Thursday 19 December 2019

The 2 interpretations of Rebecca

Spoiler alert: people who have not read Rebecca and do not want spoilers are advised to stay away from this post. Or better, bookmark it and come back when you’ve read the book. 

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.  
I admit, in my previous blog post, I seemed to lean toward the 2nd interpretation, but I was influenced by other readers, and at the time had only read till the fancy dress ball. Now that I’ve read the entire novel, there seems to be no easy answer—Rebecca is a brilliant, complex book. 
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. 
In short, a reading should be supported by details in the book itself, not external factors. 
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.


  1. Hello, I discovered your blog from Twitter a couple of days back, and I have been hooked on to it ever since. It’s not often that one comes across frank, comprehensive readings. And all your essays come from a sense of your personal aesthetics, which is very refreshing in a time when in such discussions, the aesthetics of literature hardly seem to be a talking point.

    Rebecca is one of my favourite novels too. Daphne du Maurier is a master at creating atmosphere, and Manderley is like a phantasm, almost a paranormal entity.

    I read Rebecca as a novel of obsession and jealousy too. Now when I think back, it is Maxim’s relationship with Manderley that is central to the plot. Manderley is like his first love, a mother’s-bosom of sorts, and he is obsessed with the place. He seems to have married Rebecca, not so much because he wanted a wife, but because his Manderley needed a mistress. Perhaps Rebecca realized this very early in their marriage, resulting in a deep resentment and jealousy that manifested through her marriage.

    It’s been a while since I read the novel, but I can imagine a reading that focusses on all the points where Rebecca and Manderley are thrown together, the love-hate relationship they shared. Rebecca makes the place what it is, throwing fantastic parties, entertaining guests, all the while resenting the place for the space it takes in Maxim’s heart. Maxim murders Rebecca for Manderley, because her affair would cause a stain on the reputation of his beloved house. And ‘she’ (or Mrs.Danvers) takes revenge in the end, burning down Manderley, the source of strife.

    If Manderley is the interloper, then the relationship between Rebecca and the narrator takes on a different shade of meaning, almost as if they are the same entity - the wife, the other - against the spirit of the house that Maxim is obsessed with. Maxim is a Bluebeard-type archetypical character. Mrs.Danvers pushing the narrator to jump from the window could be read as Rebecca’s revenge on the narrator for taking her place as Manderley’s mistress and Maxim’s wife - or as Rebecca’s revenge on Manderley by engineering the scandal that would result if the narrator committed suicide.

    Rebecca is a very well-crafted novel, with a powerful central tale, allowing for multiple readings and meanings. It keeps the enchantment going for the reader long after they have come out of it.

    However in my opinion it comes across as a complete, yet rather small novel. It explores a very small part of the human psyche. It restricts itself to obsession and jealousy in intimate relationships, powerful emotions no doubt, but seems restrictive nevertheless, especially compared to a novel like Moby Dick that is also about obsession. All the characters are flawed, obsessed, jealous, lonely, and it creates a rather bleak picture of human nature. The novel creates a tight, atmospheric, utterly believable, moody world, but when I come out of the novel and ask myself how it has changed me, where in life have I seen such characters, has it made me look at human nature differently and understand myself better, I don’t have much to say. It was the same sense I got with Wuthering Heights, another Gothic-influenced novel of passion, obsession, jealousy and rage, another masterpiece of construction and atmosphere. I find it limiting somehow. This is a personal aesthetic perhaps.

    1. Thanks a lot for the compliment. It means a lot.
      When you said "all your essays come from a sense of your personal aesthetics", my first thought was: what's the point of a blog otherwise? Then I thought about the bad blogs I came across... Oh well.
      Anyway, if you do go through my blog (which I doubt, because why would you?), don't dig too far back, or you'd find stupid things I wrote in the past. Haha.

    2. Regarding Rebecca, that's a very good point about Maxim and Manderley. I have come across an essay with similar interpretation. It's not without meaning that the opening line is about Manderley.
      I see what you mean as well about the novel being small. I was enchanted whilst reading Rebecca, and some time after it, then I read great novels and saw it for what it was. But of course I've known all along that it's brilliant, well-crafted as you say, but not great.
      I wouldn't compare it to Moby Dick, that would be very unfair. There is only one Moby Dick, reading it makes your life richer, more expanded.
      Wuthering Heights I do love though. Should probably reread it this year. It baffles me that many people loathe it. Not just indifference, but hate. That is strange.

