“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again...”
It's a haunting opening to a gothic romance often mentioned in the same breath as Jane Eyre; natural, given both stories follow young, inexperienced women falling in love with remote, brooding, dangerous men.
But while Jane had an inner core of adamantium to guide her, the heroine of Rebecca is far more vulnerable and adrift.
Our narrator, barely twenty-one, finds herself in the orbit of the wealthy and mysterious widower, Maxim de Winter—a much older English aristocrat. Following a whirlwind romance in Monte Carlo, the two marry.
This second Mrs. de Winter is deeply in love with her distant husband and assumes her situation will only improve—she no longer has to work as a companion for a tiresome old woman now that she's the mistress of Manderley, Maxim's sprawling English estate. They will go back to England and settle into a comfortable life together.
But things do not go smoothly for Mrs. de Winter: Manderley is too awesome, the servants too formal, her new duties too overwhelming. She's only a young, painfully shy girl, terribly ill-suited to manage something as grand as Manderley.
And, as she quickly realizes, the specter of Maxim's first wife—the beautiful, sophisticated, charming Rebecca—lurks in every corner. Everything is monogrammed with her initials. The routines she set continue without fault. Everyone is quick to compare the new, uncertain bride to her infinitely superior predecessor.
Then there's Mrs. Danvers. The head housekeeper, as aloof as death and as disdainful as a queen, “utterly adored” Rebecca. She deliberately sets to work destroying the new Mrs. de Winter's every chance of happiness, alternately terrifying and shaming her.
MRS. DANVERS: Do you think the dead come back and watch the living
MRS. DE WINTER: N-no, I don't believe it...
MRS. DANVERS: Sometimes, I wonder if she doesn't come back here to Manderley and watches you and Mr. de Winter together...
Rebecca is a gothic tour de force, a high-water mark of the genre. Every page of the novel, every scene of the movie, is oppressive. Heavy with the weight of the dead Mrs. de Winter.
Her presence consumes everything; while her name is constantly uttered, the second Mrs. de Winter—the living, breathing, feeling narrator we follow—remains nameless and, thus, vague. Overshadowed by Rebecca. All we know of the current Mrs. de Winter is that she's young, she's desperately in love with Maxim, and she's plain and gauche.
But Rebecca? We know her passions, her beauty, her sheer force of personality, because it's all been stamped into the fabric of Manderley. Everyone knew Rebecca, loved Rebecca. She made the estate the jewel it is. The world agrees she and Maxim were the perfect couple.
How could any other woman, especially one not long removed from the schoolroom, compare?
Daphne du Maurier's novel, delivered entirely in first person, is a tense and fraught one. Like the second Mrs. de Winter, we believe everything we're told about Maxim's first wife. We assume, just as she does, that he still grieves for her, that his distant manner is because he does not truly love his new bride.
We, like the narrator, can only assume that what we're told is the truth.
The new Mrs. de Winter is trapped in Rebecca's web, now ferociously guarded by the ominous Mrs. Danvers, and is ill-equipped to free herself. She often loses herself in daydreams and reveries, most of them depressing and self-deprecating, because she's so often left alone. She has no one to express her fears and concerns to, so they begin to fester within her.
With Maxim constantly absent and the servants too removed to provide companionship, she's left to wander the tomb-like estate with only her imagination, now constantly preoccupied with Rebecca and the insidious influence of Mrs. Danvers.
The Danvers of the novel is plenty threatening, almost as skeletal and cold as the dead Rebecca. But the Danvers of Hitchcock's film, played with disquieting intensity by Judith Anderson, is downright horrifying.
She doesn't walk—she glides. She moves so quickly, so quietly, that our heroine often turns to find her standing behind her or looming at the head of the stairs. She stares at the young bride with complete disdain, as unblinking as a snake.
And when she speaks of her former mistress, with an air that suggests she loved her with an unhealthy degree of obsession, her voice becomes so smooth and beguiling—until it strikes with a cutting edge. The Danvers of the film is the insidious whisper in a troubled mind, urging the afflicted to step over the ledge and end it all...
