Rebecca is a classic suspense novel, and since I’ve become interested in that genre in recent years, it seemed only right that I read it. It doesn’t hurt that Alfred Hitchcock directed a film adaptation in 1940. Upon reading the novel, I found that it also bears some similarities to a more recent suspense classic: Gone Girl.
It’s no surprise that Hitchcock took to Daphne du Maurier’s work, as Rebecca is perhaps the Hitchcock-iest novel ever. The narrator is an unnamed young woman who marries wealthy widower Maxim de Winter. When the couple returns to Manderly, his family estate, she finds the house haunted by the memory of his first wife Rebecca. The first Mrs. de Winter left behind a formidable legacy, as well as a housekeeper who is still frighteningly loyal to her departed mistress. Manderly itself is almost a character, serving as a living reminder of Rebecca and the privileged world where the narrator feels out of place.
This story is a Hitchcock goldmine for themes of female identity. Think of Vertigo and Scottie’s attempts to recreate the woman he loved and lost. Think of Notorious and Alicia paying for the sins of her father by playing the spy. The second Mrs. de Winter is so overshadowed by the memory of Rebecca that she isn’t even given a name of her own, while Rebecca’s name is the title. But as Scottie found out after her, flesh and blood can never live up to memories biased by love, and memories can be a lie. Although her timidity could be exhausting at times, I felt for the narrator in her insecurities and awkwardness.
A quick search reveals that I’m not the first person to draw the Gone Girl comparison. Both stories contain an absent figure wreaking havoc through the perception of herself left behind. Rebecca is described as able to charm anyone and adapt to any situation, and Gone Girl’s Amy takes pride in being a personality chameleon. On the one hand, we could take these characters as an indictment of female duplicity, with Rebecca’s modest narrator serving as the model for appropriate femininity. Hollywood and Hitchcock take the critique further in that direction, but both of these novels are written by women who understand that identity is a performance. One could argue that their female characters just know how to perform to their advantage.
Apart from the suspenseful story line, the visual elements of Rebecca make it primed for adaptation. First and foremost, there’s Manderly, which can be presented as beautiful or foreboding. Within Manderly we have the tangible reminders of Rebecca, particularly her bedroom suite in the west wing. The west wing faces the sea (wild, untamed, potentially dangerous), while the second Mrs. de Winter’s bedroom faces the rose garden (safe, controlled, domestic). There’s also visual delineation to be made between the bright, artificial world of Monte Carlo, where Maxim meets his second wife, and the gothic world of Manderly. And really, contrast is a filmmaker’s best friend.
Rebecca is a classic for many reasons. It can be read in the tradition of the gothic novels that came before it or as a precursor to the psychological thrillers of today. As for me, I’m glad to have another suspenseful lady to add to my list.