservative social views created the stiff-lipped, formal stereotype of the British citizen that is known today and that is portrayed in Rebecca: strict rules of behavior between the sexes, tea at four-thirty each day, and a fascination with wealth that was suppressed by the good taste not to talk about it. When Victoria died in 1901, her son Edward succeeded her to the throne. The Edwardian age in England is considered a time of international stability, owing to Edward VII's talent for negotiations. Like the Victorian era, Edward's reign from 1901 to 1910 was marked by domestic stability and social formality.

World War I shattered the tranquility of Europe, especially of Great Britain. Previous military conflicts, such as the Crimean War and the Boer War, had been marked by the civility of the participants. In the previous battles, the British class system had been clearly maintained, separating officers from soldiers, keeping the former far from the fighting, in deference to their ranks. World War I, on the other hand, brought new technology that destroyed any sense of class in battle. Long-range cannon, portable machine guns, and, especially, the use of poisonous gas forced the genteel tradition to wake up to the inhumane horrors of modern warfare.

Being with the winning forces, Britain benefited at the end of the war; colonies that had been under German control became British mandates. For a short while, there was a postwar economic boom as laborers returned and industry grew. The old social class system, though, with the type of rigid structure that du Maurier presents in Rebecca, was on its last legs as modern technology made the feudal system that great estates like Manderley were built upon seem increasingly pointless.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1938: The first nuclear fission of uranium is achieved by German scientists. This is the physical reaction that leads to the nuclear bomb.

    1945: Nuclear bombs are dropped on the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hastening the end of World War II by killing nearly two hundred thousand people.

    Today: After decades of international fear about the devastation that nuclear weapons can cause, no other nuclear bombs have been used during wartime.
  • 1938: Cancer is barely understood. The first cancer-causing agents, known as "carcinogens," have been isolated in England just five years before.

    Today: Cancer is the number two cause of death in the United States, but millions of dollars are spent on research each year, and much progress has been made in understanding causes and treatments.
  • 1938: The first steps in photocopy technology are made, as inventor Chester Carlson develops a method to reproduce an image on paper using electrostatic attraction.

    Today: Image reproduction has progressed to the point that computer users are transferring scanned images from one machine to another, without ever using paper to transmit them.
  • 1938: Orson Welles presents his radio program about an alien invasion, War of the Worlds, in the style of a news program. Across America, hundreds of listeners believe that Martians are really invading Earth, and become panicked.

    Today: Audiences are used to radio and television programs that use the same style as the news, and few people would take such a preposterous story seriously.
  • 1938: Radio and motion pictures are the main forms of entertainment in America. People living in urban areas attend live theater productions. Television technology is invented, but TV ownership is not widespread until after World War II.

    Today: Most homes own at least one television, many with the possibility of access to over five hundred channels at a time through cable and satellite systems.
  • 1938: Air travel is still an uncertain proposition. In 1937, aviator Amelia Earhart is lost at sea in the Pacific Ocean while trying to circumnavigate the globe. In 1938, Douglas Corrigan flies illegally from New York to Dublin, giving the excuse that his compass had led him in the wrong direction and earning him the nickname "Wrong-Way Corrigan."

    Today: International flights are routine, and all flight paths are monitored by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The Approach of World War II

Like America and many other countries around the world, Great Britain suffered through an economic depression in the 1930s. The country, which had started the century as the most powerful on Earth, was forced to take measures that would assure its continued economic stability. In 1931, for instance, the British government, which had been borrowing money from France and the United States to get by, imposed a heavy tariff on items that were brought into the country. This helped to control the economy, forcing British citizens either to buy goods that were made within the British Empire or to add tax money to the general revenue base. Although it helped the economic situation, British self-esteem suffered from this sign of economic weakness. The country's free trade policy had been a source of pride for Britain, and this forced abandonment of that policy was a clear sign that Great Britain no longer dominated the world the way it once had.

At the same time, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party were rising to power in Germany. To a large extent, Hitler was able to gain power because of the same worldwide economic stagnation that was affecting America, Britain, and other countries. Germany was hit particularly hard, with prices of basic foods and supplies sometimes doubling within a week. Hitler was able to appeal to the suffering people, and he also addressed the matter of German pride, convincing the German people that the country was being mistreated by the international community. The Treaty of Versailles, which established the conditions for Germany's surrender in 1918, separated the states that had made up the German Republic, and placed restrictions on the country's armed forces, leaving Germany economically and militarily vulnerable. The Nazi party was voted into power in 1933 because the electorate believed that they could end the country's suffering and humiliation.

Almost immediately, Hitler's government began its program of military expansion. In the following years, German forces were used to absorb Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, all of which it had given up to end the war. Looking back on it, many people wondered why the countries that had led the winning force in World War I did not stop Germany when it first started to violate the Treaty of Versailles. For one thing, many people across the world agreed with the German view that the treaty had been too confining and had caused the citizens of Germany to suffer more than they should have, and so there was not strong opposition to the steps Germany took to "correct" the situation. Another reason was that the economic crisis made countries in Western Europe, such as England and France, reluctant to fight if they did not have to. Hitler signed new treaties with London, agreeing to limit the size of the German military, giving those who wanted to avoid war a chance to argue that it would be unnecessary. The forces opposing intervention into German affairs were so strong that the world ignored the stories that escaped from German territories of concentration camps where, it has been proven, millions of Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals were mutilated and killed.

Great Britain eventually did enter into war with Germany in 1939, after Hitler broke a nonaggression pact with Poland and attacked that country. By that time, it was clear that he intended to continue endless expansion and that treaties made no difference. At the start of the war, the brunt of opposing Hitler fell upon France, which was defeated by the Germans in 1940, and England, which was hammered by German bombing raids. Seventy thousand British civilians died during the war, which lasted until 1945.

Critical Overview

Rebecca is one of those novels that critics have a difficult time disrespecting. On the one hand, it does have excessive, overblown language in places, and its plot is far from original. On the other hand, the book's overwhelming approval by the general public, from its first printing in 1938 up through today, has made it in some respects immune to negative criticism, forcing reviewers to think twice before dismissing it as just one more popular romance. In general, critics have tended to take the time to find out what is effective in this novel and why it works, rather than just dismissing it because of its weaknesses.

Basil Davenport, reviewing Rebecca for the Saturday Review when it was first published, identifies the book as a mystery about who Rebecca really was and what happened to her, but he also credits du Maurier for writing so well and so compellingly that she does not have to rely on the murder mystery plot: "The book is skillfully contrived so that it does not depend only on knowledge of it for its thrill; it can afford to give no hint of it till two-thirds of the way through." Davenport goes on to explain that Rebecca is, after all, melodrama: the heroine, for one thing, is "at times quite incredibly stupid," such as when she takes advice from the housekeeper whom she knows hates her. He also points out "a forced heightening of the emotional values," a disreputable trick that melodrama relies on. Still, Davenport finds the novel "as absorbing a tale as the season is likely to bring."

As time went on, critics saw Rebecca outlive the usually short life cycle of popular romances, elbowing its way into a position in literary history. John Raymond, writing about it in the New Statesman in 1951, identifies du Maurier as "a poor woman's Charlotte Brontë" of the 1930s. He goes on to note, "Her Rebecca, whatever one's opinions of its ultimate merits, was a tour de force." He further suggests that du Maurier's fame may have made her a force for the literary world to reckon with but that her writing had become twisted by her commercial success so that she was then writing prose that was ready to be adapted to movies. Raymond's review of My Cousin Rachel, which came at the tail end of du Maurier's prolific period of one romantic bestseller after another, describs the book:

… a honey for any Hollywood or Wardour Street tycoon. Slick, effective, utterly mechanical, the book is a triumphant and uncanny example of the way in which a piece of writing can be emasculated by unconsciously "having it arranged" for another medium.

Like Raymond, critics of the 1950s tended to cloud their judgments of du Maurier's writing with the tremendous financial success that it brought the author.

In the 1950s, du Maurier's style shifted as she focused on supernatural elements, particularly in her collection Kiss Me Again, Stranger. The short stories in that book were met with mixed enthusiasm. John Barkham's review in the New York Review of Books simply captures the acceptance of her style at the time by noting of the eight stories, "None of them is bad, and several are very good indeed." In particular, he points out the excellence of "The Birds," which was adapted years later to one of Alfred Hitchcock's most famous movies.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, du Maurier became better known as a writer of the supernatural, rather than as a romance writer who used supernatural elements to build suspense, as she had been after the success of Rebecca. Susan Hill, writing in 1971 about another collection of scary stories called Not After Midnight, notes that it was:

… a good read, and most likely, a bestseller. If only the quality of the prose matched up to her inventiveness, if only the dialog were not so banal and the descriptions so flat, we might have something more than holiday reading on our hands.

