Wednesday Book Club: Rebecca

Wednesday, 23 July 2008 — 12:13am | Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier.

In brief: Four words: Alfred Hitchcock’s Jane Eyre. Now, how could you possibly go wrong with that?

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Rebecca, keep reading below.)

The joke, of course, is that Hitchcock directed the 1940 adaptation of Rebecca, the only one of his films to win the Best Picture Oscar. As of this writing, it remains one of the gaping holes in my Hitchcock knowledge, so I won’t discuss it here. I bring up Hitchcock’s name regardless because, even without reference to the film Rebecca, the experience of reading Daphne du Maurier is so reminiscent of the Hitchcock oeuvre. The strict and total control of perspective. The meticulously calculated pace. The electric dialogue, rich with innuendo at every turn, every line hiding some ulterior motive or buried secret (whether its speaker is aware of it or not). The domineering mother-figures. The whole gamut of Freudian neuroses; personally, my favourite is transference. And the set wouldn’t be complete without something dark and sinister that shies away from the audience’s centre of attention until it is absolutely ready to burst out of its shell like a stick of dynamite disguised as an oyster’s pearl.

As far as the plot is concerned, Rebecca is so transparently a tribute to Jane Eyre that I found myself checking the cover in the early chapters to assure myself that the author was not, in fact, a lost Brontë sister who chanced to warp into the early twentieth century. You know the drill: our heroine marries a wealthy man and contends with the tantalizing shadow of a woman from earlier in his life. Here, the other woman is dead, and her name is Rebecca. Though Rebecca never appears in the action—what part of dead didn’t you understand?—she is the most imposing presence in the book.

It’s a stunning effect, the omnipresence of a character who never appears: I am inclined to compare her to black holes and dark matter, unobservable phenomena that we infer from their causal influence on everything else. And that’s what Rebecca is: a dark phenomenon, a prime mover behind the novel’s every beat. I would love to say more, but I don’t want to spoil this excellent book. Needless to say, there is a truth to her character that waits to be discovered, and more to her than just the perfect first wife with whom the protagonist cannot compete.

The bulk of the pages don’t “happen”, per se: a good proportion of the word count comprises the (nameless) heroine’s speculative daydreams, framed in the conditional tense of coulds and shoulds, as she extrapolates a history behind every observation of the world around her. It goes without saying that she makes a few mistakes; if she didn’t, there wouldn’t be much of a story. The device gives du Maurier’s novel a somnambular lift, and it is quite something to watch the dreamlike veil of perception bleed away to reveal the harsh reality it hides. There is much in the way of exposition that we might be tempted to accept on face, even if it makes no claim to being “true” in the narrative’s private history.

Something must be said for du Maurier’s deft manipulation of the reader’s expectations. Rebecca is a minor masterpiece of misdirection: du Maurier leaves a trail of crumbs that leads the reader (and the characters, as they reason things through one by one) to certain conclusions that have an air of inevitability, only rarely flagging those conclusions in the text itself. The reader is as shocked as the characters to discover those conclusions are wrong. Du Maurier’s strategy is to produce not a red herring, freshly caught, but a pond full of red herrings and an invitation to a fishing trip. Again, I wish I could go into specifics, but why spoil all the fun?

The tone of Rebecca twists and turns, and anyone who casts the book aside partway through would be missing out—though why anyone would do that is beyond my comprehension, as the early chapters are just as engaging. Here is a book that goes from a sardonic jab at class consciousness, to the heroine’s desperate struggle to earn the approval of her new household, to… well, something completely different that binds and gags the reader, throws him into the boot, and sets him on a collision course that tears its way over the crescendo of a grand finale. Most of the book ambles along in quotidian episodes beneath an ominous pall—then there’s a flash and a bang that rearranges the entire configuration of what’s important and what’s not. I am stretching for a popular structural comparison that everyone will recognize, and the closest I can get is Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Every scene draws its power from the deeply guarded motivations of characters under extreme pressure, and every storm announces itself with a preceding calm. This, my friends, is storytelling.

One final observation: I have never been partial to the idea that one’s receptivity to fiction is fundamentally a matter of “identification”, as contemporary trends in cultural studies might have you believe, and my personal enjoyment of Rebecca is a point in my favour. I simply don’t believe that people respond only to fiction in which they see a reflection of themselves. If that were the case, then I, as a male reader with only cursory knowledge of the conventions of Gothic romance, should find little of interest in a book so concerned with presenting contrasting models of feminine agency (and in some cases, servitude). Make no mistake: this is a self-consciously gendered novel, in which we only ever see the sympathetic male characters—Maxim de Winter and his estate agent, Frank Crawley—at a distance and through a woman’s eyes.

Instead, it is a delight to ponder what a book like Rebecca offers as a coherent theory of human interactions. That is how its claims aspire to universality, as opposed to demographic locality. What I am saying, in effect, is that a great novel should never have to excuse itself to anybody with an apologetic, “Look away, it’s not for you.” It shouldn’t exclude anybody from its audience, unless they exclude themselves. There is such a thing, in the abstract, as a good story. Du Maurier’s is one of them. Rebecca is a mesmerizing novel, and one that shouldn’t be missed.

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4 rejoinders to “Wednesday Book Club: Rebecca

  1. Zinovii

    This may very well be the next novel I read, thanks in no small part to your excellent review. As of late I’ve been reading almost nothing but Murakami’s works (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Kafka on the Shore, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and presently, Norwegian Wood), and this might prove to be a nice reprieve before I make my way through some of Murakami’s shorter works (that is, until IQ84 is released in September).

    Friday, 14 January 2011 at 3:36am

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