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Looking At The Theme Of Love In Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca

A screen shot of Joan Fontaine and Lawrence Olivier as the heroine and Max in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca

Screen shot from Rebecca, copyright © 1940 Selznick International Pictures.

I’m under no impression that love is of particular importance in Rebecca. Far more important is identity and, as Du Maurier is known to have said herself, jealousy. Indeed love is only crucial as far as the emphasis on the heroine is concerned.

However I started thinking about the role love, romantic and otherwise, plays, and had the urge to study it. What piqued my interest was the realisation that unless you’re looking solely at the surface dressing, the subject requires contrasting the characters with each other and looking deeply into what happens. Whilst love may not be important and isn’t so obvious an element, it’s there to be found all the same.

There are a few kinds of love in the story. Most notably it’s the romantic love (or at least being in love with the idea) the unnamed heroine has for Max. Less noticeably it’s about the love – or is it pity? – Max has for the heroine, which may or may not be romantic. Then there’s the obsessive love Mrs Danvers has for Rebecca and lastly there’s the question of Rebecca herself and whether she loved anyone at all. All these kinds of love, put together, offered me many avenues of thought.

Max offers the most to focus on. The major question in regards to him is whether he does indeed love the heroine or whether he feels pity, and if he does love her, is it romantic or more affectionate?

We don’t see things from Max’s perspective; the narrative is first person from the heroine’s point of view, but if we take the way Max talks and acts as truth, Max doesn’t show his love so as much as he speaks of it. It’s a case of all talk and no action, at least for most of the book, however we do have to factor in the possibility the heroine was so wrapped up in her identity issues that she may have missed out on ‘Max time’, or, rather, she didn’t provide enough of her own time for Max to be affectionate. It’s a tough call. If we go by what we have, then Max does not show his love except at the beginning – the journey to Manderley – and nearer the end when everything comes to a head in the boat house.

(To consider the beginning, it could be said that this was Max’s honeymoon period in the sense that it was the start of the relationship – rather than it being the literal honeymoon – where they were free of Manderley and the heroine was yet to be burdened by her new life.)

The beginning and the boat house aside, Max doesn’t really get to show us how he feels. We know he wants to introduce the heroine to his family and one gets the sense he is quite happy for her to rearrange the household. That she doesn’t rearrange is on her. We know about the party – how well might it have gone without Danver’s input? – and we know the rest of the characters think well of the heroine.

Of course the heroine, as narrator, only tells us what she hears and what she thinks is true – that’s natural. It means that Max may have felt differently, perhaps stronger than we’re shown.

Max knew about the heroine’s life with Mrs Van Hopper. We can assume much more was said at that time than we hear, but we hear enough. Of course one could question whether Max saw in our heroine a companion for himself, especially in terms of society and etiquette – that marriage proposal was sudden, albeit that the heroine was about to leave. At the same time the suddenness could have been the result of a person who is not good at showing or saying how they feel.

Surely the biggest factor for the side of pity is the way Max treats the heroine which is, to all intents and purposes that we can tell, like a child. Terms such as ‘my little darling’ show patronisation. Yet, again, we must consider the narrator. There is no question she feels like a child so it’s possible, probable, even, that this tints anything Max says. Likely not the words but the words the heroine uses around the dialogue, the descriptors.

If the book as a whole suggests pity and affection, the conversation in the boat house suggests potential romance albeit it interwoven with pity. The boat house is where we see Max without his mask. We see the real Max, the pain, the secrets, the person we haven’t seen up until now. The situation causes Max to open himself to the heroine. He tells her he ‘loves [her] too much’. We can take this as it is or we can take it as the words of a man concious he needs his wife on his side. Given the love the heroine has for him, we know there’s likely no need for him to worry, she’s probably not going to get angry or run away, but she hasn’t been particularly vocal so who’s to say he knows her much?

Max says he thought the heroine was unhappy. This may have affected his own feelings, however we know he doesn’t yet trust her when he says he nearly told her, once, about the murder.

In defence of romantic love, we have the statements about Rebecca. “Rebecca has won […] her shadow between us all the time.” This suggests love, that Max loves or at least wants to love the heroine.

And yet.

Here we have a man showing a potential obsession with Rebecca. Rebecca’s shadow has been between them, but not literally. Each character has effectively made a decision to allow there to be a shadow. Mrs Danvers is apart from the couple, of course, but she’s been focused on Rebecca. Our heroine has let her time at Manderley been ruled by Rebecca, has let Mrs Danvers take over. And maybe Max, as he seems to be saying, hasn’t let himself go, either. Certainly his situation is different – he killed Rebecca, of course she’d linger with him – but he’s let it remain, chosen to let her keep lingering. This could mean he regrets it, whether sincerely or simply because he worries about being found out.

In the context of the book as a whole, it’s hard not to see this named ‘shadow’ as one big ‘thing’ that encompasses everything. Of course it is a ‘thing’ – Du Maurier never suggests there is a real ghost; ‘shadow’ is the word she uses as the term for what the past does to the characters.