With her popularity clearly established, and the reading public jumping at the chance to buy new novels from her, du Maurier moved, in later life, to writing about real-life subjects: her father, her grandfather, her early life, the countryside where she lived, and the occasional historical figure, such as Sir Francis Bacon. Critics tended to ignore her non-fiction works, or, if they did look them over, they approached them with a polite, patronizing attitude, suggesting that they viewed them as signs of a popular writer dabbling in a hobby. Of her book about Bacon, for instance, historian Pat Rogers notes, "Daphne du Maurier has many literary gifts, but I am not sure that this book has fully enlisted them." It is likely that a review of a book by a true historian would not have been so congenial and non-critical.


David Kelly

Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and composition at two community colleges in Illinois. In the following essay, he examines whether the lack of information about the narrator of du Maurier's story is a legitimate artistic device or just an amusing but ultimately pointless trick.

No one could ever reasonably question the popularity of British romance and mystery writer Daphne du Maurier. An author who sells books in the millions is rare enough, but her fans took their enthusiasm beyond simple purchases. In an age before the internet made conversing with fellow enthusiasts as easy as sitting down at a keyboard, there were several societies devoted to her, like the fan clubs that movie stars tend to attract. Most of this cult of du Maurier centers around one book: her 1938 neo-Romance, Rebecca. The book attracts new fans every year, with thoughtful readers of literature beaming about how hard they found it, after the last page, to shake off their involvement in the lives of the dashing Maxim de Winter, the repressed Mrs. Danvers, catty Bee, and all of the rest of the larger-than-life characters who roam the halls of Manderley.

It is tempting to give in to du Maurier, to congratulate her posthumously for creating a world that has lasted over a half of a century. There is, however, another side of the argument, a side that would describe Rebecca as nothing more than a work of really competent trash, which owes its poplarity to its appeal to the least common denominator in literary tastes. To critics of this inclination, the book's continuing popularity is no sign of the author's talent, but of her willingness to corrupt her considerable skills to be all things to all people, ending up with nothing particular to say.

It is an age-old debate: is it mere snobbery to say that what sells is trash, or is it delusional to say that what sells is art? One way or the other, in the case of Rebecca, it seems impossible to separate the book's overwhelming popularity from its merit.

The question becomes even more compelling when the focus of inquiry is narrowed to one particular aspect of the book, such as du Maurier's handling of the narrator. For the first third of the book, she has no name, a mystery that the author is clearly willing to go out of her way to preserve. It is not as if there are no opportunities to have the character's name revealed in dialog, or in a memory of something once said to her, or any of the countless other tricks that authors use to reveal such information. Du Maurier knows that she is teasing readers about it, and she makes her teasing quite clear. "But my name was on the envelope," the narrator says of a letter de Winter sends her in chapter 3, "and spelled correctly, an unusual thing." This story takes the time to draw attention to something, without going on to say what that something is.

Artistically, this coy act should not work. It usually does not. Beginning writers often try leaving out specific details about crucial characters, hoping that, without names or faces, it will be easier for readers to relate to the characters, as if anonymity is the same thing as universality. Usually, avoiding the obvious just results in weak writing because readers tend to feel less, not more, involved when details are left out. The book may work because of this technique, or it might work in spite of it. The general rule against obscurity just might be wrong, but anyone who has read much amateurish writing that tries to stir up suspense by leaving out facts will swear that it is right. The other two likely explanations are difficult to unwrap from one another: either du Maurier just happened to find that one-in-a-million recipe of the precise amount of characterization needed, without one atom over, or else readers are willing to let her get away with underwriting her main character because the rest of the book is just so much fun.

There is plenty of reason to believe the first option, the one about du Maurier's precision in molding a credible human being of the second Mrs. de Winter. It is, after all, not as if the character is entirely left up to readers' imaginations. Some facts are given about her. She is supposed to have artistic talent, although this is always brought up in the negative, in terms of the sketching that she has not been working at. She is young, as the other characters always point out, with short black hair and pale skin. At Monte Carlo, talking about her father, she thinks of herself as "so much of a schoolgirl still," which is an attitude readers see reflected in the way others behave around her.

The narrator's father, in fact, is considered by her to be her "secret property," but readers never really find out why. All that is explained is that she has told Maxim de Winter about her childhood, but the facts of that childhood, and what made it special, are not shared with the reader. A critical reader has to wonder why du Maurier chose to provide, as an indicator of the narrator's past life, only a shell of a father, without filling in the details. If readers feel that they know this narrator, then the author's work is done, but if they are being asked to accept the relationship between de Winter and the narrator as a standard father fixation, with stereotyped behaviors from a psychology text taking the place of true characterization, then the author has not done her job but is getting away with cheating. Throughout the book, details about Mrs. de Winter seem to indicate that she is oversimplified, an incomplete character type. Readers are not given enough facts to consider her as a person.

One more consideration makes it even more difficult to judge how well Daphne du Maurier has rendered this very important character: offsetting the lack of details provided is the full richness of her voice, which readers hear from the first page to the last. So well is the voice rendered, through word choices, sentence structure, and the nature of the specific details she chooses to dwell on, that it is easy to know her feelings about any particular issue mentioned, whether she explains her thoughts or not. In effect, the entire book is a trip taken from within her mind. There may not be much said about her past, nor is there much reflection on her own identity because she simply is not the introspective kind. If this is her intention, then du Maurier actually defines this character's personality by refusing to say much about it, by letting her exist in the present rather than being the sum of her past.

The other way that it is possible to say that the book's imprecision about this one character works would be to consider the narrator's place in the book as a whole. Whether it was du Maurier's intention or not, this character seems to take up just the right amount of place, proportionally, in the overall story. If one looks at Rebecca as a whole world, and not as the story of this one character, then too much about her might take away from another part of the story and throw the whole finely-tuned machine out of balance. For instance, there is obviously a balance between the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, and the second, the book's narrator. More about the narrator and she might overshadow Rebecca; if more were said about Rebecca to keep her equal to the narrator, the secret of de Winter's feelings about her might fail to surprise. Knowing too much about the narrator might make her sympathetic, thereby making readers less likely to believe that de Winter could love Rebecca's memory more than his wife. More about her past could help readers decide whether her uneasiness about Rebecca is paranoia or legitimate fear, which would diminish the book's overall effect. This is not like most literature, which is character-driven; it is suspense. Just knowing the narrator's name could potentially wake readers out of the trance that du Maurier's writing casts so successfully, making the situation too real, even though the book relies on taking them away from common reality.

Rebecca's detractors call the book mechanical, pointing to the wooden characters and situations that could exist nowhere except Manderley. It is true that these characters are not filled in as great authors can do, not given lives of their own. They exist as tools. Mrs. Danvers, for instance, is unimaginable beyond her job in the book, which is to react to Maxim de Winter and his new wife. She could hardly be imagined with an existence outside of that setting because she has no real personality. This may be the author's intent in creating her; if so, it is not necessarily a well-chosen plan. Even Maxim de Winter, moody and tortured, is such a non-entity that readers, like the narrator, can ignore his shooting down a pregnant woman. What he does matters very little because he has such little substance.

The other characters may or may not be put together sketchily, but one cannot think of du Maurier as doing sloppy work in creating the narrator. She obviously chose to direct attention away from this character, rather than letting readers know who she is and what she thinks. Rebecca, the character, is a mystery because the narrator knows little about her and is too overwhelmed by the grandeur of Manderley to find out more. Rebecca the novel is effective to the extent that readers are just as willing to forget their questions about the new Mrs. de Winter.

Literature often relies on readers playing an active role, and the measure of Rebecca's success might just be found in how one defines "active." If being distracted, if having one's curiosity stifled and not fed, is active, then the book works as literature. On the other hand, there is much to be said for the charge that hiding Mrs. de Winter's personality is a trick, one that might be amusing but does not make for good, lasting fiction. Sales records do not establish a book's true value, but the continued admiration of wave after wave of fans just might be enough to prove that Daphne du Maurier's unorthodox presentation of Mrs. de Winter is effective.

Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on Rebecca, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Jane S. Bakerman

In the following essay, Bakerman discusses du Maurier's romantic suspense novels, noting her inventiveness, and that "the many, many, modern gothics which echo Rebecca" are good evidence that du Maurier tends to set trends rather than to follow them.

During her long, distinguished career, Daphne du Maurier has tried her hand successfully at both fiction and nonfiction—biography, autobiography, historical romance, short stories and celebrations of place—but her auctorial reputation rests most firmly upon six romantic suspense novels whose plots stem from some crime or crimes. The novels are Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, Frenchman's Creek, My Cousin Rachel, The Scapegoat, and The Flight of the Falcon.

