Given the the title of du Maurier’s most famous work it is unsurprising that Rebecca dominates the entire plot, like some sort of Gothic spectre. Although she is dead, she manages to corrupt all characters, and the physical house of Manderley, while being corrupted herself.
Rhododendrons are mentioned throughout the text, and they grow over certain parts of the house. Being red in colour, their presence foreshadows the revelations of Rebecca’s bloody death, and also the fire that will consume Manderley. They also represent Rebecca herself, as she is creeping back into the house, creeping back into Maxim de Winter’s life from beyond the grave.
Although we are led to believe that Rebecca is perfect, it turns out that she is not, in the eyes of Maxim anyway. One of her many faults is her sexual discordancy – in life, she had many affairs, including one with her cousin. Rebecca can be likened to the archetypal femme fatale, as she has drawn Maxim into some sort of obsessive madness, while managing to beguile everyone else around her. We are also told that Rebecca cannot produce children. Traditionally speaking, marriage and the bearing of children was what society expected of women, so Rebecca’s rejection of this ideal makes her incredibly subversive… even if it was not her choice, but nature’s. Pushing on with the idea of subversiveness further, it is hinted throughout the text that Rebecca and Mrs Danvers could have been lovers. Perhaps this is stressed more on Mrs Danvers’ side than Rebecca’s, especially when Mrs Danvers shows Mrs de Winter Rebecca’s lingerie. Rebecca’s behaviour would have no doubt shocked readers, and who knows? Perhaps she might have inspired rebellion in some of du Maurier’s readers, meaning that Rebecca’s influence could extend beyond the pages of the book itself.
The irony is of course is that the narrator desperately wants to be like Rebecca, who in the eyes of Maxim, is the devil incarnate, and morally corrupt. This means that, through their terrible communication, Maxim and Mrs de Winter never understand what their partner actually wants. Mrs de Winter wants to be something that Maxim despises. Perhaps this is why Maxim, irritatingly, always tries to control the narrator. He tells her not to eat with her mouth full, and she asks him not to treat her as if ‘I was six’ (Daphne du Maurier Rebecca (London: Virago Classics, p. 227). The two have a paternalistic relationship, which is the opposite to his relationship with Rebecca, as did not have the ability to control her. This is probably why Maxim chose the narrator, as she is young, and therefore in his eyes, pliable. Rebecca is clearly a foil to the narrator.
Rebecca manages to corrupt the narrator from beyond the grave, though. When Maxim tells Mrs de Winter the truth, he notes that she seemed ‘so much older’ (p. 336). Her innocence is corrupted by Maxim’s revelations, and by extension the presence, and murder, of Rebecca herself. With this revelation, he narrator becomes an accessory to murder. She blindly accepts that her husband is a killer, and decides to support him, safe in the knowledge that he never loved Rebecca. Rebecca has infected the narrator to the degree that she compromise her own morals, as Rebecca did in life, to suit her own needs and desires. Maxim did not love Rebecca. That is all the narrator cares about. The narrator is so blinded by her inadequacy that she does not even consider the fact that she herself could be at risk from her husband slash wife-killer.
These ideas become more interesting, and more complicated, when we learn that Rebecca herself was dying from cancer. While Rebecca has been growing in the mind of the narrator, festering and corrupting her, Rebecca herself is being physically corrupted by her own body. Is this supposed to explain her immoral actions? Was it the cancer controlling her? Who knows. Or, is Rebecca’s cancer a result of her immoral ways… is nature punishing her?
Building on from this, Maxim opines that Rebecca manipulated him into killing her… does this mean that she was really devoid of morality? Or did she act with the sole intention of getting Maxim to hate and eventually kill her? She did smile when he shot her. It is an interesting detail to add, as, cancer or no cancer, Maxim killed Rebecca anyway. It is up to the reader to decide how big of an impact Rebecca’s own diagnosis had on her, and how much it influenced her actions. We can only wonder at what the significance of Rebecca’s cancer is.
Rebecca does however, get the last laugh. Upon seeing Manderley in flames, the narrator likens the sky to a ‘splash of blood’ (p. 428). Again, the blood references Rebecca’s own blood, which Macim spilled, and links to the colour of the oft mentioned rhododendrons. Rebecca rises from the water and takes her revenge on her murderer with fire, giving her a supernatural quality. In some way, Rebecca is triumphant because, from beyond the grave, she succeeds in destroying Maxim’s family home. It is possible that Mrs Danvers herself set the fire, but even if she did, it is powered by her devotion to Rebecca. Rebecca acts through Mrs Danvers, and the burning of Manderley only cements the fact that Rebecca is an ever-present, corrupting, and lasting force, throughout the novel.
Thanks for reading!