For those of you that don’t know, Rebecca is the titular character of Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel, Rebecca. Set in the 1930s, the book centres around a nameless narrator who marries an older man – only to find that when they go back to his stately home, she’s surrounded by the slightly malevolent presence of his first wife and some extremely creepy servants. Since being published in 1938, the novel has never gone out of print, and is a constant feature of all those ‘Top Ten Books’ lists you see floating around the internet. Although she never actually appears in the novel, Rebecca herself is at the centre of the book’s appeal.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
What’s interesting about Rebecca is that the entire novel takes place after her death. We only ever hear descriptions of her personality and behaviour from other characters, all of whom put their own particular spin on things. You might think this means that she doesn’t really affect the plot of the novel, what with being dead and all.
This could not be further from the truth. Even though she’s been dead for almost a year by the time the novel starts, Rebecca’s presence lingers over everything. Her husband’s house, Manderley, is still run according to her exact specifications. Her room is still kept exactly as she left it on the day she died. The servants still defer to her wishes. The narrator finds herself constantly being compared to Rebecca – whether that’s in her capacity as a society beauty, a hostess or a wife – and the constant pressure of it nearly drives her to suicide.
The flashes we get of Rebecca’s life make it very clear that she was always in control – she ran her house as she pleased, threw as many parties as she liked, and took as many lovers as she fancied, and everyone else was left bobbing along in her wake. She was such a forceful personality that this remains the case after she’s been dead for a year. She even found a way to die on her own terms and screw her husband over at the same time – not bad for someone who the reader doesn’t see for themselves. I’m giving her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Rebecca’s hobbies are made pretty clear. She was a great sportswoman, with a particular fondness for sailing and hurting, but she also had excellent taste and knew a lot about furniture, decoration, food and parties. It’s also implied that she got up to some pretty freaky things in the sack, but exactly what they were is left up to the reader’s imagination.
As far as her beliefs go, they’re pretty clear too – she’s frequently described as immoral, did whatever she liked on a regular basis and clearly disregarded 1930s standards of sexual purity. Her goals aren’t clearly expressed, apart from the desire to live her life in the way she wanted, and not to die a slow, lingering death – and she achieved both of these.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
We don’t actually see Rebecca’s character first-hand – all we know about her is filtered through the opinion and recollection of other characters. At first, it seems as if Rebecca is the perfect woman – charming, hospitable, well-organised, confident and with the ability to talk to anyone. She seems independent, fearless, if a little careless. Then, we learn that this was all a façade: she was actually cruel, manipulative, mocking and never had any genuine feelings for anyone.
This might sound like quite a change, but it’s actually handled very well. Little moments that illustrate the nastier sides of Rebecca’s personality are dropped into conversations before her true nature is revealed – that makes the final realisation that much more believable. All her past actions are suddenly seen in a different light, and it’s one that makes much more sense of her character.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A cruel, manipulative woman poses as the perfect society hostess and maintains a strange influence over her household after her death.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Rebecca’s love life is a bit of a tricky one. It’s made pretty clear that she didn’t love her husband, Maxim – it’s highly likely that she married him for money and status, and he went through with it because she agreed to build up his stately home. She took multiple lovers over the course of their marriage, including her own cousin, and had all kinds of incestuous fun.
However, it’s not really clear if she actually felt anything for these people. Mrs Danvers – her obsessively loyal maid – says that she never felt anything for them, and that it was all just a game to her. Mrs Danvers isn’t exactly the most reliable witness, given that she shuts herself up in Rebecca’s bedroom on a regular basis, but she raises an interesting point. Is Rebecca motivated by any real feelings? Is it purely sexual? Or is it just a power trip – something she only does to show her husband that she can?
We never actually find out what motivates Rebecca but regardless of that, her love life is a pretty central part of her character. The fact that she’s a bad wife – and that this badness takes the form of multiple sexual partners – underpins a huge part of her character, but I’ll discuss that in more detail later on. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt because we don’t really know what’s going through her head, but it won’t extend that far.
SCORE SO FAR: 4.5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
What we see of Rebecca is only revealed through flashback and memory, so it would be extremely difficult to trace her development. She seems like a pretty static character – when other characters talk about her they tend to talk about the same kind of things. There’s a vague mention of the fact that as time went on, she became less careful and more frequent with her debauchery, but I’m not sure that really counts as development. The reader’s perception of her changes quite drastically over the story, but Rebecca herself does not.
Plus there’s also the fact that she’s dead, so you can’t do much development there.