Central to the du Maurier tradition are sound, exciting, workable plots: an orphan seeks refuge in her aunt's home only to find it the center of a smuggling ring; a young wife lives under the shadow of her predecessor and of her husband's secret; a noblewoman abandons family responsibilities to become lover and cohort of a pirate; a youth falls in love with a distant relative who is not only his beloved cousin's widow but also a suspected poisoner; an Englishman exchanges identities with a Frenchman and lives his double's life for a time; and an aimless young man finds his long-lost brother who is engaged in what may be a diabolical scheme. All of these basic plots are thrilling, all allow for abundant complication and all offer good possibilities for quick pace and great suspense.

Though even so swift a summary of the plots reveals variety, there are elements of commonality shared by all six titles under discussion here. For critics, that commonality has sometimes been dismissed as "formula fiction," and this term (often perceived as demeaning) has contributed to some misapprehension of the skill with which the author combines formulaic elements with experiments in established literary forms, especially variations of the Bildungsroman, to create the freshness and innovation which account for so much of her appeal. Indeed, the many, many modern gothics which echo Rebecca are good evidence that du Maurier tends to set trends rather than to follow them.

Certainly, it is no disgrace either to establish or to follow a popular, even beloved, literary formula. Du Maurier has done both; she tends to capitalize on some very old, established patterns (some reaching back into folk literature)—the worried, self-conscious second wife, the dangerous dark-haired beauty, the ineffectual male seeking self-definition and power, the dark, mysterious male—and bend them to her will and to her skill.

The cultural images and symbols du Maurier employs in her romantic adventures are very closely allied with the cultural myths or themes which she explores. Rebecca, for instance, opens with one of English fiction's most famous lines, "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." Manderley, the named house which has become so indispensable to modern gothic fiction, is a very important socio-cultural symbol in the novel, for it represents all the pleasures, perquisites, comfort and standing of the powerful upper class to which Maxim de Winter belongs. Manderley is Maxim's heritage both in fact and in symbol and he will do almost anything to protect it.

Similarly yet differently, Jamaica Inn is the central sociocultural symbol of the novel named after it. Normally, an inn represents a safe harbor for the weary traveler. Jamaica Inn, however, is an ironic symbol: there, plans for theft and bloodshed are laid; there, the spoils of shipwreckers (criminals of the lowest class) are stored. Not only the seat of criminal activity, the inn is also personally dangerous for Mary Yellan, the young woman who seeks refuge there. The emotional impact of both Manderley and Jamaica Inn is very great, for one represents a form of "the good life" any reader can recognize (and many desire) and the other represents all the false hopes and failed refuges most human beings encounter during the short journey between the cradle and the grave.

The cultural materials du Maurier most frequently employs in her romantic crime fiction also indicate elements of social convention. The British class system conflicting with the concept of upward mobility (for females via marriage; for males by assertion of control over lands and money); the idea that outside marriage a young woman has almost no identity; and the importance of retaining one's good name (no matter what reputation one deserves) are all central to these works. In Rebecca for example, Maxim de Winter resorts to extreme violence to preserve his reputation and it is the consensus among those of his peers privy to his secret that he acted properly in doing so. Mrs. de Winter and Mary Yellan desire upward mobility and believe that marriage is their vehicle to security and status. Philip Ashley, the narrator of My Cousin Rachel, genuinely mourns Ambrose, the cousin from whom he inherits a vast estate, yet Philip is aware that as the master of the family holding, he enjoys power and position which would have been unattainable in a secondary or even a shared mastery.

Beyond those socio-cultural images and symbols lie others, even more pervasive and more powerful than those based upon class, property and reputation. Du Maurier also explores universal problems which take on the aura of cultural myth. The difficulty of distinguishing between good and evil and the impossibility of purging certain kinds of guilt are important in almost every story. Mary Yellan nearly falls prey to a very wicked man because she mistakes cultural trappings for his real nature. Armino Donati (The Flight of the Falcon) wants to trust his brother's charm, poise, and attractiveness, but he suspects that vicious intent lies beneath Aldo's attractive exterior, and John, the protagonist-narrator of The Scapegoat, must learn that even the most crass codes of behavior can generate redemptive action.

What Do I Read Next?

  • The script for Arthur Hopcraft's 1996 adaptation of Rebecca for television has been published in paperback by Andre Duetsch Ltd.
  • Readers who enjoy the sweeping romance of Rebecca generally like du Maurier's previous novel, Jamaica Inn (1936), about a young woman who moves out to a house on the British moors and is faced with mystery and romance there.
  • Susan Hill wrote a sequel to Rebecca called Mrs. de Winter (1993). Hill's book carries on where du Maurier's novel left off. Die-hard fans of the original book should beware that reviewers generally find Hill's version to be a disappointment.
  • One of the most interesting and in-depth biographies of Daphne du Maurier is Martyn Shallcross' The Private World of Daphne du Maurier, published in 1992.
  • While Rebecca is a good example of romantic literature, the supreme example of the genre is Emily Brontë's 1847 novel Wuthering Heights, which also has a female protagonist in love with a cruel, strong male figure, living in a big, secluded English house.
  • The novel's plot, about a second wife who is haunted by the memory of the glamorous first wife, is clearly in debt to another classic romance: Jane Eyre, also published in 1847, by Charlotte Brontë, Emily's sister.
  • Kazuo Ishiguro's 1989 novel Remains of the Day is about the life of a faithful old-time English butler, a type that disappeared quickly after World War II. It gives excellent insight into the mind of a man like Rebecca's Frith.

Maxim de Winter not only hides his crime successfully but also involves his current wife and others in the concealment; he pays with years of misery, the loss of almost everything he sought to protect, yet guilt remains a constant in his life. Philip Ashley weighs the evidence against Rachel, his beloved, judges her—and lives out his years pondering his own guiltiness. Like Maxim de Winter, he has been both judge and jury; like Maxim, he must forever bear the memory and the weight of his actions.

The universal, mythically proportioned problems lying at the heart of du Maurier's most important novels are, indeed, basic. They are also, however, problems with which most human beings are expected to make their peace fairly early in life. One of the most important lessons learned by the very young is the ability to look behind disguise and to discover the essential decency or corruption of others, and very early on, people generally learn to assuage, ignore, or expiate guilt. Though these lessons may well have to be relearned or modified as maturing individuals confront new problems, people and situations, the groundwork, the basic principles of choice and evaluation, ought to be established during adolescence.

Though the du Maurier characters are no longer teenagers, they are, nevertheless, curiously immature for their years. Preoccupied by hard work and secluded in a small, friendly community, Mary Yellan has missed the experiences she needs to develop her judgment. Carefully protected, Philip Ashley has depended upon his cousin Ambrose for guidance. Both Armino Donati and John, the surnameless hero of The Scapegoat, have simply abdicated responsibility; they refuse to act. Maxim de Winter, seemingly an adult in full control of his powers, is caught in the grip of an obsession, Manderley and all it stands for, and is actually the most immature character of the lot. And Dona St. Columb, protagonist of Frenchman's Creek, a wife, mother, noblewoman, is frozen into unmaturity, for she has substituted social activity and petulant rebellion for awareness and growth. Thus, these important characters are, for all narrative purposes, youngsters, and in her stories, du Maurier exposes them and many of their fellows to the maturation tests and experiences most commonly found in stories about adolescents. This device adds considerably to the novels' suspense, for it is, in a sense, a plot within a plot. Not only do readers wonder when and if the dangers and courtships will be resolved happily, but they also wonder if the characters will be able to come to terms with the worlds in which they must live. Readers are keenly interested in discovering whether or not the characters will ever resolve the question of who they really are.

This question is also linked to another cultural artifact du Maurier exploits widely. She uses one of the oldest of western European tales, the Cinderella story, in various ways throughout these six novels. Almost mythic itself, it becomes the vehicle for the ethical questions (of good and evil, of guilt) upon which the plot complications turn. Various elements of the Cinderella story appear in each of the novels under discussion here and all of them hinge upon the character's discovery of who he or she really is, the discovery at the heart of Cinderella's adventures.

In du Maurier's romantic suspense novels, as in Cinderella, the major question is not detection but justice. It is important that Cinderella's triumph include the public humiliation of her wicked relatives because, in the eyes of many people, public punishment is equated with justice. Because the evils which Cinderella confronts, overt cruelty, jealousy and selfishness, are easy to identify and are subject to social disapproval, the wicked are punished; justice, seemingly, is served.

But the evils which the du Maurier protagonists confront are more complex; simple, obvious punishment is not always meted out. Instead, the irony which colors du Maurier's social commentary also affects her portrayal of justice, for while justice is always imposed, it is often served secretly, privately. To du Maurier, the impact of a crime is of far greater interest than the solution of a puzzle and this interest demands sophisticated modes of punishment.

