‘Rebecca’ was published in 1938 and is Daphne Du Maurier’s most influential novel. Throughout the novel, the unnamed narrator describes her life with her new husband, Mr de Winter, and begins to realise that he, and her marital home, are haunted by Mr de Winter’s previous wife.
The novel opens with the iconic line: ‘last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’ (Daphne Du Maurier Rebecca (London: Virago Classics, p. 1). Throughout the first chapter it is unclear how the narrator is related to Manderley, but it is clear that Manderley is not quite tangible to the narrator. Manderley appears as a recurring dream, as indicated by the word ‘again.’ As the dream is recurring, we can assess that the narrator is being haunted by the memory of Manderley. In a way this is ironic, because the narrator is having a dream, not a nightmare. Does the narrator want to return to Manderley? Is just within her subconscious?
Manderley certainly has gothic qualities. It is described as an impenetrable fortress, as it is bolted with a ‘padlock’ and ‘chain’ (p. 1). We already are aware that Manderley, to the narrator is a memory, and the idea of a padlock on these memories implies that the past, especially that of the narrators, could be dangerous and disconcerting. It is locked, to keep memories in, and perhaps to keep the narrator out. The gate has ‘rusted spokes’ and is ‘uninhabited’ (p. 1). Crumbling mansions such as this are a common staple of the gothic novel, which date back to its inception with ‘The Castle of Otranto.’ In this novel, the crumbling castle is reminiscent of the declining aristocratic family that inhabits it. At this point it is unclear what class the narrator belongs too, but perhaps the inclusion of this trope foreshadows some sort of class conflict, or degeneration, as reflected by the physical appearance of Manderley itself.
The narrator herself ‘passed like a spirit’ through the gates to Manderley (p. 1). In this scenario, the narrator holds more power than the manifestation of Manderley. Manderley is passive to the narrators thoughts and movements within her dream. Manderley is also passive to nature, which had ‘come into her own again’ (p. 1). Nature is personified, and described as a woman, that has regained control over the man-made house of Manderley. While this shows that Manderley is being consumed, and is passive to nature, it also demonstrates that Manderley survives and endures, not only in a physical sense, but in the mind of the narrator.
Manderley is also unaffected by time. ‘Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, nor the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand’ (p. 2). So, even though Manderley is overrun by Nature, it still retains its value and beauty, as implied by the word ‘jewel.’
Nature also seems fairly ominous. It is described as having ‘menace,’ it is ‘dark and uncontrolled’ and the shrubs are described as ‘monster’ ones (p. 1). Nature is being personified to the max here, and it appears that specifically, it is being portrayed as a monstrous, menacing woman. Perhaps the author, ironically a woman herself, is trying to warn the reader about the dangers of dominant women. Perhaps it is a dominant woman that will cause the fall of the estate.
This allusion is carried further when Du Maurier states that the ivy ensnares Manderley. The ‘malevolent ivy, always an enemy to grace, had thrown her tendrils about the pair and made them prisoners’ (p. 3). Whether intended or not, I see strong parallels to ‘Paradise Lost’ here. After her fall from grace, as symbolised by her eating of the Forbidden Fruit, Eve’s hair is described as tendrils that ensnare Adam into having sinful sex. The ivy is again personified and described as feminine, so perhaps Du Maurier, by providing this literary link to ‘Paradise Lost,’ is trying to imply that some sort of fall from grace, or corruption, engineered by a woman, is what led to Manderley’s abandonment.
Although Manderley is still standing, it is not without struggle. The nettles ‘choked the terrace,’ and are described as ‘vulgar and lanky’ (p. 3). The violence and aggression of nature also emphasises Manderley’s physical strength, and enduring presence.
These ideas are all tied together as the house is described as a ‘sepulchre,’ one with ‘fear and suffering [lay] buried in the ruins. There would be no resurrection’ (p. 4). A sepulchre is a tomb, and its inclusion gives Manderley much greater significance. Not only is it a memory of the author, but it also holds other memories and secrets, linking back to the image of the padlock and gate. The narrator can enter in her dreams, but not in real life, and nothing can escape. These old memories, and old life, cannot return as implied by the idea that there can be no ‘resurrection.’ This leads the reader to ask why – what does Manderley hold that is so dangerous?
The chapter concludes with the note that ‘Manderley was ours no longer. Manderley was no more’ (p. 4). If we are to take this literally, it must mean that Manderley does not physically exist… yet we have been told that it does. The lines between memory and the physical world are very blurred throughout the chapter, but what is definitely clear, is that the narrator’s memory of Manderley is impenetrable.
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