SCORE SO FAR: 4.5
- Does she have a weakness?
Rebecca has plenty of weaknesses. She’s cruel, she’s thoughtless, she’s manipulative, she doesn’t care what people think of her and she becomes increasingly brazen about her sexcapades as time goes on. She also likes to taunt and mock people – usually behind their backs, but she’ll do it to her husband’s face – and this is ultimately what leads to her death.
SCORE SO FAR: 5.5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Rebecca is a huge influence on the plot. The servants still carry out her wishes, the guests compare her to Maxim’s second wife, the old grandmother believes that Rebecca is still alive and adores her. And that’s not even mentioning creepy Mrs Danvers, who ensures that Rebecca’s instructions are carried out to the letter on a daily basis.
The result of all this is that even though we never see her, Rebecca’s presence hangs over the novel like a shroud. The narrator has never met her, yet she is so crippled by her envy of Rebecca’s class, poise and confidence that she begins to feel like an outsider in her own marriage, doubts her husband’s love for her and is almost driven to suicide. It’s a strange kind of influence – one that’s kept alive by other characters – but one that works well to illustrate the force of her personality. I’m giving her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 6.5
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Rebecca is a bit of a mixed bag where gender stereotypes are concerned. On the one hand, she’s quite subversive. Outwardly she seems like the perfect society hostess – beautiful, charming, tasteful and poised – but when you look below the surface it’s clear that she’s cruel, manipulative and abusive to her husband. This is pretty radical for the 1930s, when keeping up an appearance of respectability was still seen as important – it implies that all the charm, wealth and beauty of society ladies is somewhat hollow.
On the other hand, there’s no getting away from the fact that a lot of what makes Rebecca a ‘bad’ character is the fact that she’s into some pretty freaky stuff in the sack. Maxim – her husband – seems to make this his chief complaint: she wouldn’t respect their marriage vows but he pretended everything was all right to avoid the shame of divorce. He actually ends up killing her over it, although it’s later revealed that Rebecca manipulated him into doing so.
This is a very different pill for modern audiences to swallow. While adultery isn’t exactly smiled upon, the way we view promiscuous women has changed a lot since Rebecca was published. She might not be popular because of all her lovers, but she might not be hated for them, either. In fact, several modern academics have turned this back around to Maxim, the romantic hero of the novel – a man who murders his wife in a fit of jealousy and anger. This is an act of domestic violence. Rebecca is abusive to her husband too, albeit in a slightly different way – her taunting and manipulation of him would probably be classed as emotional or psychological abuse by most experts. She is rightly condemned for this – but Maxim, who literally straight up murders her, is not.
The upshot of all this is that Rebecca is a very complex character. She is both subversive and traditional in different ways, and has been many things to many different audiences. I’m going to do what I always do in situations like these – give her half a point and let you make up your own mind.
SCORE SO FAR: 7
- How does she relate to other female characters?
We see the remnants of Rebecca’s relationships with other female characters throughout the novel. Maxim’s grandmother adores her, and can’t accept that she has died. Beatrice, Maxim’s sister, regards her with suspicion, jealousy and just a little bit of hatred, because Rebecca may or may not have seduced her husband. The narrator invents a relationship with her, although the two have never met – she keeps up a constant stream of comparison between herself and Rebecca, and comes to deeply envy her. But her most interesting relationship of all is with her maid, Mrs Danvers.
In most of her other relationships with women, it’s not always clear what Rebecca was thinking. It’s much clearer with Mrs Danvers, who was her closest confidant and looked after her since she was a child. Rebecca told her everything – even about all her secret boyfriends – and Mrs Danvers adores her, to the extent that she tries to make Manderley into a living memorial to her. Some academics have suggested that Mrs Danvers and Rebecca may have actually had some kind of lesbian relationship, and it’s easy to see why – when Mrs Danvers speaks about Rebecca, the reader is left in no doubt that she absolutely worships her, even after she’s gone. These are some interesting and well-developed relationships that underpin the plot, so I’ll give her the point
FINAL SCORE: 8/10
Rebecca is a well-developed character with a range of flaws, goals, hobbies and beliefs, plenty of weaknesses and a real influence over the plot. Even though she never appears in the book, she’s certainly passed my test – which is a real testament to the strength of du Maurier’s writing. If you haven’t read Rebecca (and don’t mind all of these spoilers I’ve just told you) you should definitely check it out!
Next week, I’ll be looking at a recent bestseller – The Girl on the Train. Rachel Watson, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.