When it was listed as an upcoming book in a co-ed book club that my husband and I sometimes frequent, I checked out a copy of Rebecca from the library. The book jacket made great promises about the romantic, thrilling, and shocking nature of the story but, sadly, after spending the better part of last weekend reading the novel I have to say that the book lived up to none of these promises. Perhaps my disappointment stems from the fact that modern novels have taken the level of thrill, and for that matter romance, to such extremes that this 1938 book failed to impress. However, I do not think that accounts entirely for my lack of interest in the story. Unfortunately the story is wanders too much to allow for the building of any real suspense and the main character’s incessantly whiny, self-centered narration makes it hard to sympathize with her. Overall the book felt overrated, with other books handling the genre with much more skill, most outstandingly British Gothic gem, Jane Eyre.
In the story, we meet Maxim a handsome, wealthy widow who suddenly marries a poor woman half his age, whisking her back to his mansion on the Cornwall coast. His new bride (never named throughout the novel, presumably to highlight her second class status) finds it hard to live up to the very high standards his first wife set for the estate Manderley and the marriage. Rebecca, the first Mrs. De Winter, was rumored to be gorgeous, talented, and beloved by all. Max’s new wife is weakened by living in her predecessor’s constant shadow and quickly begins to doubt not only her place in the house, but her entire marriage.
However, rather than face her fears directly — dismissing insubordinate servants, talking to her husband about his past, insisting on truthfulness regarding the estate — the narrator chooses to suffer in silence. Her story is more or less a constant stream of complaints and perceived transgressions, none of which she is willing to rectify. She simultaneously wants more responsibility around house and more honesty from her new family and demands that they shelter her from both work and the truth. An enormous amount of the trouble she finds herself in could have been avoided with honest discussions and a bit of nerve. Now I realize that I am reading the book and judging its characters through the lens of 21st century feminism, but I still cannot help but blame the character for causing much of her difficulty.
When it becomes clear that Rebecca was less honest, chaste, or kind than she has been presented since her sudden death (or at least it becomes obvious to readers if not our narrator,) it seems that finally we can expect some backbone from her; at the very least a demand for answers from her husband. Again, we are disappointed. She naively misses all the signs that her husband’s first marriage was a sham and spends her time wallowing in pity, weeping over her inability to live up to Rebecca; to the point that she is all but ready give up entirely on her marriage or possibly to end her life. While it could not be easy to have moved from a life of servitude to a life as lady of the manor, surely she could have made an attempt. It is maddening how little she is willing to fight for her place in this new world.
It takes her learning that her husband did not love her first wife to release her from her feelings of inadequacy. After that, she is able to weather a series of shocking — or at least shocking by 1930’s standards — revelations about Rebecca that wake up our narrator and have her finally, although not at all forcefully, stepping into her place as her husband’s partner. Together they must weather a police investigation into Rebecca’s death, often wondering if they will avoid jail, in order to finally have some peace in their marriage.
Reading the book it occurred to me that I had a higher expectations for the main character: when she is presented with a chance for a wonderful life on a gorgeous estate in the country, married to a caring husband she is willing to risk it all rather than stand up for herself and demand honesty and partnership from her husband; she chooses to hide away from life until it is almost too late for them both. For that, I find, I cannot forgive her, even though she partially redeems herself in the end.