Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938)
Rebecca directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1940)
I posted a poll of four different book vs movie options, and Rebecca won! Subscribe to my YouTube channel, so you can partake in future polls and help me chose the content I create!
I think I would have loved any of the four options there were to choose from, but I am so glad I have now read Rebecca because it was so good! Oh my gosh I loved it so much. It also gives me the chance to talk about the movie’s director, Alfred Hitchcock! I actually won’t be getting into details with him really, but he is of course known as the master of suspense and basically every one of his movies is worth watching! Growing up he was my favorite director, my first ever “favorite” director by the way. Granted, I was only seven at the time I made this proclamation, and his movies tended to go over my head in a lot of ways. But even at seven, I felt that tension and suspense and the power of mystery his films have and that is what I loved at that young age.
I had watched this movie before, but it had been over 20 years probably and all I remembered is that Manderley burns at the end so 99% of the book was still a mystery. Also, at the start of the book she tells us they can never return to Manderley, so knowing it ends up burning isn’t even a spoiler really.
Last week I covered The Grapes of Wrath which was also released in 1940. At the Academy Awards in 1941, Rebecca won best picture, and The Grapes of Wrath won for best director. I was pretty surprised to see Rebecca beat out Grapes for best picture!
Anyway, onto the actually book review portion. I love gothic novels, and this has all of those gothic qualities. A woman in a huge estate, married to a man she doesn’t know very well and who has a past he won’t talk about, she feels haunted by the former wife and even though there are no ghosts, we do have Mrs. Danvers who has the appearance of death (her face is often comapred with a skull) and she herself is a reminder of Rebecca.
I was surprised how many humorous moments there are in this book as well. They are more subtle perhaps, but a number of times I found myself chuckling at the various funny observations or worries or fantasies the main character has. Once example being after Maxim proposes, she thinks about how she hadn’t expected to marry him. But then tells of different scenarios she had envisioned where they would end up together, one reading, “ I had once, when driving with him and we had been silent for many miles, started a rambling story in my head about him being very ill, delirious I think, and sending for me and I having to nurse him. I had reached the point in my story where I was putting eau-de-Cologne on his head when we arrived at the hotel, and so it finished there.”
You could see this as a gothic romance, but there is so much depth to this story and the people. There is also a lot of symbolism and that is why this makes for a great book to read over and over.
It is a slow burn I would say up until about the halfway point. I blew through the second half of this book because I just couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen and what would be revealed!
The narrator-Mrs. de Winter
Our narrator is a young woman of 20 who is naïve, shy, and gauche. She meets Maxim de Winter who is 43 and whose first wife Rebecca has died. After spending about a week together after meeting in France, they end up being married.
For a lot of the book we see how she is so uncomfortable being seen as an authoritative figure at Manderley. She not only is living in Rebecca’s shadow, who apparently was beautiful, social, smart, and confident, but she also is young and not from a wealthy background. She cowers whenever Mrs. Danvers (the main housekeeper) is around, doesn’t think of herself as “Mrs. de Winter”, but thinks of Rebecca as the Mrs. Partly because Mrs. Danvers still refers to Rebecca in that way, but also because she feels she isn’t fit to hold that title and the “ghost” of Rebecca-the true Mrs. de Winter, is everywhere.
I loved this aspect of the novel, a woman marrying a considerably older man, who has already experienced so much of life that she hasn’t. We see when he asks her to marry him, the book reads, “I wondered how it was he spoke so casually, as though the matter was of little consequence, a mere adjustment of plans. Whereas to me it was a bombshell, exploding in a thousand fragments.”
Then she is constantly thinking of Rebecca and how she would have done things, and her and Maxim together and of course imagining that the two of them had the perfect relationship. How can a real person compete with a fantasy version of someone?? Because in the the fantasy the person is perfect, and the narrator thinks Rebecca must have been perfect.
When she learns the truth about Maxim and Rebecca’s relationship, the book reads, “It seemed incredible to me now that I had never understood. I wondered how many people there were in the world who suffered, and continued to suffer, because they could not break out from their own web of shyness and reserve, and in their blindness and folly built up a great distorted wall in front of them that hid the truth. This was what I had done. I had built up false pictures in my mind and sat before them. I had never had the courage to demand the truth. Had I made one step forward out of my own shyness, Maxim would have told me these things four months, five months ago.”
