Daphne Du Maurier’s masterpiece Rebecca is perhaps one of the greatest but most subversive works of literature in the past century. The story of a young bride haunted by the suffocating presence of her husband’s late wife explores some of society’s deepest fears about women. Whether it does so successfully or not, however, has long been up for debate. It is hard to deny that the philosophy of the book often walks a fine line between subverting misogynistic narratives and playing into them. So is Rebecca sexist?
The idea of the novel being sexist stems from the treatment of Rebecca herself. The first wife of the wealthy Maxim de Winter, Rebecca never actually appears in the book, in real time or in flashbacks. Still, she makes her presence known. Max’s second wife has to contend with the insurmountable terror of living in the house Rebecca once graced, wearing clothes Rebecca wore better, and loving a man who loved Rebecca more. Rebecca is the standard against which everything the new Mrs. De Winter says and does is judged, a constant and suffocating presence. In this Du Maurier is far ahead of her time, shrewdly capturing the idea of the “perfect woman” in Rebecca. The phantom of Rebecca represents the self hatred and paranoia that comes from trying to live up to an untenable ideal.
Of course, the level of perfection is untenable for anyone, even Rebecca. In the tumultuous final chapters of the book, both Mrs. de Winter and the reader are validated as Max finally breaks his silence on Rebecca. Rebecca, it turns out, was not the perfect woman. Instead she was adulterous, manipulative, and, most validating of all, hated by her husband. When she confessed to Max that she was pregnant with another man’s child, he shot and killed her.
See, this is where justifying the book gets tricky.
If we suppose that Du Maurier was trying to make Max a hero, then we are appalled. In 2020, it is hard to accept death as a legitimate punishment for adultery. And though it is necessary that we see the false ideal of the “perfect” wife crumble, the punishment the “imperfect” wife receives hardly seems fair.
Then too, if Du Maurier was trying to portray Mrs. De Winter as a hapless victim, we have another problem. Mrs. De Winter, while the victim of unachievable standards, is no paragon of virtue herself. When she discovers that Max is a murderer, instead of being horrified she is delighted. Rebecca’s murder confirms Mrs. De Winter as the better wife and by extension better woman.
It is a book without heroes.
Still, I highly doubt Du Maurier meant her characters to be heroes. Her characters are all flawed people, and it is through their moral failings that we get the clearest idea of what the book is trying to say.
If Max is not a hero, then his murder of Rebecca is not the righteous punishment of a sinful woman but a glimpse into the deep fear and hatred we have for women who cannot be controlled. It should be validating to see this symbol of feminine perfection disintegrate, but it is more disturbing to see what happens when a woman ceases to be meek and obedient. Our anger at Rebecca is misdirected. Yes, she is the standard, but Max is the enforcer of the standard.
Another novel by Du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel, offers a look at a couple in a very similar situation to Max and Rebecca De Winter. In fact, the book can even be read as something of a prequel to Rebecca, just with different names.
The book begins when youthful Phillip has married Rachel, the widow of his late cousin. As their marriage progresses, Phillip begins to suspect that Rachel poisoned her first husband, and that she is now slowly poisoning him. Philip’s paranoia comes to a climax when he causes Rachel’s death by not warning her that the bridge she was about to step on was broken. He spends the rest of his days wracked with guilt about killing her without being sure of her guilt. Like Max, Philip has acted as judge, jury, and executioner for his wife, but unlike Max he suffers for it. The condemnation of the suspicious husband is much more clear in My Cousin Rachel, but unlike Rebecca it is narrated by the murderous husband, someone in possession of all the facts of his guilt. Rebecca is more ambiguous because it is narrated by another woman who is discovering the facts of the matter and who only stands to profit from the first wife’s death.
Indeed, there are few characters in Du Maurier’s books more compelling than the new Mrs. de Winter. She spends most of the book agonized by the unrealistic expectations of those around her—you’d expect her to sympathize with Rebecca. Yet as soon as she has the chance to villainize the other woman, she takes it with relish. Her internalized misogyny takes over as she judges Rebecca by the same standards she was once judged by.
Read like this, the true horror of the book is not a treacherous and manipulative woman, but a society that pits women against each other. Both Rebecca and Mrs. de Winter are victims of the patriarchy. But the goal of being the perfect wife have become so ingrained in Mrs. de Winter’s subconscious that she can even come to terms with murder as punishment for deviating from the straight and narrow. Du Maurier shows us how society channels our own fears and insecurities into hatred of other “better” women, and argues that attacking other women only distracts us from taking on the men who created this unjust society in the first place.
The book ends with a sense of relative peace. Max has been acquitted, the “haunted” family home burned down, and he and his wife are living a quiet existence in some little village inn. It is a fragile peace, however, built on Mrs. De Winter’s blind devotion and a wordless pact to forget the past. It is not hard to imagine that someday the bubble will pop, the devotion falter, and the new Mrs. De Winter finds herself in the same situation as the late Mrs. De Winter. In many ways it is a cautionary tale. She is at peace, because at last she can fill the role of obedient wife unthreatened by Rebecca. She doesn’t yet realize that triumph over another woman is a false reward as long as she (and all women) are kept under the thumb of the patriarchy.