A Gothic Fire

When is a ghost story not a ghost story? When is it Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.

There are no floating white sheets or boos echoing down the hall but the ghost of Rebecca haunts Manderlay and her newest mistress, the second Mrs. de Winter. Rebecca permeates the huge house on the hill. Manderlay is run by Mrs. Danvers who raised Rebecca and despises the new Mrs. de Winters for even trying. The staff still praise Rebecca and the locals reminisce about her beauty and personality and parties.
A bit of a raw deal for the new Mrs. de Winters.
You might have noticed that I have used Rebecca’s name several times in this post but never once mentioned the first name of the second Mrs. de Winter. That is because I don’t know her name.
Du Maurier used a wonderful technique that now I can never use because I will so obviously be copying her. Rebecca is told in first person by the second wife and we never hear anyone say her name, not even her husband Maxim. The effect is an overwhelming abundance of Rebecca and a receding narrator. Rebecca is everywhere and the woman telling the story doesn’t even have a name. Fantastic stuff!
The second wife is young, naive, simple in tastes – the exact opposite of Rebecca. The more she learns of her husband’s first marriage, the more she believes he doesn’t love her. He married her because a man needs a wife, a companion. It is Rebecca who still claims his heart.
Rebecca drowned one year earlier while out in the bay by herself. Her body was found months later and Maxim was forced to endure identifying her body. Suddenly, Rebecca’s small boat is discovered at the bottom of the bay with a body inside the cabin. An inquiry is opened, a member of Rebecca’s family comes forward with treacherous accusations, and the second wife must handle the resurrection of Rebecca in her failing marriage.
For as long as the book is not much seems to happen. Plot points are few and far between. Du Maurier indulges in dialogue-heavy scenes over meals or on a terrace. These scenes display the second wife’s unease in the world at Manderlay and all the ways in which Rebecca can be mentioned and interpreted. The dialogue also allows tidbits of information about the first marriage to be revealed that the second wife can obsess over at length. Her view of Maxim and Rebecca is described in detail and her fragile emotional state flaunted in her tragic and harassing interactions with Mrs. Danvers.
Grief and guilt are the themes that haunt this novel. How does one move into a space still occupied by a dead woman? What will people do for those they love? What will they do to those they love?
Rebecca holds up seventy years later because it tackles such timeless issues. The darkest sides of humanity have not disappeared and neither has love.
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