It is often said of good novels that ‘the characters come alive on the page’, and this is unquestionably true of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. However, what is most distinctive about this novel is the way a dead character, Maxim de Winter’s first wife, Rebecca, whom we never directly meet, becomes the central player in the drama. Through the introspections of the narrator (the second Mrs de Winter, whose first name we never learn), the presence of the absent Rebecca becomes almost palpable, and deeply unsettling. With a fairly complex narrative structure, whereby the ending is placed at the beginning of the book, it would have been only too easy for the story to become unwieldy and confusing. It is a testament, therefore, to du Maurier’s immense skill as a writer that the flow of the story is smooth and enormously engaging, and that at no point does the reader become bewildered or lose the narrative thread.
*Warning: plot spoiler ahead*
The other great strength of the novel is the creation of an atmosphere of mystery and suspense, combined with an underlying hint of evil. Like Agatha Christie, du Maurier has a flair for leading the reader down a particular path which blinds them to other interpretations of events. The denouement, when it comes, is all the more surprising and shocking. However, unlike in Christie's novels, the issues at the core of Rebecca are not presented in a black-and-white way. Central to the story is the role that Maxim de Winter plays in his first wife's death, but it is presented in such a way that the average reader is unlikely to lose sympathy with him. Indeed, like his wife and other characters in the novel, many readers will probably be hoping he gets away with what he has done. If we do find ourselves in this position, we come perilously close to condoning his action and suggesting that Rebecca deserved to die, a conclusion that must lead to a certain amount of self-examination.
Indeed, du Maurier's ability to foster reflection on the part of the reader is very marked in Rebecca. Take the depiction of the relationship between Maxim and his second wife: she is incredibly subservient and submissive to him, putting his needs far above her own and justifying this in terms of her love for him. Yet the relationship may strike some readers, perhaps female readers in particular, as rather an attractive one. They may, therefore, come to question their beliefs about the ideal male-female power balance in romantic relationships.
Rebecca is interesting, too, in its depiction of the social and domestic practices of upper-class English people in the 1930s. As in Brideshead Revisited, we are shown the almost feudal relationship which exists between the upper classes and their servants, but du Maurier (unlike Evelyn Waugh) does not let this go unquestioned. As an outsider, Mrs de Winter queries the subservience of the staff who wait on the family, and the wastefulness (in relation to food, for example) of this privileged lifestyle. There are also strong hints of servants having their own lives and their own passions, and even a contempt for those they serve. This is perhaps inevitable in a novel written during a period when the ‘servant problem’ was an increasing pre-occupation of the upper classes. However it also inspires reflection, not just on the British class system of the 1930s, but on the nature of the master-servant or boss-employee relationship as it has existed in other societies at other times.
Having said all that, Rebecca is a book which, to borrow another much-used phrase, ‘is impossible to put down’ and which lives on in the imagination long after the last page is turned ... or, indeed, long after the Kindle has been switched off.
Some comments from www.goodreads.com:
Kelly - THE stay-up-all-night book ... I'd call it the 20th century Jane Eyre, actually, with a modernist twist;
Jason - ... it is the crafting of suspense throughout the story that is most impressive - it was as though I were hanging on every word until the very last sentence. Totally awesome;
whichwaydidshego - It is a terse, gripping tale that holds you transfixed until the end.