There is also a part in the book, not in the movie, where she had come across a book of poems in the car and maxim tells her she can borrow it. She sees the inside is written “to Max from Rebecca”. After being engaged, she cuts the page from the book and burns it.
Joan Fontaine definitely captures the awkwardness of the narrator, and kind of reminded me or Kristin Stewart, who was known as the awkward actress back in the day. I think in the book Rebecca was more of a presence, but the movie certainly does a good job conveying how Rebecca still looms over the estate.
I also just thought a story about a woman who is a second wife to a husband who has some past trauma is an interesting premise right there. There are two passages I want to share that show how she becomes hyperaware of his emotions and what people around him say, worried it will “trigger” him, due to her own experience accidently saying something that was triggering.
“He walked alone, on the other side, and I must not come to him. And I became nervous and fearful that some heedless word, some turn in a careless conversation should bring that expression back to his eyes again.”
“…this was the hypersensitive behavior of a neurotic, not the normal happy self I knew myself to be.”
Mrs. Danvers hates the main character from the start because she hates that she is taking Rebecca’s place. In the book we learn that she has cared for Rebecca since she was a child, but in the movie that isn’t said.
There are a few times in book and movie, when Mrs. Danvers is talking to the narrator in Rebecca’s old room, and Danvers seems almost to be in a trance as she talks about Rebecca. The narrator finds this very unsettling, and also obviously doesn’t want to hear these details about a woman who’s shadow she is trying to get out from.
With the book, you could say Danvers has a motherly love/obsession with Rebecca since she basically raised her. Even so, there are times when is seems Danvers was in love with Rebecca. As we will get into, Rebecca was most likely bisexual, so it wouldn’t have been out of the question that she and Danvers had something going on, (du Maurier herself was bisexual). Later, when she is questioned about who Rebecca was in love with, Danvers says, ““She was not in love with you, or with Mr. de Winter. She was not in love with anyone. She despised all men. She was above all that.” Favell flushed angrily. “Listen here. Didn’t she come down the path through the woods to meet me, night after night? Didn’t you wait up for her? Didn’t she spend the weekends with me in London?” “Well?” said Mrs. Danvers, with sudden passion, “and what if she did? She had a right to amuse herself, hadn’t she? Love-making was a game with her, only a game. She told me so. She did it because it made her laugh. It made her laugh, I tell you. She laughed at you like she did at the rest. I’ve known her come back and sit upstairs in her bed and rock with laughter at the lot of you.””
In book and movie, Maxim is away and the narrator sees that Mrs. Danvers is showing a man around. She also sees that his car has been parked in a sneaky way. She tries to avoid being seen, but the man and Danvers come across her. The man is Jack Favell, and he is Rebecca’s cousin. He is very loud and brash and they tell the narrator not to mention his visit to Maxim and she doesn’t. In the movie Favell is excellently played by George Sanders who I talked about in my coverage of The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Maxim finds out though and gets upset at Danvers about it, and Danvers of course assumes the narrator told him. We find out that is was actually Frank who told Maxim and he had known because he had seen the car. This part with Maxim finding out through Frank is left out of the movie.
In the book, Danvers wants to get back at the narrator for having told on her and so when there is talk of a dress up party, Danvers plays nice and kindly suggests she dress up as one of Maxim’s ancestors whose painting hangs in the gallery.
In the movie she makes this recommendation as well, but she doesn’t do it because she is mad about Favell, she just dislikes her.
Anyway, the narrator thinks Danvers is trying to turn a new leaf, and she likes the suggestion. In the book she makes an especially big show about keeping her costume a secret and how she won’t tell anyone and how she will surprise them all. Of course, the reader is filled with this impending dread, because you just know it won’t go well and that Danvers can’t be trusted.
Well, when she makes her appearance, Maxim becomes stony and tells her to go upstairs and take that off. His sister and brother-in-law are in shock. She runs upstairs, not knowing why they were so upset and as she goes into her room, she sees Danvers down the hall, sneering. Maxim’s sister then comes in and explains that that dress and outfit is exactly what Rebecca dressed as last time there was a costume party and that Maxim thought she had done it on purpose. She tells the narrator to wear something else, and they will tell the guests that the store sent the wrong size and all will be well. At first the narrator refuses to go back down and says she will stay in her room all evening.