But who was Rebecca, truly? The answer is the turning point of the story, the moment when Maxim finally lays the truth out before his new wife.
The jigsaw pieces came together piece by piece, and the real Rebecca took shape and form before me, stepping from her shadow world like a living figure from a picture frame. Rebecca slashing at her horse; Rebecca seizing life with her two hands; Rebecca, triumphant, leaning down from the minstrels' gallery with a smile on her lips.
Once more I saw myself standing on the beach beside poor startled Ben. “You're kind,” he said, “not like the other one. You won't put me to the asylum, will you?” There was someone who walked through the woods by night, someone tall and slim. She gave you the feeling of a snake...
Suddenly, the story veers onto a new path. It remains a gothic romance, yes, but with the breaking of Rebecca's otherworldly hold on our narrator, the focus shifts to Maxim and the possibility of criminal proceedings. Now she doesn't worry that she'll lose him to the ghost of Rebecca—the real concern is whether or not he'll be imprisoned or hanged for her death.
Here is where Hitchcock's film—his first made in Hollywood—and du Maurier's novel diverge significantly.
In the film, Maxim (Laurence Olivier) confesses the whole sordid story of his previous relationship to his aghast wife (the unceasingly fragile Joan Fontaine) and reveals that Rebecca died not at sea, as the world believes, but in her beach cottage. Upon confronting her for her salacious indiscretions, Maxim watches her die by accident—she trips, falls, and hits her head on a piece of ship's tackle. After putting her body on her yacht, he scuttles it.
Du Maurier took a much harder track in the original story. There was nothing accidental about it: Maxim, unable to stomach their sordid life and her malicious ways any longer, shoots Rebecca through the heart.
It's a pretty significant difference. One assumes Hitchcock made the change out of fear of alienating the audience—it can be hard to cheer on a hero who deliberately murdered his first wife. An accidental (not wholly unwelcome) death and cover-up, though, is far more palatable.
But thanks to the groundwork du Maurier layered in, and the fact that we see the whole story through the eyes of the devoted Mrs. de Winter, Maxim's confession in the book doesn't strike us as appalling. Since we sympathize so fully with the new bride and have come to fear and hate Rebecca as much as she has, the reveal is surprisingly reassuring and triumphant.
Which, yes, is pretty damn disturbing upon reflection, but that just shows how carefully du Maurier framed the characters and story. You know you're in the presence of a master of manipulation when you can look upon a man who murdered his first wife and just want him to be happy with the second one.
Hitchcock's alteration removes a lot of that complexity. It absolves both Maxim and the new Mrs. de Winter of any true guilt, casting them in the roles of pure innocents. They're both just victims of Rebecca's evil, still being persecuted by her, even in death.
Regardless of whether Maxim purposefully murdered Rebecca or not, the ending remains the same: Manderley engulfed with flames. The home and legacy de Winter was willing to sacrifice almost everything for is ultimately destroyed.
In the book, it comes across as the price Maxim has to pay in order to remain a free man and keep his new wife. In the movie, it just feels like another unfair blow; a final act of vengeance from beyond the grave, since Mrs. Danvers—devoted to Rebecca to the end—is the hand behind it all.
On a personal level, each take on the story is satisfying in its own way. Hitchcock's adaptation of Rebecca is one of the few that I can enjoy as much as the source material—probably because so much of the rest of the story is transferred to screen faithfully intact.
The strength of the film definitely rests on the shoulders of Anderson, Fontaine, and Olivier—it's difficult to imagine anyone else playing Mrs. Danvers in such a menacing way; the naive Mrs. de Winter with such an air of fragility; Maxim as equally alluring and forbidding.
The intimidating opulence of Manderley, the ever-present reminders of the house's previous mistress, the choice to film everything in black and white: it all contributes to the thrillingly gothic tone of the story. Hitchcock is known as “a master of horror,” but horror's closest sister is the gothic romance. They don't come much more gothic than Rebecca.
There's a reason, after all, that this is Hitchcock's only Best Picture-winning film.
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.