The crime motif in du Maurier's novels is also enriched by another element of the Cinderella story, the disguise pattern. Frequently, the novels' protagonists appear in disguise; Lady Dona St. Columb, for instance, dresses as a boy when committing piracy. To her bitter dismay, Mrs. de Winter unwittingly disguises herself as Rebecca, her predecessor, for she is tricked into duplicating the costume Rebecca once wore to a fancy-dress ball and this scene lays the groundwork for the revelation of Maxim's crime. These disguises are fascinating and useful plot complications, lending action, adventure, or ironic foreshadowing to the stories.

Even more useful, however, are the disguises worn by the other characters, and these disguises exacerbate the difficulty of separating evil from goodness, one of the mythic themes which pervades these works. In each of the novels, at least one very powerful personality is examined and explored; these characters are charismatic, mysterious, disguised. Several are not what they seem to be and are unmasked. Frances Davey, the Vicar of Altarnum (Jamaica Inn), is not really a devout pastor ministering wholeheartedly to his flock but a dangerous criminal. Maxim de Winter is not a man emotionally crippled by the death of his beloved but rather a man tortured by guilt and the refusal to pay for his crime.

Others among these disguised charismatics are better than they first seem. Jean-Benoit Aubéry, the French pirate, is actually a criminal, but he is more decent, caring and nurturing than all the nobles among whom Dona St. Columb has lived. Jem Merlyn (Jamaica Inn) who makes no attempt to hide his career as petty criminal and horse thief, is far more honest with Mary Yellan than are the other inhabitants of the Bodmin area.

A third group, most notably Rebecca de Winter and Rachel Sangalletti Ashley, are essentially unknowable—one is never sure just which guise is mask, which reality. The world perceived Rebecca as the epitome of feminine grace and beauty, the perfect mistress for Manderley. To Maxim, her husband, she seemed a corrupt monster. To Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, and to Jack Favell, Rebecca's lover and cousin, she appeared to be a free spirit, capable of commanding devotion even from beyond the grave. Though most of the characters choose to believe Maxim's interpretation of Rebecca's character, the puzzle is never resolved. Nor is the mystery surrounding Rachel's character dispelled; she may be tragically accused of and punished for a crime she did not commit, a crime which was, indeed, never committed by anyone, or she may be a grasping poisoner who kills for wealth and position. These characters not only drive forward the action, but they also complicate the process of distinguishing between good and evil, sometimes beyond the capacity of the protagonists (and some readers). Unlike the disguises of the Cinderella figures, these enigmatic masks are meant to be impenetrable.

The disguise motif, then, establishes the most difficult tests the Cinderella figures must pass in order to win better lives. Further, because the enigmatic figures may mislead the protagonists, the element of disguise also strengthens the other fictional pattern du Maurier exploits. The education or maturation novel, the Bildungsroman (for which Cinderella is one of several important prototypes), is deeply embedded in both "serious" and popular fiction throughout western culture. Itself enormously popular, it is prime material for a writer like du Maurier who seeks a very wide audience.

In the traditional Bildungsroman, a young person who has great faith in his own power and potential tests his mettle as a means of initiation into maturity. He often takes a journey, acquires mentors of varying levels of reliability and engages in dangerous adventures. Ultimately, he emerges sadder but wiser, ready to take his place in adult society. He has compromised with the ideal and settled for pragmatism. Du Maurier uses this treatment of the Bildungsroman, most commonly found in "high culture" novels, very successfully in both Jamaica Inn and Frenchman's Creek.

In Jamaica Inn, Mary Yellan dreams of security and hopes to find peace and opportunity living with her aunt and uncle at the inn. Instead, she finds danger to her life and honor and a host of false mentors. Among them is her criminal uncle, Joss Merlyn, who presents a sexual threat; he finds Mary attractive and to her dismay, she is somewhat drawn to him. For relief, advice and comfort, Mary turns to a local minister, one of du Maurier's masters of disguise, who does, indeed, advise her but who is actually also a false mentor.

Because of his abusive treatment of her aunt and because of his criminal activity, which she slowly comes to recognize, Mary has little trouble recognizing Joss as an evil person; indeed, he represents the worst that life can offer her: sexual ex-cess, constant danger, shared criminal behavior. Dark, mysterious, violent, Joss symbolizes trouble and degeneration. The Reverend Mr. Davey, however, seems to represent redemption until his mask is finally stripped away during a melodramatic series of events that include an abduction and wild chase over the moors.

Not only does the final unmasking of Davey leave Mary without a functioning mentor, it also forces her to question the basic rules of social convention. She has hoped to establish a very normal, secure life on the Cornish coast, and obviously one means of doing so would have been to marry well, preferably, like most of the Cinderellas, to marry up. The revelation of Davey as villain and exploiter removes him from the ranks of potential mates and also, importantly, calls into question the viability of Mary's dreams of security and status.

A poor girl with modest dreams, Mary is barred, finally, from upward mobility by the rules of the class system. Tainted by her low birth, her poverty, her association with criminals (she is even an unwilling spectator and thus marginally a participant in one raid), Mary cannot change her status. She shares in the guilt for this last raid because she was there and because willful blindness as well as circumstance have stopped her from preventing it.

Though Mary has learned not to trust outward appearances, her fate lies, finally, in the hands of yet another masquerader. Jem Merlyn, Joss' younger brother, is an enigmatic man who reveals little of his true emotion, a sexually attractive person who prefers liason (when he can get it) to marriage. Nevertheless he loves Mary and is the only individual who acts effectively to save her from rape or murder. Despite the tensions which exist between them in the early days of their acquaintance, Mary "believes" that she loves Jem, that he is her true mate and she rides off with him, "'Because I want to: because I must; because now and for ever more this is where I belong to be.'"

The real world for which Mary, chastened and tempered, settles is a marginal world in which she will always hover between poverty and security, social acceptance and rejection, love and danger. Ironist that she is, du Maurier gives no guarantees that for this young woman there will be any "happily ever after." Though Mary is a successful Bildungsroman protagonist (she has learned, she has matured, she has compromised), she is a failed Cinderella; the class system prevails and Mary Yellan is frozen into the fringes of accepted society. She has love but little else, and du Maurier refuses to promise that that will be enough.

On the surface of her life, Dona St. Columb is, at the opening of Frenchman's Creek, Cinderella leading an enchanted life after the glass slipper has slid smoothly onto her foot. Chronologically an adult, Dona is nevertheless a rebellious child. Disgusted with her dull husband, often irritated by the demands of motherhood, and bored with London life, Dona disguises herself and engages in dangerous, illegal pranks, "playing at" highway robbery, until, restless and annoyed with herself as much as with her world, she runs away to Navron House, the family estate, fleeing both her obligations and her escapades.

There, however, she moves even more deeply into disguise and danger, for she comes to love a French pirate who is raiding the Cornish coast. A kind of nautical Robin Hood, Aubéry, the Frenchman of the title, teaches Dona what love and sexual satisfaction really are, and she revels in the relationship. Initially disguised as chic matron, polished noblewoman, Dona believes she has found her true nature when disguised as a thieving boy or sensual lover and she discovers that she is not only a competent thief but also a clever schemer when she undertakes to save her lover from imprisonment and death. During this period, Navron House continues to stand for the positive qualities of whatever is decent in Dona's public life, everything opposed to the corruption symbolized by London. The nearby creek where the Frenchman moors his ship and La Mouette itself symbolize freedom, love, the right to break—social codes in order to achieve happiness—everything children imagine that adulthood allows.

Eventually, Dona must choose between life with the Frenchman and life as Lady St. Columb and in the end, social convention and family obligation claim her. For her, life as a constrained, postball Cinderella is reality whereas life on the fringes of society is dream. Except in memory, she will truly become,

a gracious matron, and smile upon her servants, and her tenants, and the village folk, and one day she will have grandchildren about her knee, and will tell them the story of a pirate who escaped.

Dona will not live happily ever after, but she will live responsibly.

She, too, has been tempered and chastened and like Mary, she responds, however hesitantly, to the lessons she has learned. If Mary Yellan cannot penetrate respectable levels of English society, no more can Dona St. Columb abdicate the upper classes. These young women come to know themselves very well; they find out precisely who they are, but they are, finally, defined by the social roles assigned by birth. Their very traditional Bildungsroman journeys, culminating in compromise and pragmatic acceptance, are complete.

In popular fiction, two variations of the traditional Bildungsroman occur frequently and du Maurier experiments with these varieties just as she does with the traditional pattern in Jamaica Inn and Frenchman's Creek. As feminist critics have pointed out, the modern gothic novel is a form of the Bildungsroman whose youthful protagonists, usually females, are, either consciously or unconsciously, engaged in a quest for advancement as well as for adulthood. They want power, selfhood, love and maturity and much of the time, they tend to perceive these desirables as interchangeable if not synonymous.