Max says, “How could I hold you like this, my darling, my little love, with the fear always in my heart that this would happen?” Could he be making excuses for not loving her so far? He’s not been as much of a husband, a lover, as he could have been and for all she’s in her own head, the heroine’s been kept at a distance. He calls her his ‘darling’ but also, then, his ‘little love’. This intimates inequality, patronisation. Max sees her with affection, almost as though she’s a pet rather than a person, his wife. His child. Considering her conduct we can somewhat understand it – she’s been timid and deferred to everyone else on everything.

Max asks her whether she’ll love him now, now that she knows about the murder. What is he worrying about – his future or her love? Does he want to start afresh with her or would that be more of an afterthought? There’s also an element of control: “You don’t love me now” he says, assuming the revelation will affect her in that way, perhaps trying to manipulate her feelings in his favour, to gain her support.

Much of the conversation which, due to the revelation is naturally focused on what Max has to say, is about the love the pair do or don’t share. If we take it to be in the context of the encompassing shadow it’s easier to deal with. There is simply too much evidence for the idea of pity for us to say Max felt romantic love. It’s possible, and we could argue the sudden proposal and the hopes for a romantic possibility stated in the boathouse, but with there being so much in the way of patronisation, when coupled with the heroine’s lack of self-belief the case for pity is great.

To contrast Max with the heroine is to see a small journey of self-discovery and a minor switching of roles. The revelation in the boathouse obviously does a lot for the heroine’s identity, for the way she feels in the context of family roles, but what we want to focus on is the way she goes from being the weaker person in the relationship to the stronger, however shortly. It’s reasonable to believe that for the remainder of their lives, there would be an equal or fairly equal standing.

The heroine gives Max a lot of support following his revelation. She stays with him, she’s willing to play her part, she builds him up. Given her previous lack of confidence in anything, this is her moment to shine. She is almost dogged in her trust and thoughts, echoing her feelings thus far. She has always loved Max.

Compared to Max’s ‘little love’, the heroine calls her husband by his first name and ‘darling’ (by itself). This can’t be taken as evidence so much, against Max, because Max is never able to use the heroine’s name – Du Maurier doesn’t allow it, it would ruin the effect the lack of a name has on the story. Yet we do hear less from Max than we do the heroine and as she’s so into letting us know about him, we can assume if he spent more time with her, loving her, we’d hear about it.

The heroine’s not sure Max loves her. This is a good moment of clarity, of mature thought. At the same time it could be her lack of identity, her constant anxiety and Mrs Danver’s manipulations that make this so.

One thing on the side of pity – “I’ll never be a child again”. This, from the heroine in the boathouse, says much. For her to say it she must have been aware that Max sees her as a child, that she acts like one.

It’s easy to consider the heroine’s feelings for Max an infatuation for her first romantic interest, an older man. However it’s far more conclusive than Max’s love/pity, her changes and the fact she stays with him suggests maturity, a progression to proper love. (It could also be support.)

Max and heroine covered, let’s look at a very different kind of love – obsession. This is surely what Mrs Danvers feels for Rebecca. She remembers Rebecca to an overwhelming degree. Even if it is the job of a family member to decide when to change the house, Mrs Danvers’ lack of desire to brighten the place is obvious. Certainly the heroine’s weakness affects Mrs Danvers’ treatment of her but another, nicer, housekeeper might have assisted her boss’s new wife, however begrudgingly. Mrs Danvers does nothing of the sort. Instead she toys with the heroine, manipulating her, using the weakness and increasing it. Mrs Danvers doesn’t want her there.

There is a chance Mrs Danvers isn’t simply obsessed or unable to let go – it could be her way of getting at Max. Mrs Danvers has no direct sway with him, otherwise she’d use it, but she can use his new wife against him.

Lastly we’ve Rebecca, or at least we have a second-hand account of her. Did Rebecca love anyone? Perhaps Mrs Danvers, but whether that was real is anyone’s guess. She may have loved Manderley; Danvers’ burning of it suggests there was an eternal connection. (Or maybe Danvers just couldn’t cope with the idea of someone else supplanting her favourite.)

The theme of love may not be the most important (I know the length of this suggests otherwise!) but it’s one worth looking into. I personally don’t believe there are hard and fast answers – it’s more possibilities and what you make of it yourself, possibilities for discussion.

For myself I think Max’s fears compound everything he feels but his feelings certainly seem more pitying that loving, even if there’s some love there. (There’s always the possibility he meant to be playful.) Regarding the heroine I think it’s a time-would-time situation. She loves him but whether in the ‘right’ way and for the ‘right’ reasons is hard to say.

What are your thoughts on the love in this book – what form do you think it takes for each character?



October 5, 2015, 11:28 am

Ahh what a lovely and thoughtful consideration – a favorite, made me want to go back and read it all over again. Truly so much hinges on love in this novel- as you suggest if the narrator believed in his love for her as an equal early what a different story it would be.


October 6, 2015, 4:48 pm

I really must share this with my 17 year old niece as this is one of the course texts for her A Levels and she is really struggling with it.



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