Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover

Should We Assume Rebecca Is Horrible?

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.

When I was researching my post on jealousy in Rebecca, there was a sentence in an interview with Kit Browning, Daphne Du Maurier’s son, that gave me pause. He said that it’s only Max who gives us the idea that Rebecca was a horrible person.

It’s somewhat true; the only person (almost – more on this later) who actually says anything that could make us think badly of her is Max, but we’d been thinking badly of her for a long while beforehand; our opinion of Rebecca is shaped by the heroine’s feelings and our thoughts of Mrs Danvers. And it’s wrong, really. Rebecca isn’t Mrs Danvers and the heroine had nothing to do with the first wife.

It’s the haunted atmosphere that first forms in us an opinion. As much as we can’t attribute the heroine’s feelings to Rebecca herself, at minimum we feel she haunts the place. And haunting is seen as a negative thing thus we feel worried, even if we don’t notice we do. We get glimpses of who Rebecca was: a person supposedly good at running a house, at playing host, at fancy dress, and these glimpses affect our opinion of her.

It’s Mrs Danvers who takes it up a step. Mrs Danvers’ obsession, her manipulation of the heroine, the subtle threats, the hint that throwing oneself out of the window is the right thing to do – all these seem to reflect Rebecca because whilst we don’t know for sure how Rebecca felt, we assume Mrs Danvers’ love was reciprocated. And in the absence of Rebecca herself, Mrs Danvers becomes her substitute, her stand in. That Max later says Rebecca was horrible only seems to back it up.

Should we consider Mrs Danvers’ mental state? Either she’s suffering from her loss of Rebecca so much it has caused her to become a supposed monster or she has some evil in her – that fire does not speak of a stable mind but as other stories and real life shows, a person can do something extreme because they are lost, hurt, and in need of help. Yes, this paragraph does smell of trying to make amends for bad things, like people are trying to say now that Henry VIII was bad because of this, that, and the other, but in Mrs Danvers’ case we know she was close to Rebecca.

Beatrice isn’t nasty about Rebecca, but she doesn’t seem enthralled, is instead quite blaïse and therefore we don’t really consider her thoughts once we’re further along. Jack, appearing shifty, does what Mrs Danvers does – infers a horrible person by association, though at least in this case Max’s revelation has more in it that applies directly to the person. Frank likes the heroine, does so from the start, which may signal a distaste for Rebecca – certainly the contrast between him, Max’s friend, and Mrs Danvers, Rebecca’s friend, seems a bit of a literary decision, a balancing of the scales.

But then there’s Ben, who tells the heroine Rebecca threatened to place him in an asylum if he told anyone that he’d seen her doing… well, we’re not sure, but it was something she obviously shouldn’t have been doing. The potential problem with Ben is that he’s presented as unreliable, but considering we already know about Mrs Danvers, we might consider him more reliable than the heroine herself might. We don’t know much else about Ben, so perhaps we shouldn’t believe him, but then there’s also no reason not to. Ben is a minor character, so perhaps Kit Browning forgot him, or perhaps the whole idea that Ben is unreliable, unstable, was enough to make him irrelevant in this respect – should we trust Du Maurier’s son’s omission as a sign Ben is unreliable?

As for the book itself, Du Maurier ensures we are spooked and considering she wants us to dislike Rebecca, that the book is about jealousy, we don’t really have much chance to feel differently unless we make a decision to read in a different way than we ‘should’ do, disbelieving the author herself at every turn. Rebecca’s written as controlling, promiscuous, horrible; there’s the hint that she was as nasty as Mrs Danvers – perhaps it was that her place in society meant she had cause to hide it.

Rebecca never really had a hope; Kit may be right insofar as the book’s concerned, that it’s only Max who gives us the idea, but his (Kit’s) mother wanted us to think that anyway so it could well be said Du Maurier gives us the idea herself. Just think of that ‘R’ – the text is written to make us dislike Rebecca.