In a sense, they feel that they will be forever unworthy if they are not loved by some greatly desirable person, but also, secretly or even unconsciously, they feel themselves to be the equal—if not the superior—of most of the characters surrounding them. This conflicting sense of self-worth (obvious in Cinderella) is often painful and almost always results in the protagonists' maintaining a kind of public guise of meekness which hides a fiery, judgmental, or even arrogant personality. Cinderellas, they are not only disguised initially by their lowly positions, but also they actively parade a mask of humility.

The second Mrs. de Winter, the protagonistnarrator of Rebecca, is precisely this sort of person and because of the confessional nature of the novel, readers are privy to the seemingly meek, the genuinely humble and the bitingly judgmental elements of her nature from the outset. Though she maintains a quiet, obedient exterior, she denounces thoroughly (and with some good cause) Mrs. Van Hopper, an American of abundant financial means and absolutely no taste, whom she serves as companion. She feels distinctly superior to the Van Hopper world but too inexperienced, uninteresting and plain to be a likely helpmeet of Maxim de Winter. Both attitudes cause her considerable trouble. Ironically, she accepts Mrs. Van Hopper's evaluation of her personality and assumes that to Maxim she is merely a toy, a pet, that she can never truly be his equal. Yet, inwardly, she weeps and rages, for she yearns to be his true companion, to move beyond the shadow of Rebecca and into prominence as the mistress of Manderley, with which she has been entranced since childhood.

Maxim, enigmatic, preoccupied with keeping secret the crime he has committed, withholds a large part of himself from his second wife even though he senses and deplores her unhappiness. In turn, Mrs. de Winter, unaware of Maxim's true thoughts, assumes he is still grieving for Rebecca. Both marriage partners maintain disguises, acting out a "happy" married life, refusing to share, pretending before outsiders and one another.

This Cinderella temporarily acquires both her prince and her castle, but she can genuinely enjoy neither, and when truth does finally prevail between the de Winters, it is too late. The prince, the princess and the marriage survive, but the castle, Manderley, symbol of all the perks of upperclass life, is destroyed. Once again, du Maurier's irony intrudes and the class system prevails. Mrs. de Winter deserves her tainted prince only if they are exiled from the social circles to which Maxim was born and to which Mrs. de Winter aspires. Cinderella finds that compromise dominates adulthood and the real world; she acquiesces and endures the consequences of fallen pride. Society has preserved its aura of respectability by protecting Maxim from disclosure of his crime, but nevertheless, it has firmly punished the de Winters. Though this Bildungsroman hero has learned her lessons all too well, there is nowhere to use her education.

We can never go back again, that much is certain. The past is still too close to us. The things we have tried to forget and put behind us would stir again, and that sense of fear, of furtive unrest, struggling at length to blind unreasoning panic—now mercifully stilled, thank God—might in some manner unforseen become a living companion, as it had been before.

Instead, the de Winters drift through Europe, maintaining the social façade, marking time until death releases them.

In traditional adventure-suspense fiction, the protagonist takes a slightly different view of himself than do gothic heroes such as Philip Ashley and Mrs. de Winter. They do not perceive themselves as better than others and they do not yearn for status. Usually, these characters have seen something of life, have become aware of its stresses and pitfalls and, as protection, have disguised themselves as "small," inconsequential persons. Each must stretch his capacity, admit his own potential, abandon insignificance, expand in order to meet and conquer some criminal threat. Doing so will signify emergence from a willfully chosen, prolonged adolescence into full maturity. Generally, they pass their exacting tests and emerge stronger, more confident, no longer hiding their capabilities from the world.

Du Maurier's experiments with this variant of the Bildungsroman, The Flight of the Falcon and The Scapegoat, allow their protagonists much more promising futures than do her treatments of the traditional Bildungsroman or of the modern gothic, even though the events are just as melodramatic, the assessments of human nature just as uncompromising. Furthermore, in these novels, the questions of guilt and evil are expanded considerably, a fact underscored by the use of non-English settings.

Though matters of social class and its privilege remain important in The Scapegoat and are echoed by allusions to earlier times in The Flight of the Falcon, these novels are allegories and du Maurier uses St. Gilles, the French village dominated by the de Gué family of The Scapegoat, and Ruffano, the Italian university city in which The Flight of the Falcon is set, as microcosms. In the first novel, she examines the political and economic impact of one man's criminality, selfishness and arrogance. In the second, she explores the effects of a clever, ambitious man's manipulation of oppressive political systems.

Because du Maurier is chiefly a storyteller and not a philosopher, dramatic action dominates theme in these novels; the political implications are not particularly profound and they are certainly not unique. However, these implications intensify the suspense in both books, just as they later intensify her futuristic political study, Rule Britannia (1972) and they continue du Maurier's examination of the conflict between personal ambition and one's duty to others which is the subject of such novels as I'll Never Be Young Again (1932) and The Progress of Julius (1933), novels outside the boundaries of romantic suspense fiction.

Du Maurier complicates the problems of distinguishing between good and evil and of guilt and emphasizes the allegorical nature of The Flight of the Falcon and The Scapegoat by using Christian symbolism in both. Crucial action in The Flight of the Falcon takes place during Easter Week, for instance, and a priest, a character in The Scapegoat, states the theme of both books:

'There is no end to the evil in ourselves, just as there is no end to the good. It's a matter of choice. We struggle to climb, or we struggle to fall. The thing is to discover which way we're going'.

Both novels also depict Satanic and Christlike figures who are very much alike: in The Scapegoat, the men are identical in appearance and in The Flight of the Falcon, they are putative brothers. Further, the Donati brothers share a kind of Doppelgänger, the spirit of Claudio, a long-dead Duke of Ruffano, who is depicted as both tempted and tempter in an old painting, "The Temptation of Christ." These devices help du Maurier move beyond questions of personal complicity and individual destiny around which Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, Frenchman's Creek and Jamaica Inn center and focus attention, instead, upon the basic duality of human nature.

An examination of her treatments of the Cinderella story and of her experiments with various forms of the Bildungsroman, then, indicate that Daphne du Maurier brings a rich imagination, a sound sense of story line and action, and a great willingness to experiment to her fiction. Though individually the novels considered here—Jamaica Inn, Frenchman's Creek, Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, The Flight of the Falcon and The Scapegoat—match Cawelti's definition of formula fiction, together, they demonstrate that any formula—or any literary convention—can be reinvented fruitfully. In the hands of a true storyteller, the old is always new and the "du Maurier Tradition" demands bold inventiveness, intelligence and a special awareness of the roots, artifacts, strengths and weaknesses of the culture from which it springs, toward which it is directed. Du Maurier blends all of these requirements into the heady compounds of the expected and the surprising which are so pleasurable to her readers. In achieving these ends, she surpasses her competitors and her imitators. Others may emulate Daphne du Maurier, but she remains dominant.

Source: Jane S. Bakerman, "Daphne du Maurier," in And Then There Were Nine, edited by Jane S. Bakerman, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1985, pp. 12-29.

Basil Davenport

In the following review, Davenport calls Rebecca a quality melodrama, comparing it with Jane Eyre.

So Cinderella married the prince, and then her story began. Cinderella was hardly more than a school-girl, and the overworked companion of a snobbish woman of wealth; the prince was Maximilian de Winter, whom she had heard of as the owner of Manderley in Cornwall, one of the most magnificent show places in England, who had come to the Riviera to forget the tragic death of his wife Rebecca. He was twice the little companion's age, but she conceived a starved girl's adoration for him when he was kind to her, and there was something about her freshness that seemed to please him. Then to her astonished rapture, he proposed marriage to her, and carried her off to the splendors of Manderley, in its forest of azaleas, sloping down to the sea that had drowned Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter—"Mrs. de Winter," simply, as every one still calls her. For slowly and subtly the girl's dream changes to a nightmare. The great house where she cannot find her way, the first wife's shuttered bedroom, the servants who say that in Mrs. de Winter's time there were no complaints, and above all the old housekeeper, who keeps for the first Mrs. de Winter the ghoulish devotion of Phaedra's nurse or Electra's old slave—they all close in on her, like the monstrous azaleas. There was some mystery about Rebecca's death, too, as the village idiot knows; but the book is skillfully contrived so that it does not depend only on knowledge of it for its thrill; it can afford to give no hint of it till two-thirds of the way through. But the revelation, when it comes, leads to one of the most prolonged, deadly, and breathless fencing-matches that one can find in fiction, a battle of wits that would by itself make the fortune of a melodrama on the stage.

For this is a melodrama, unashamed, glorying in its own quality, such as we have hardly had since that other dependant, Jane Eyre, found that her house too had a first wife. It has the weaknesses of melodrama; in particular, the heroine is at times quite unbelievably stupid, as when she takes the advice of the housekeeper whom she knows to hate her. But if the second Mrs. de Winter had consulted with any one before trusting the housekeeper, we should miss one of the best scenes in the book. There is also, as is almost inseparable from a melodrama, a forced heightening of the emotional values; the tragedy announced in the opening chapter is out of proportion to the final outcome of the long battle of wits that ends the book. But it is as absorbing a tale as the season is likely to bring.