However, she imagines the gossiping that would happen if she doesn’t make an appearance and ends up putting on a normal dress and joining them. The evening goes by in a blur, with Maxim refusing to look or talk to her.
In the movie, when she runs upstairs, she sees Danvers going into Rebecca’s room and follows her. Danvers tells her that it is the dress Rebecca had worn and the narrator lays down sobbing. Danvers then opens the window and tries to convince the narrator, in that trance like way she has of talking, to jump out the window and kill herself. The narrator is almost hypnotized but is startled from the haze when a ship nearby sends off an emergency flare. This happens in the book as well, but it isn’t till the next day. The movie doesn’t have the ball happen at all, because the ship shows up that night rather than the next day.
The next day, the narrator has the incident happen with Danvers, but as in the movie, she is startled back to reality when the ship sends out those flares.
She goes down to see the commotion, still not seeing Maxim. While checking it out, he found a body in the cabin and at first, we think there must have been someone with Rebecca when she died, but it is later told that it is actually Rebecca’s body.
At some point in that day, she decides she won’t be timid anymore and she will assert herself and no longer be afraid of Mrs. Danvers. She does finally show her authority, and it was great to see that.
The movie has a scene like this where she asserts herself with Mrs. Danvers, but it had happened before the dress incident.
When she finally sees Maxim, he reveals the truth to her in both book and movie. He tells of how after four days of marriage Rebecca told him all about herself, things he says he will never tell another soul due to how terrible it was. But she says there’s no way he would divorce her because he couldn’t deal with the public humiliation of the marriage ending in less than a week. She also tells him that if he agrees to put up a front and act like the perfect couple, she will make Manderley even greater than it already is and he agrees. He says of Rebecca, “She was vicious, damnable, rotten through and through. We never loved each other, never had one moment of happiness together. Rebecca was incapable of love, of tenderness, of decency. She was not even normal.”
He says she was promiscuous but would always have her liaisons in London. However, she began bringing them to Manderley and Maxim finally was fed up with it. He went to her sea cottage (which is basically a small house) and wants to scare her and Favell (who he thinks is with her) with a gun. She is alone though, and she sees Maxim is angry and she goads him on. Insinuating that she may be or could be soon pregnant, and that her son will grow at Manderley and someday it will be his. The mockery being the fact that the child obviously isn’t Maxim’s. He ends up shooting her, cleaning up the blood, putting her body in the ship cabin, and sinking the boat.
This is almost the same in the movie, but instead of Maxim shooting Rebecca she ends up falling, hitting her head and dying that way. The movie codes of the day wouldn’t allow Maxim to kill a woman who was even presumably pregnant.
When he tells his story in the movie though it was a great scene because he and the narrator are in the cabin and as he is telling her what Rebecca said, the camera follows the empty space where she had been.
The inquest and Favell
Since Rebecca’s body is found, there is an inquest to go over the details and to clear Maxim’s name. Despite some hiccups, the jury decides Rebecca had committed suicide.
In the movie, during a lunch break Favell joins Maxim and Mrs. de Winter and blackmails him. He has a note from Rebecca telling him to meet her at Manderley as soon as possible because she has something to tell him. He says there is no way she was going to kill herself, because why would she have sent that note. Maxim doesn’t let Favell blackmail him through and rather calls the police chief and tells him what Favell has just said.
This happens in the book too of course, but in the book, it is after the inquest is over. They are home, when Favell shows up and makes his statement. Maxim then calls the police chief and has him come to Manderley to hear the new evidence.
In the book it is a bit of a mystery as to what the news was, she had to tell Favell. They end up finding out she was seeing a doctor and plan to go see him in London the next day. In the movie it was easier to figure out the details, and they were already in London anyway. In the movie though, Mrs. de Winter faints at the inquest and goes home and isn’t around when they go to the doctor. In the book, she also faints at the inquest, but as said, Favell shows up later at Manderley.
In both, the doctor reveals that Rebecca had cancer and only had a few months to live. This satisfies the police who takes that as motive enough for her to have committed suicide. In the book, the narrator is with them and is with Maxim as he drives back to Manderley.
They leave that very night because one of the butlers calls and says that Danvers has been packing all her things and then just left without saying anything to anyone. She sleeps on the drive back and has various dreams. One of which is a dream where she and Rebecca have become one, and her hair is winding around Maxim’s neck like a snake.
