Female Identity in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca

Female Identity in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca | Lindsay Aarons
Female Identity in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca | Lindsay Aarons
While Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, has often been described as a modern gothic novel, in many ways it stands as a direct criticism of many of the tenets of the gothic romance genre.  Most notable of these is du Maurier’s criticism of the  structure of romantic relationships that dominate the field–mainly, that of the power imbalance involved in the relationship between a weak and childish heroine and the strong, reserved hero.Throughout Rebecca, the narrator remains nameless to the reader, establishing her as a weak character without her own sense of identity.  This fact is driven quite firmly home when Maxim de Winter comments, “You have a very lovely and unusual name” and the narrator responds, “My father was a lovely and unusual person” (24).  Her name is not representative of her–instead, it is representative of the the first important man in her life: her father.  The narrator is a kind of blank canvas, an incomplete, nameless person.  In fact, this blank canvas doesn’t get a name until she finally assumes her husband’s when she arrives at Manderley and is addressed as “Mrs. de Winter,” although this is not representative of her any more than her given name.  When Mrs. Danvers first addresses the narrator with her married name, the narrator responds, “‘I’m afraid you have made a mistake. […] Mrs. de Winter has been dead for over a year” (84).  Despite the fact that she has been given a name, that name does not lead to a sense of self in any way, shape or form.

In fact, the only “sense of self” the narrator gets she gets from spending time with her new husband:  “Maxim put his arm round my shoulder, [and] I began to feel more like the self I wanted to become” (76).  Despite the fact that he, in ways, begins to define her, however, the inherit imbalance in their relationship is revealed by the manner which de Winter addresses his new wife, a kind of indifferent pleasance: “‘I’m being like Jasper now, leaning against him. He pats me now and again, when he remembers, and I’m pleased, I get closer to him for a moment. He likes me in the way I like Jasper'” (101).  While this imbalance does not initially alarm the narrator, however, towards the end of the novel, she asks herself,  “Why did dogs make one want to cry?  There was something so quiet and hopeless in their sympathy” (316).  While a husband is a comfort to a weak wife, such a wife cannot provide any sort of comfort to her strong husband.

Beyond comfort when sad, however, such a relationship is also incapable of supplying either party with companionship.  When the narrator explains her job as a companion to de Winter, “‘I did not know one could buy companionship,’ he said, ‘it sounds like a primitive idea. Rather like an eastern trade market.’ ‘I looked up the word companion once in the dictionary,’ I admitted, ‘and it said, “a companion is a friend of the bosom.”‘ ‘You haven’t much in common with her,’ he said” (24).  De Winter recognizes immediately that companionship requires more than an agreement to spend time together; it requires a similarity between the two parties that is missing in the narrator’s relationship with Mrs. Van Hopper.  After their marriage, it is de Winter who first realizes that there is a lack of “companionship” between them:  “‘I wonder if I did a very selfish thing in marrying you […] I’m not much of a companion to you, am I?’ he said. ‘There are too many years between us'” (145).  After their marriage comes to the brink of failure, the narrator is forced to confront this fact herself, as well, when she admits, “We did not get on. We were not companions. We were not suited to one another. I was too young for Maxim, too inexperienced, and more important still, I was not of his world. The fact that I loved him in a sick, hurt, desperate way, like a child or a dog, did not matter. It was not the sort of love he needed. He wanted something else that I could not give him” (232).  It is only at this time that the narrator can identify the weaknesses with the traditional gothic romantic relationship.

The narrator immediately decides to show her husband that she can be strong, telling him, “‘I don’t want you to bear this alone,’ I said. ‘I want to share it with you. I’ve grown up, Maxim, in twenty-four hours. I’ll never be a child again'” (264).  It is only when de Winter is sure that the narrator is strong enough to bear the weight of his secrets that he tells her about murdering his first wife, bridging the lack of communication that had separated them for so long.  It is also only at this point that he can admit his love for her.  The narrator immediately notices the difference in the tenor of their relationship:   “I was free now to be with Maxim, to touch him, and hold him, and love him. I would never be a child agaon. It would not be I, I, I any longer, it would be we, it would be us. We would be together. We would face this trouble together, he and I. […] Our happinesss had not come too late. I was not young any more. I was not afraid. I would fight for Maxim” (285).  By forcing herself to “grow up,” she takes a fair share of the power–and therefore responsibility–in their relationship, evening the imbalance that had thus far existed.

Of course, it is not fair to say that this imbalance was completely the narrator’s fault for failing to previously “step up.”  Throughout the novel, de Winter encourages her dependence on him, commenting throughout that he loves the fact that she is childish, and telling her, “‘It’s a pity you have to grow up'” (53).  Even after they have shared their secrets and he has told her he loves her, he says with regret,  “It’s gone forever, that funny, young, lost look that I loved.  It won’t come back again.  I killed that too, when I told you about Rebecca.  It’s gone, in twenty-four hours.  You are so much older…” (299).  In some ways, his strength was defined by her former weakness.  Even though the change is for the better, he cannot help but wish for some of her old dependence on him.
Despite these brief moments of regret, however, the romantic relationship has found its equilibrium:

I sat on the floor at Maxim’s feet, my head against his knees. He ran his fingers through my hair. Different from his old abstracted way. It was not like stroking Jasper any more. I felt his fingetrips on the scalp of my head. Sometimes he kissed me. Sometimes he said things to me. There were no shadows between us anymore, and when were silent it was because the silence came to us of our own asking. (288)

Though she sits at his feet, they are no longer playing out the dominant/submissive roles they did before.  In some cases, those roles are even reversed, as when the narrator offers him comfort after Rebecca’s body has been found:   “I held him and comforted him as though he were Jasper.  As though Jasper had hurt himself in some way and had  come to me to take his pain away” (352).  Even more importantly, however, the narrator has found her own strength, her own identity, and prizes this even more highly than the new-found relationship with her husband: “At the moment it inspires me, if not with love, at least with confidence.  And confidence is a quality I prize, although it has come to me a little late in the day.  I suppose it is his dependence upon me that has made me bold at last” (9).  By developing her own identity, she could develop their identity.