Source: Basil Davenport, "Sinister House," in Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XVIII, No. 22, September 24, 1938, p. 5.


Barkham, John, Review in New York Review of Books, March 8, 1953, p. 8.

Davenport, Basil, "Sinister House," in Saturday Review, September 24, 1938, p. 5.

Hill, Susan, Review in New Statesman, July 23, 1971.

Raymond, John, Review in New Statesman, August 11, 1951.

Rogers, Pat, "Saving Her Bacon," in Spectator, Vol. 237, No. 7727, July 31, 1976, p. 20.

For Further Study

Auerbach, Nina, Daphne du Maurier: Haunted Heiress, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

This recent critical examination of du Maurier defends her against criticism that finds her work superficial.

Forster, Margaret, Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller, St. Martin's Press, 1994.

This is the biography that was authorized by du Maurier's family. It has some probing information because the author had more access to papers and interviews than many du Maurier scholars.

Horner, Arvel, and Sue Zlisnik, Daphne du Maurier: Writing, Identity and the Gothic Imagination, St. Martin's Press, 1998.

This relatively new study of the author's works concentrates on the supernatural elements with which she worked.

Vickers, Stanley, The du Maurier Companion, edited by Diana King, Fowey Rare Books, 1997.

This reference work lists all of the novels, plays, films, and autobiographical works by du Maurier and other literary members of her family.


views updated


by Daphne du Maurier


A novel set primarily in England during the late 1930s; published in 1938.


A young bride lives under the shadow of her husband’s former wife and uncovers a mystery surrounding the wife’s death.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Married to a man who had previously been engaged to a beautiful socialite, Daphne du Maurier was acquainted with the feelings of jealousy aroused by a mate’s former love. Although her own marriage did not include the darker aspects of her novel Rebecca’s haunting plot, the author did identify with the psychology of her narrator. She too created in her mind the image of another woman who had shared a past with her husband. And like her narrator, du Maurier often wondered what had kept her husband and his former fiancée from enjoying a blissful wedded life together.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Raising women of the social elite

Throughout Rebecca, the narrator (the second Mrs. de Winter) comments on the social disparity between her husband, Maxim de Winter, and herself. Not having been brought up for a lifestyle of grandeur, the narrator acts shy and embarrassed when introduced to the friends and family members of her husband’s class. She constantly compares herself to Maxim’s former wife, the beautiful debutante, Rebecca, who had assuredly socialized with England’s gentry. This feeling of awkwardness is understandable in light of the fact that upper-class British women of the 1930s were brought up simply to expect to fulfill a future role as the wife of a wealthy man.

The London Times would announce the arrival of children born into well-to-do families. Listed under the Court Circular section, these notices would detail the lineage of the baby, its parents, and its godparents. News of the christening followed, with references to the christening gown and the quality of lace used. After their heralded arrival into the world, most upper-class children were handed over to the care of nannies. Britishers employed some 250,000 to 500,000 nannies from the years 1921 to 1939.

Once beyond the toddler age, young girls enjoyed the privilege of attending school. The idea of sending daughters away to school became standard practice only during the twentieth century. Prior to this era, most girls had been educated at home by tutors or governesses. Although the more public setting allowed for somewhat greater social and academic freedom, young girls still had to learn and maintain the accomplishments of traditional ladies. In addition to academic subjects, the young women were schooled in activities such as riding, hunting, tennis, and dancing. With this being the type of education common to women of this milieu, it is hardly surprising that most of Maxim’s friends cannot believe that his second wife is a novice in all of the mentioned arenas.

Most importantly, all girls from the “right” families underwent the process known as “coming out.” In fact, they had little choice about this formal presentation to society. During the Debutante Season, young women, sponsored by their mothers or other female relatives, would attend a whirlwind of parties and dances. The sole purpose for these gatherings was the arrangement of marriages.

With the advent of the industrial society, a new class had emerged in England, the nouveaux riches. These families, having acquired their wealth and property through work rather than lineage, did not have the heritage necessary for arranged matches between their daughters and sons and those of the upper classes. Nonetheless, these newcomers did represent a large portion of England’s economic wealth. The best manner, therefore, by which to ensure that the nation’s money would remain in the hands of its established upper class was to intermarry the new and old monied families. Debutante balls provided the opportunity for young men and women of similar economic backgrounds to socialize with one another. Should the season prove a success, a young woman from the right family might land an outstanding husband.

These matches between old and new monied families helped relax strictures against marriage between members of different classes. Without the aid of an upper-crust upbringing or debutante ball, the second Mrs. de Winter nonetheless manages to marry a man of an elite socioeconomic status. While rigid social standards still held fast throughout England, the interwar period, and especially the 1930s, marked an era of change. The cinema, a popular leisure activity for European youth, provided Hollywood stars to idolize. In response, young factory workers could adopt the guise of wealth by wearing smart clothes and tilting their hats like Greta Garbo, the Swedish-born American actress. This image, however, when put to the test, would not withstand the rigors of the elite’s social protocol. In the novel, the presence of the narrator at Maxim’s Manderley estate causes quite a stir among the neighboring busybodies. When they learn of her nondescript background, they wonder how Maxim de Winter could have married such a no-body, a girl “so different to Rebecca” (du Maurier, Rebecca, p. 121).

Female friendships

For the second Mrs. de Winter, no character proves more of an obstacle to happiness than Manderley’s housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. The housekeeper seems unwilling to accept the new face in the household, and takes no pains to hide her displeasure. Originally the second Mrs. de Winter assumes that Mrs. Danvers’ attitude derives from a fear of replacement by the new mistress of the estate. She soon learns otherwise. One character informs the second Mrs. de Winter, “She [Mrs. Danvers] resents your being here at all, that’s the trouble. … She simply adored Rebecca” (Rebecca, p. 100). Within time, the narrator learns that the friendship shared by Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers constituted no ordinary bond between master and servant. Rather, the two women were closer to one another than to any other persons in their lives.

Daphne du Maurier had knowledge about this type of relationship. While attending finishing school in Paris, France, she too engaged in an intense friendship with an older woman who occupied a somewhat subservient position. As an adolescent daughter of a socially elite family, Daphne attended a school abroad that cultivated such tastes as art appreciation and knowledge of the French language. There she grew uncommonly close with one teacher, Mademoiselle Fernande Yvon. Upon her initial introduction to the French headmistress, du Maurier wrote to her cousin, stating, “I’ve quite fallen for that woman I told you about, Mile. Yvon. She has a fatal attraction ... she’s absolutely kind of lured me on and now I’m coiled in the net” (du Maurier in Forster, p. 28). Her bond with Mile. Yvon grew rapidly. Originally du Maurier had planned to stay at the school for only one term. Because of her growing affection for and dependence on Mile. Yvon, she instead remained for three terms. The women treated each other as equals rather than as teacher and student. Just as Rebecca calls Mrs. Danvers “Danny” in the novel, du Maurier gave Mile. Yvon the affectionate nickname, “Ferdy.” This relationship worried du Maurier.

She told her cousin that she feared having “Venetian” (her own term for lesbian) tendencies. Like the fictional Rebecca, du Maurier somewhat resented being a girl. In the novel, Mrs. Danvers tells the narrator, “She [Rebecca] had all the courage and the spirit of a boy.... She ought to have been a boy” (Rebecca, p. 243). Likewise Daphne envied the greater freedoms and advantages enjoyed by the male population. During puberty, du Maurier convinced herself that, in fact, she was a boy. She wore boy’s shorts, shirts, and ties at a time when women never wore trousers. She also cultivated the spirit and ambition admired as masculine traits. In a gesture that fostered this attitude, du Maurier’s father composed a poem for her that shows an appreciation for her boyish tendencies. Two of the lines read, ”And, if I’d had my way, / She would have been, a boy” (Gerald du Maurier in Forster, p. 13).

Although du Maurier decided, at the onset of menstruation, to ignore the boy she saw inside of herself, her friendship with Mile. Yvon caused her to reconsider. She worried that a woman who loved and was attracted to another woman must be a man at heart. While she struggled with these questions, she never acted on what she feared were her lesbian tendencies. Du Maurier felt that lesbianism was “a feeble substitute for married life, and something to get over in youth” (du Maurier in Shallcross, p. 63). When a critic suggested that the relationship between Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers seemed to have lesbian undertones, the author acknowledged only that “Mrs. Danvers … could quite possibly have enjoyed a lesbian relationship with her beloved Rebecca, and that this would have deeply affected her attitude towards the new Mrs. de Winter” (Shallcross, p. 63). In fiction as in her own life, du Maurier neither confirms nor denies the level of intimacy shared between female friends.