Then they see the light in the distance and see that Manderley is on fire. We are of course left to assume that Danvers started the fire.
In the movie it is basically the same, but the wife was at Manderley and it is Frank with Maxim on the drive back. In the movie we also see Danvers still in the house as it burns and she chooses to burn with it as the narrator and Maxim hold each other.
Book after the fire
The book actually begins with the narrator sometime after the fire. She says she and her husband live in various hotels and they get their mail forwarded and in general just live a very mundane life. But she says boredom is better than fear.
I read someone mention how in this intro the narrator never names her companion as Maxim specifically and they speculated that she could have been with Frank. In the book, the narrator liked Frank in a friendly way, but who’s to say the two of them didn’t end up falling in love and going off together at some point. However, I’m guessing it is most likely Max.
Book Mr. and Mrs. de Winter
In the book I read there was an afterward written by Sally Beauman and she says, “Maxim de Winter kills not one wife, but two. He murders the first with a gun, and the second by slower, more insidious methods. The second Mrs. de Winter’s fate, for which she prepares herself throughout the novel, is to be subsumed by her husband. Following him into that hellish exile glimpsed in the opening chapters, she becomes again what she was when she first met him—the paid companion to a petty tyrant. For humoring his whims, and obeying his every behest, her recompense is not money, but “love”—and the cost is her identity. This is the final bitter irony of this novel, and the last of its many reversals. A story that ostensibly attempts to bury Rebecca, in fact resurrects her, and renders her unforgettable, whereas Mrs. de Winter, our pale, ghostly and timid narrator, fades from our view; it is she who is the dying woman in this novel. By extension—and this is daring on du Maurier’s part—her obedient beliefs, her unquestioning subservience to the male, are dying with her.”
Another quote about the narrator falling for Maxim reads,”[Rebecca is] narrated by a masochistic woman, who is desperate for the validation provided by a man’s love—a woman seeking an authoritarian father surrogate..Her search for this man involves both self-effacement and abnegation, as it does for any woman who “adores a Fascist.” She duly finds her ideal in de Winter, whose last name indicates sterility, coldness, an unfruitful season, and whose Christian name—Maxim, as she always abbreviates it—is a synonym for a rule of conduct. It is also the name of a weapon—a machine gun.”
Maxim often tells her he never wants her to grow up, and when she does start to seem more mature, he mourns the loss of her naïve past self. This could be because men want to feel superior to their wives, and therefore want a wife who is considerably younger, more innocent, and not as smart as themselves.
The theme of a man of power marrying a woman who “isn’t normal” in one way or another and is promiscuous, causing the man to go through much emotional and mental torture due to her actions; and then later falling for a woman who is much younger and more innocent and naïve is seen in other gothic novels as well. To avoid spoilers for other books, I won’t say which but chances are you know the book I am referring to.
In Rebecca, Danvers may be the one that sets the house on fire, but Danvers is working in unison with Rebecca and the last line says how the ashes from Manderley floated down on them from the direction of the sea-where Rebecca had died.
Maxim also keeps saying how Rebecca won in the end anyway; killing her wasn’t enough to stop her from getting what she wanted. And the book is after all, named after Rebecca. She is the only one who physically dies, and isn’t even seen in the book or movie, yet she is the one that makes a lasting impact on the reader and has a stronger presence than some of the other characters who are still flesh and blood.
I know this is a tired topic that people may be tired of hearing, but there is something about a woman who lives in a patriarchal society, getting away with doing what she wants and calling the shots is pretty awesome. Even though, yes, Rebecca seems to have had some issues. She was mean and unfeeling towards everyone and knew how to present herself to be liked by everyone, only to laugh at them behind their backs. And not just the men, but everyone. So, I am not saying she is a great person, but there is something empowering about her.
This book also doesn’t seem as much of a romance as you might think. The romance between Maxim and the narrator isn’t one that will make you swoon. Rather it is a book that will make you question the different characters and the symbolism and depth within it and what du Maurier was saying about relationships at the time.