  2. This was a fantastic read. I did not know there was a second theory about Maxim being the bad guy and Rebecca being an innocent woman. Even though Rebecca was murdered, and was a victim of a crime, she was not innocent. I felt she was manipulative, cold, and a narcissist, and mentally and emotionally abusing her husband. Like the examples you mentioned, she didn't remotely come across as a victim of Maxim's whims. Rather, she was the dominating woman, who, if his words are to be believed, had the upper hand in their relationship. It was possibly because of the blackmail that she would ruin his image and Manderley, which gave her the access to his weakn, thus being able to emotionally and mentally abusing him.

    I felt they were both victims — she was the victim of murder and he was the victim of abuse he allowed himself for his dear palace.

    Eventually, as a reader, it's hard to feel sympathy for either Rebecca or Maxim. Maxim didn't come across as a MN unreliable narrator when talking about his ex-wife because his opinion on her was all easily backed with the words already confirmed by other characters. Though, we don't know if he actually managed to hide some crucial details from the narrator and us or not.

    Either way, there's little to consider the second theory and find it legit. At least, textual evidence doesn't support the theory of Rebecca being a good and independent woman. Quite the contrary, to be more precise.

    I love this book. It seems like a pretty book with an innocent narrator finding herself at the end of the novel, but there's so much treachery and twisted psyche in the characters that it doesn't feel so simple when you think about it.

    Rebecca is a cold hearted witch, Maxim murders her, Mrs. Danvers is unhealthily obsessed with Rebecca, and the narrator simply allows herself to forgive a murderer because she loved him too much.

    At the end, I feel they're all brilliantly written characters. A good book/story doesn't necessarily contain the characters that can be justified. You if you see where the characters are coming from, even if they do bad things, it's more than enough. Fictional characters don't need to be justified at all times. Except for Rebecca, it's easy to see why the rest of the characters behave the way they do. It doesn't make what they do right, but it explains why they're doing it.

    That's some BRILLIANT writing there. Take a bow, Daphne du Maurier.

    1. Thanks for your comment. My arguments are all in the blog post so I won't repeat them, hahaha. I was reading lots of reviews and blog posts at the time and saw the second interpretation, though I should have put up a few links.
      Here is an article about the two interpretations:
      What are your answers to the questions I have at the end of my post?

    2. Hey! Thanks for the link.

      Yes, I agreed with most of what you've written. These were my thoughts too.

      About your questions, I do agree to an extent that Maxim isn't someone you can trust entirely. Heck, I don't know if we can trust entirely either. We're seeing things through her eyes (first person) and her POV is highly skewed due to her fear and insecurities stemming from the ghostly presence of the daunting Rebecca. But I also feel that Maxim had been enchanted with Rebecca just as everyone else was. And with all the mental abuse he went through with her, he must have developed stockholm syndrome over the years. Plus, he'd been trying hard not to give himself away. So, keeping Rebecca's things with him, visiting the places associated with her would have been a way of telling the world that he was still grieving the loss of his ex-wif. As to why he slept on another bed, I felt it was because he couldn't bring himself to fully accept this marriage (and sexual relationships doesn't seem to be a big deal for them both in the text). He most likely believed the narrator didn't love him and he would rather let her go should he ever get caught.

    3. "Plus, he'd been trying hard not to give himself away."
      "And with all the mental abuse he went through with her, he must have developed stockholm syndrome over the years."
      I'm not so sure about that.
      "So, keeping Rebecca's things with him, visiting the places associated with her would have been a way of telling the world that he was still grieving the loss of his ex-wife."
      I'm not so convinced either. It may explain the house, but the poetry book is in his own car, and he still loves the flowers that she loved.
      "As to why he slept on another bed, I felt it was because he couldn't bring himself to fully accept this marriage (and sexual relationships doesn't seem to be a big deal for them both in the text)."
      I have to think about that.

  3. Re: "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?"
    I think that when Maxim confesses to wife #2, he feels that his goose is cooked - he will be found out, go to jail, and be hanged for murdering wife #1. He knows that wife #2 will soon discover the truth and he wants her to hear it from him. He has never told her that he loves her (wife #2) because, until he confesses his crime to her, he feels that she doesn't really know him. Now that he has revealed himself to her, he can declare his love for her. [Can she still love him now that she knows that he is a murderer? Short answer: YES!] I googled
    "married couples sleeping in twin beds in the 1930s" Here is a link to an interesting article on that subject:

  4. Exactly. I agree with the conclusion you arrived at.

  5. do you recommend reading Wide Sargasso Sea?

    1. I only read a bit of it.
      My only opinion is about people thinking that everyone must read it "for the full picture", when it's a spin-off and the characters don't actually exist.


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