Psychology and the crime novel

Rebecca belongs to a literary genre known as the “psychological thriller.” While the characteristics of the novel seem commonplace by today’s standards, at the time they represented a somewhat revolutionary shift in crime and detective fiction. This genre finds its roots in the Gothic novels popular during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With his book The Castle of Otranto, Ho-race Walpole gave birth to the popular Gothic novel in 1764. Later works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Lord Byron’s Vampyre helped to shape the characteristics of this branch of sinister literature. Within time, common Gothic elements emerged. These included: castle-like settings, supernatural occurrences, elaborate descriptions, heroines in distress, and brooding heroes, all bound together inside a web of mystery. The psychological thriller combines these characteristics with those of the traditional crime novel.

The twentieth century brought with it a heightened interest in crime stories. Amid the clamor of the new scientific age, these works encouraged methodic observation and formulation of conclusions. They also brought readers out of the mundaneness of their own lives and into the world of high adventure. The “thriller” uses, but is not limited to, the characteristics of the crime novel. While it generally presents a mystery, the purpose of the work does not focus so much on a piece-by-piece unraveling of events. Rather, it shrouds the mystery in fear, creating the atmosphere or the psychology of dread. The psychological thriller furthermore attempts to explain, throughout the book, the emotional motivations of the guilty party. This corresponds to a broader attempt by the scientific community of the early 1900s to understand and treat people with psychological or mental problems rather than simply ignoring them or confining them in an institution that isolate them from society.

The world of psychology, during the mid-1900s, promised new and exciting breakthroughs for the mental health profession. For the first time in history, doctors began treating patients with techniques of psychoanalysis. One of the more prominent names in this field was that of Carl Gustav Jung. Born in 1875, Jung made a name for himself early in his career. At the age of thirtyone, he published his first text, Psychology of Dementia Praecox, a psychoanalytic study of schizophrenia. In 1907 Jung traveled to Vienna to meet with Sigmund Freud, remaining some six years with the famous psychiatrist. Working with Freud, Jung became one of the first in the mental health profession to apply techniques of psychoanalysis to the study of insanity.

Because of increasing differences of opinion, the two men split in 1913. Shortly before this divergence, Jung published his work Psychology of the Unconscious, which revealed his own particular philosophy. The mind, according to this philosophy, was divided into separate parts that people could personify. There was also, according to Jung’s philosophy, a collective consciousness that existed in the minds of people, making them common to one another and resulting in the development of mythologies. This personification and mythology, argued the philosophy, provided meaning in peoples’ lives.

In any case, along with the focus on psychology in the early to mid-1900s came an explosion of psychological thrillers. The New Zealand writer Ngaio Marsh first combined psychological observation with the crime novel’s traditional uncovering of clues and facts. Through her several works in this genre, Marsh introduced elaborate and bizarre methods of murder that the literary world had not yet encountered. In Overture to Death (1939), Marsh’s victim meets his fate by a handgun cleverly disguised in a piano. Psychology provides the motive for the evil deed. Similarly, Rebecca involves a psychologically motivated and rather involved murder. Its focus remains not so much on the solution of the mystery as on the emotional states of the characters involved. Moreover, du Maurier offers no punishment for the crime committed—only the psychological explanation of events.

The advent of the radio and cinema only increased the popularity of the thriller. Its plots provided excellent entertainment for audiences through adaptations into radio plays and film scripts, and many authors began to enjoy unheard-of economic success when they sold their novels to these mediums. Rebecca proved no exception. Following the U.S. printing of the novel, Selznick Studios purchased Rebecca’s film rights. In 1940 du Maurier’s novel came to the silver screen under the direction of Alfred Hitchcock and won an Academy Award that year for best film.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

Rebecca’s unnamed narrator relates her first-person tale through an extended flashback. While the opening of the novel finds the narrator and her husband, Maxim de Winter, safely secluded in a hotel room abroad, the chilling events that drove them from home are recalled throughout the book’s subsequent pages. Known only to the reader as “the second Mrs. de Winter,” the narrator begins her story with her introduction to her future husband.

While acting as a companion to a wealthy but obnoxious American dowager, Mrs. Van Hopper, the narrator mingled with Europe’s social elite in the resort regions of southern France. Since she herself hailed from a nondescript, working-class background, the narrator often felt awkward and clumsy as she performed the duties of her occupation. She neither liked her job nor her patron, but with little alternative for earning a living, she showed determination for excelling at her work. During an afternoon lunch, Mrs. Van Hopper noted a fellow diner, stating, “It’s Max de Winter … the man who owns Manderley. You’ve heard of it, of course. He looks ill, doesn’t he? They say he can’t get over his wife’s death” (Rebecca, p. 11). From that moment on, the narrator’s future became intricately woven together with the brooding man and his English country estate, Manderley.

When Mrs. Van Hopper took ill, the narrator had occasion to lunch with Mr. de Winter. Their meetings became routine engagements, and lunches soon stretched into afternoon outings together. By the end of two weeks, the couple had fallen in love. When Mrs. Van Hopper announced that she would soon sail for New York, the narrator and her beau disclosed their affection for each other. Without the blessing of her former employer, the narrator married Mr. de Winter and embarked on a honeymoon tour of Italy.

After traveling for six weeks, the de Winters returned to England to begin their life together at Manderley. The narrator’s initial introduction to the estate, while filled with a bride’s nervous trepidation, gave little indication of the events that would later occur on the Manderley grounds. As she grew to know the mansion and its staff, the narrator felt welcome by all the employees, save one. Mrs. Danvers, Manderley’s housekeeper, had resided with the de Winters for quite some time, and seemed rather set in her ways. Although others lauded her excellent traits, the housekeeper treated the new Mrs. de Winter with cold disdain. She seemed immediately to resent the new face at Manderley and took no pains to hide her emotions. The narrator nevertheless settled into her role as the mistress of the estate.

Within time she became acquainted with Maxim’s friends and family. Though constantly aware of her inferior social upbringing, the narrator strove to improve her social skills for the sake of her new status. Her efforts seemed hampered, however, by the ever-present shadow of Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife. Rebecca had accidentally drowned while sailing less than a year earlier, and her presence still permeated Manderley. Mrs. Danvers kept Rebecca’s private rooms as they had been on the day of her death. Even her dressing gown lay on the bed, awaiting an owner who would never return. It seemed as though every person with whom the narrator interacted commented on Rebecca’s outstanding beauty, grace, charm, and accomplishments. Subject to these comparisons, the second Mrs. de Winter began to feel as though she could never live up to the standards set by her predecessor. Coupled with this, Maxim’s mood grew so dark at the mere mention of his former wife that the narrator believed that he had not yet put Rebecca’s death behind him.

At the suggestion of several neighbors, the de Winters decided to revive the Manderley fancy dress ball that had been an annual event at the estate. Mrs. Danvers recommended a costume for the narrator so beautiful that she rushed to purchase that exact gown. She kept her attire a secret from her husband, hoping for once to startle him with her beauty and grace. When she descended the stairs on the eve of the party, however, his look was not one of affection, but rather of shock and horror. On what would be her last fancy dress ball, Rebecca, his former wife, had worn that exact outfit. Only then did the narrator realize the extent of Mrs. Danvers’ hatred for her.

Unable to clear up the confusion, the narrator and Maxim spent the duration of the party barely speaking to each other. While she had hoped to catch him early the next morning, her apologies had to wait, as a ship had run aground in the bay nearby. The narrator, like many other curious spectators, ran down to the shore to watch the spectacle. No one, it turned out, had suffered injury in the accident, so the excitement of the shipwreck seemed to wane in the late morning. However, when a diver went down to inspect a hole in the ship, he made a startling discovery. On the floor of the ocean he found Rebecca’s small sailboat, and peering inside, he discovered a body. Since Maxim had previously identified a different body as that of his former wife, a formal inquest began. The authorities raised the small craft and searched it thoroughly. When they noticed holes driven through the floor of the boat, they began to suspect foul play.

Ironically, these strange events drew the narrator and her husband closer together. Maxim confessed to her that he had killed his former wife. He told her that Rebecca “was vicious, damnable, rotten through and through. We never loved each other.… Rebecca was incapable of love, of tenderness, of decency. She was not even normal” (Rebecca, p. 271). Tired of her adultery and her lies, and trapped in a loveless marriage, he had shot Rebecca and then sunk her body in the boat. The narrator soothed Maxim, convincing him that their love for each other would see them through whatever lay ahead. Although the authorities did come close to discovering the truth, they ultimately listed suicide as the cause of Rebecca’s death. All parties seemed satisfied with this end—everyone, that is, except Mrs. Danvers. While the de Winters were away dealing with the inquest, Mrs. Danvers fled the estate, but not before she had set Manderley on fire.