Should we be thinking anything about Rebecca, characters and author aside? Society and common sense would tell us to listen to what people say but to also meet the person… at least meet her as much as we could. In worldly terms we should be thinking twice about befriending her but holding off on a final judgement. Perhaps it’s due to this conflict of advice that Du Maurier is able to grip us so well.

The commonly accepted idea is that we should read a book without letting our views of the author and our knowledge of the author’s life play a role, but in this book it’s a bit different. It’s not simply that Du Maurier’s feelings are included, as it is Charlotte Brontë’s in Villette, or the plethora of writers whose works have been panned because their views are offensive – Du Maurier’s book revolves around her thoughts in a different way that’s hard to explain. I don’t think she’d mind if we chose not to listen to the gossip she writes and to push aside any manipulation, but to like Rebecca would be to miss the point of the book.

Your thoughts?



May 30, 2016, 11:45 am

Like you, I disliked Rebecca before Max’s admission that she was a horrible person. I think I formed that view from my sympathy for the new wife but also, as you mentioned, the fact that Rebecca seems to be a haunting presence in the house.

Great discussion – you’ve really made me want to re-read it right now!

Laurie C

May 30, 2016, 12:35 pm

Interesting! I’ve read Rebecca twice already, but maybe will end up reading it again, to notice the whole unreliable indirect narration thing more! I believe it’s the association with the nasty Mrs. Danvers that leads readers to conclude that Rebecca was also a nasty piece of work before we hear it from Max. If Max was lying to Rebecca just to make her feel better, wouldn’t he get more upset about the house? Or is he a very good actor willing to throw his first wife under the bus for the sake of the happiness of his insecure young wife? Hmmm.

April Munday

May 30, 2016, 6:35 pm

It’s been a long time since I read Rebecca, and I have no idea where my copy of the book is now, so my memories might be incorrect, but I’m fairly sure that other people support Max’s view, not least Mrs Danvers. Only someone who was not entirely all there would want someone like Mrs Danvers around, and this includes Max.
I really must read it again. I feel a visit to Waterstones coming on.

Jenny @ Reading the End

May 31, 2016, 1:32 am

If your question is would I read a lengthy work of fiction in which Rebecca’s horribleness was called into question, the answer is A THOUSAND TIMES YES. :p


June 2, 2016, 11:54 am

I was wondering this myself the other day and if you’d written about it before – this post is fate.

I think this is a style DdM is very good at, showing the reader that truth is in the eye of the beholder, rather than there being one objective truth. When I first read Rebecca I wanted to hate her, because I so strongly aligned myself with the protagonists anxiety and meekness. Now, I think I understand that Max was afraid of Rebecca’s will and strength, which is why the protagonist is a much better match for him, she mothers, Rebecca probably didn’t mother Max.

Ooo, I could chat about this for hours :D


June 3, 2016, 7:17 am

I am eyeing the Sue Gee book. Haven’t been able to track it down.


July 12, 2016, 10:49 am

Jessica: You’ve given me something to think about. Definitely we should be feeling sympathy if the background of the book is anything to go by. You’ll have to write a re-read post if you do – it’d be great to see what you thought the second time around!

Laurie C: Yes, Mrs Danvers is far from a so-so character, we’re kind of pushed to hate her, and quite forcefully really! I’d say both your thoughts are possible, and whilst it seems Du Maurier wants us to ike Max well enough, maybe we should be thinking on his difference more. I think you’re on to something there!

April: Indeed, and (trying to remember myself) no one else really addresses Mrs Danvers either, do they? Talk about her – yes – but to her, no. (At all? Hazy again…)

Jenny: Seconded!

Alice: That’s interesting – I think you’re right on the eye of the beholder idea, and yet the rumours (evidence?) suggest that she just wanted us to hate Rebecca – yes on that objective truth. We could spend all year wondering; it’s very clever. Interesting thought about empathising – the book could read very differently depending on your thoughts on the second wife. (This said, I think the way Danvers plays on her insecurities limits any thoughts of her being weak, because whilst she said ‘yes’ to that unfeeling proposal, her weakness certainly seems in big part due to Mrs Danvers.) Hmm… Max needing a mother, that’s an interesting one.



Comments closed