Early on during my reading of Rebecca, I spoilt the book for myself when going through articles, blog posts, and reviews. I’ve been aware from the start, therefore, that there are 2 main interpretations of Daphne du Maurier’s novel:
- 1/ The 2nd Mrs de Winter discovers that Rebecca is a treacherous and cunning psychopath, not the perfect wife she believed her to be, and that Maxim never loved her. She triumphs, and finds happiness with Maxim. In this interpretation: Rebecca is the psychopath.
- 2/ Maxim de Winter is the true villain in the novel, who kills his wife Rebecca, makes up stories about her, and gets away with murder. His words about Rebecca can’t be trusted: she’s an independent, strong-spirited woman who defies social conventions and gets punished for it. In this interpretation: Maxim is the psychopath and Rebecca is a victim, as the 2nd wife would also be.
People in the 2nd camp argue that Maxim must lie about Rebecca because everyone loves and cherishes her, and mourns her death, but his account of Rebecca as being promiscuous, unfaithful, and manipulative is corroborated by other characters. Her cousin Jack Favell admits they’re lovers. Ben, “the local idiot”, mentions seeing her at the cottage, compares her to a snake, and mentions her threat to put him in an asylum. The loyal and considerate Frank Crawley hints at her dark side when talking to the narrator:
“You have qualities that are just as important, far more so, in fact. It's perhaps cheek of me to say so, I don't know you very well. I'm a bachelor, I don't know very much about women, I lead a quiet sort of life down here at Manderley as you know, but I should say that kindness, and sincerity, and--if I may say so--modesty are worth far more to a man, to a husband, than all the wit and beauty in the world.” (Ch.11)Most importantly, Mrs Danvers, the person who seems to understand her more than everyone else, says Rebecca always does what she wants, and it is all a game to her—“She despised all men” (Ch.24). Rebecca sleeps around to amuse herself, and laughs at them all. Mrs Danvers also tells the narrator the story of Rebecca as a teenager sadistically slashing at a horse till it is full of blood.
Readers in the 2nd camp see Rebecca as a strong female character who defies social conventions and gender norms, and argues that Maxim kills her for not only defying and betraying him but also laughing at him. But to be honest, selfishness and treachery are not attractive traits, and infidelity and deceit are nothing to celebrate.
(But then I’ve seen some folks praise Emma Bovary or Rosamond Vincy—I guess anything is possible).
There are 2 tendencies, I believe, that lead to the 2nd interpretation of the book:
- a) Looking at Daphne du Maurier’s life and making a connection between her and Rebecca. This is something Sally Beauman does in the Afterword of my copy, who is author of a book called Rebecca’s Tale (easy to guess what it’s about). This kind of reading is dangerous, I don’t know why readers/ critics tend to do this more with female writers than male writers. Du Maurier may have been an unconventional woman, who was bisexual and had affairs, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that she approved of Rebecca and intended her to be a positive figure. It definitely doesn’t mean that Rebecca was her.
- b) Seeing the story from the #MeToo perspective, dismissing Maxim’s account completely because an abuser would obviously lie to justify the abuse, and seeing Rebecca as an innocent victim who can’t defend herself. This kind of reading is also dangerous, and reminds me of Wide Sargasso Sea. Some people curiously see Wide Sargasso Sea as definitive, which others should read in order to get “the full picture”, forgetting that the book is Jean Rhys’s interpretation of Jane Eyre and nothing more. Mr Rochester and Bertha Mason exist only in Charlotte Bronte’s novels—they are not real people whose stories need to be told and who need to be avenged.
The 1st interpretation can explain why Maxim marries the 2nd wife (innocent and very different from the 1st), and can also explain his lack of openness and distant behaviour towards her—he needs time to recover from marriage with a psycho to open up, and he bears a terrible secret. The lack of communication, as discussed in my previous blog post, can explain why he hesitates to say they’re happy, especially when in his marriage with Rebecca, they had to play the roles of a happy couple.
Maxim is patronising and moody, and can become quite rude, but there is no evidence in the book that he is controlling—he lets his 2nd wife be, and doesn’t try to reshape her into something else.
However, how do you explain Maxim not saying love to her till after the confession—the moment he needs her to be on his side? How do you explain them not sleeping in the same bed?
Most importantly, nothing can change the fact that Maxim confesses to a double murder. The book isn’t black and white, and can’t be reduced to a story of a woman who is insecure and jealous of her husband’s previous wife and can only find her identity in the end and triumph when the previous wife’s perfect image is destroyed. Daphne du Maurier introduces enough details to make readers doubt the narrator’s triumph and happiness in the end.
Even if Rebecca is a cunning and heartless psychopath, even if she provokes him, how do you justify Maxim’s killing of her? Why not divorce her? Maxim explains it by his love of Manderley and fear of publicity and gossip, but how does it justify killing her? Rebecca is not violent like the psychopath in Fatal Attraction.
Note too that Maxim admits wanting to kill Rebecca 5 days after the wedding, when she reveals her true face in Monte Carlo and wants to have a deal with him. That is not a normal, reasonable reaction.
It is important to remember that Dr Baker’s information may give a motive and somehow clear Maxim’s name in Rebecca’s death, at least in matters of law, it is hindsight and therefore irrelevant in judging the moment of the killing—Maxim shoots her to death, believing that she’s pregnant with someone else’s child. As written before, he confesses to a double murder, which the narrator ignores because she loves him desperately, “like a child or a dog”, but we readers cannot be complicit. Rebecca is not a beautiful romantic love story, it should make readers uneasy.
Note that his sister Beatrice tells the narrator that he loses temper only once or twice a year, but when he does, it’s very bad. That’s a bad sign. Maxim also hits Jack Favell near the end of the book—in front of Frank, Sergeant Julyan, and his 2nd wife. Everyone may agree that Jack Favell is a scoundrel, but I’m sure that there are many men out there who hold the principle of never hitting first.
I don’t doubt that Rebecca is malicious and manipulative, but at the same time, Maxim murders her, then disposes of the body, has no remorse, and very calmly deals with it when being questioned.
There are some other details that are interesting as well. Why does Maxim marry Rebecca, if he never loves her as he claims? It makes sense that he preserves Manderley the way it has been under Rebecca, destroys nothing, and keeps all the employees, so as not to cause suspicion, but if he hates her, why does he like the smell of azaleas, a scent associated with Rebecca? Why does he return to Monte Carlo, the place of their honeymoon, specifically the spot where she confessed her unspeakable actions? Why does he have in his car a poetry book from her? And again, why does he not sleep in the same bed with his 2nd wife?
In short, my interpretation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel is somewhere between the 2 common ones: Rebecca is manipulative, treacherous, and cunning, but Maxim de Winter is also dangerous and not really reliable.