A psychological novel

Du Maurier’s original intent in composing Rebecca was to fashion a psychological study whereby the character of the first wife would build in the mind of the second “until wife two is haunted day and night” (du Maurier in Forster, p. 132). Given the novel’s first-person perspective, all characters and events had to filter through the interpretation of the narrator. It is the character of Rebecca, however, who most vividly comes to life in the mind of the second Mrs. de Winter. From the moment that she stumbles across a sample of Rebecca’s

handwriting, the narrator creates a vision of the person Maxim’s first wife must have resembled. She notes, “that bold, slanting hand, stabbing the white paper, the symbol of herself, so certain, so assured” (Rebecca, p. 43). By contrast, the narrator sees herself as timid and mild, uncertain at every step. The novel continually contrasts their psychological profiles, creating two women who are not as unequal to each other as the reader originally suspects. By the close of the plot, the second Mrs. de Winter finds the strength to support her husband in his hour of need, while Rebecca diminishes to a faint memory. Most of the contemporary reviews of Rebecca overlooked its psychological components, and this neglect came both as a shock and a disappointment to du Maurier.

Du Maurier, later on in her life, became an avid fan of the groundbreaking psychologist Carl Jung. Having wrestled in adolescence with the gender dichotomy inside of herself, she liked Jung’s notions of dual personalities in the mind. She did not, as she confessed to a friend, particularly enjoy this duality within herself. “The thing is, why must I always pretend to be someone else … it is what Jung calls ‘compensation’ and ‘fantasy’” (du Maurier in Forster, p. 278). However, du Maurier found solace in Jung’s explanations that everyone suffered such contrasts within the self. In Rebecca, the writer sought to bring these contrasts to light. While many critics saw the second Mrs. de Winter as an autobiographical personification of the author, du Maurier also possessed some of murdered Rebecca’s aggressive nature. Because of her psychological interests, du Maurier was disappointed to learn that her work was revered only as a great romance. She had hoped to convey a sense of the frustrations that she herself had sometimes felt. More exactly, du Maurier had hoped her readers would pick up on the battle between the sexes as displayed through the characters of Maxim and the second Mrs. de Winter. Throughout the novel, the narrator acts as a subordinate to her husband, her every action motivated by his wish. Not until the end, when Maxim’s precarious legal position comes into play, does the second Mrs. de Winter move onto more equal psychological ground with her husband.


While the majority of the inspiration for Rebecca came from the author’s own imagination, du Maurier did draw on autobiographical references for the creation of her novel. The Manderley estate, for instance, closely resembles Menabilly, a home that du Maurier rented and restored over a period of twenty-five years. Located in the Cornwall region of southern England, the home was situated near a holiday retreat owned by du Maurier’s parents. As an adolescent, she had spent summers in the region, sailing, swimming, and playing with her sisters and cousins. Although she first fell in love with Menabilly during these early years, she did not actually rent the home until she herself became a wife and mother. With its Tudor-style architecture and isolated location, Menabilly reminds the reader of the de Winters’ Manderley. In fact, although du Maurier originally began writing Rebecca while traveling with her husband in Egypt, during this period “she found herself fantasizing about Cornwall and in particular about Menabilly” (Forster, p. 133). The author would later return to the area to rent the estate, and at one point would confess how deep her feelings were for it: “It makes me a little ashamed to admit it, but I do believe I love Mena [billy] more than people” (du Maurier in Forster, p. 188).

Du Maurier’s life relates to her main character’s as well. As mentioned, like the narrator of Rebecca, du Maurier also married a man who had experienced a previous love. Tom Browning, or “Boy Browning,” immediately captured du Maurier’s heart with his good looks and charm. Eleven years her senior, however, Browning had been previously engaged. Although the decision to break off this earlier engagement had been his, du Maurier always harbored a certain jealousy toward her husband’s first love. In fact, one afternoon she stumbled upon a bundle of love letters tied together affectionately with a ribbon. Although guilt-ridden at her own brashness, she opened the letters and read each of them. They had been written by Jan Ricardo, the beautiful debutante whom Browning had almost married. The strong handwriting seemed to personify this woman from Browning’s past. By contrast, du Maurier herself “looked like a slip of a girl … someone who blushed easily and had no authority whatsoever” (Forster, p. 118). Du Maurier borrows this scene for Rebecca. Early in the novel, the narrator finds a book of Maxim’s with an inscription written by Rebecca. She notes that “the name Rebecca stood out black and strong, the tall and sloping R dwarfing the other letters” (Rebecca, p. 33). With this premise in mind, du Maurier began her novel. “Roughly,” say her original notes for it, “the book will be about the influence of a first wife on a second” (du Maurier in Forster, p. 132).

Reception of the novel

From the moment that du Maurier sent her novel to her publisher, Rebecca enjoyed success. The senior editor at Victor Gollancz announced that the novel “brilliantly creates a sense of atmosphere and suspense” (Collins in Forster, p. 136). Likewise, the critical accounts of Rebecca almost unanimously praised du Maurier’s achievement. London’s Observer commented that “the fearlessness with which Miss du Maurier works in material so strange … is magnificent” (Swinnerton in Forster, p. 139). Within a month of publication, Rebecca sold 45,000 copies.

For More Information

Ball, John. The Mystery Story. Del Mar: University of California, San Diego Press, 1976.

Du Maurier, Daphne. Rebecca. New York: Avon, 1938.

Forster, Margaret. Daphne du Maurier. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Johnson, Paul. 20th Century Britain: Economic, Social, and Cultural Change. New York: Longman, 1994.

Lambert, Angela. 1939: The Last Season of Peace. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989.

Shallcross, Martyn. The Private World of Daphne du Maurier. New York: St. Martin’s, 1991.

Storr, Anthony. C. G. Jung. New York: Viking, 1973.


views updated


REBECCA , or in Hebrew, Rivqah, was the wife of Isaac and the second of the biblical matriarchs. The name Rivqah is usually taken to be an animal name, like those of Rachel and Leah; it is derived from a hypothetical form (*biqrah ) meaning "cow." According to Genesis, Rebecca was the granddaughter of Abraham's brother Nahor.

Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for Isaac in Mesopotamia, where he encountered Rebecca drawing water from a well, a meeting place often indicative of divine providence in the Bible. God's involvement is further evidenced by Rebecca's offer of hospitality, fulfilling the servant's stipulated sign. Rebecca subsequently consented to make the journey back to Canaan, where she met and married Isaac. Like his father Abraham, Isaac once claimed that his wife was his sister so that Abimelech, king of Gerar, would not have him killed in order to possess her. The ruse was discovered, however, when the king observed an amorous encounter between them.

After twenty years of infertility, Rebecca bore twins. According to a divine oracle, they were to become two nations, with the descendants of the older serving those of the younger. Rebecca ensured the fulfillment of this prophecy by helping Jacob, her younger son, deceive his blind father while the elder son, Esau, was away. As a result Isaac gave Jacob the blessing intended for Esau. According to rabbinic tradition, Rebecca instigated this deception because she recognized from her sons' behavior that Jacob would make the better leader. She later helped Jacob flee Canaan to escape Esau's anger. Her earlier reassurance to Jacob that the "curse [for this deception] will be on me" (Gn. 27:13) came to be fulfilled when she never again saw her favorite son.

The Bible presents Rebecca as a strong and incisive figure, complementing the relatively weak Isaac. She is the only woman whose birth is noted in the Bible (Gn. 22:2023). Her judgment as to the better son corresponds with God's, and her actions not only control the transmission of authority within the family but also ensure the fulfillment of God's will.

See Also

Isaac; Jacob.


Nahum M. Sarna's Understanding Genesis (New York, 1966) contains a thorough treatment of all the patriarchal narratives from a modern scholarly perspective. Rabbinic traditions pertaining to these figures are collected in Louis Ginzberg's Legends of the Jews, 2d ed., 2 vols., translated by Henrietta Szold and Paul Radin (Philadelphia, 2003). An evaluation of the biblical depiction of Rebecca is in Christine Garside Allen's essay "Who Was Rebekah? 'On Me Be the Curse, My Son!'" in Beyond Androcentrism: New Essays on Women and Religion, edited by Rita M. Gross (Missoula, Mont., 1977).

Frederick E. Greenspahn (1987 and 2005)


views updated

Rebecca in the Bible, the wife of Isaac and mother of Esau and Jacob.

According to the story in Genesis 24:60, when she left her parents' home for her marriage her family blessed her, saying, ‘let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them.’ From this, the name Rebecca was given to the leader, dressed as a woman, of a group of rioters who demolished toll-gates in South Wales in 1843–4.


views updated

Rebecca ( Rebekah). Wife of Isaac and one of the matriarchs of Israel. According to aggadah, while she was pregnant, whenever she passed a house of Torah study, Jacob struggled to get out, but when she passed a temple containing idols, Esau struggled to get out. She was buried in the cave of Machpelah.