Daphne du Maurier
Before wrapping this up, I want to share another quote from beauman about du Maurier,
“She gave her own shyness and social awkwardness to Mrs. de Winter. She gave her independence, her love of the sea, her expertise as a sailor, her sexual fearlessness, and even her bisexuality (strongly hinted at in the novel, if not spelled out) to Rebecca. It is for readers to decide where their own sympathies lie—and du Maurier’s. I would say that ultimately it is with Rebecca, with the angry voice of female dissent, that du Maurier’s instinctive sympathy lies. But it is possible to argue the opposite view—one of the factors that makes Rebecca such a rewarding novel to reread and re-examine. One thing is certain: Rebecca is a deeply subversive work, one that undermines the very genre to which critics consigned it. Far from being an “exquisite” love story, Rebecca raises questions about women’s acquiescence to male values that are as pertinent today as they were sixty-four years ago. We may have moved on from the subservience of Mrs. de Winter, but our enfranchisement is scarcely complete.”
I like how the narrator does have quite the arc. She starts out so shy and timid and overwhelmed by Manderley. But before they start driving home, she is thinking about all the things she is going to change and improve with the house. Very much like how Rebecca changed and improved things. Of course, she is never given the chance and in the end is living in a hotel room, reading to her older husband.
Book vs Movie
This is definitely an excellent movie; however, I can’t say it is my favorite Hitchcock. And even though Fontaine and Laurence are great, I actually think Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers is my favorite performance. By the way, she never blinks in the whole movie! Hitchcock told her not to in order to add to her spookiness. She has one monologue that goes on for quite some time and it is done in one shot and she doesn’t blink at all!
Joan Fontaine was good, but maybe a little over the top at times and Olivier is an actor that I just have always thought it overrated. Don’t hate me lol, I’m certainly not saying he is a bad actor, just not my favorite from this time in Hollywood.
The book wins though obviously! The movie is a faithful adaptation and I would recommend it, but the book just gives you so much more to think about and being in the narrator’s head in that way really makes you feel what she is going through.
Like I said, this is a book that could be studied and analyzed through and through and could be talked about much longer than I am. And certainly, one that you should read! And then watch the movie, which is free on YouTube. And like the book, I’m sure the movie is one that you could talk about and dissect and research the making of it and I could learn to appreciate it on a whole new level.
Maxim de Winter
I’ll start with the miscasting of Armie Hammer as Maxim de Winter. Hammer is only three years older than Lily James who plays the narrator. In the book, Maxim was 23 years older than her! And this was a huge part of the story because Maxim was so much older and had experienced so much more of life than the narrator had. He also was more of an authoritative, father figure to her because of their age difference. Maxim also liked how young and naïve the narrator was and liked that he felt superior and more knowledgeable than her simply because he had experienced more.
In the 1940 movie Olivier was ten years older than Fontaine, plus they added grey hair to show the big age gap.
Maxim de Winter in the book (and the 1940 movie) is as cold as his last name. Whereas in the 2020 version he is playful at times with the narrator-when they arrive at Manderley for the first time he picks her up in front of the staff and they are laughing and having a great time being silly. We also see them being intimate with each other, something we don’t see in the book. In the book there is even evidence to suggest she and Maxim hadn’t even had sex until after he confesses the truth about Rebecca. Earlier in the book she says how she was going to order new undergarments, since hers were so old and patched. But then she decides not to, saying she and her maid are the only ones that see them so what’s the point. When he tells her about Rebecca though, it says how they kissed passionately for the first time.
Speaking of the reveal of Rebecca’s death- in the 1940 movie they had Maxim not kill Rebecca but rather she happened to conveniently trip and fall, hitting her head and dying. In my previous video I said they had to do this because movie codes at the time couldn’t have Maxim killing a woman who was even presumably pregnant. That may have contributed to it, but the main reason is that codes at the time said that someone who commits a crime in a movie cannot get away with it and either has to die or be sent to prison. They didn’t want either of those things happening in the movie, so they had her death being an accident.
In the 2020 movie, they do have Maxim actually kill Rebecca, keeping it in line with the book. However, the scene where he tells the narrator this is just a weird scene. He has the gun and as he tells the new wife what happened, he gives her the gun and cocks it and has her point it at him, telling her to shoot him, but speaking as Rebecca had. It was just weird and I didn’t like it. And of course, the 1940 movie did such a fantastic job with this scene! So, comparing the new movie scene to the old one, the new one just doesn’t compare.
On to Danvers and the narrator, in this new movie the narrator is much more assertive early on. She even goes to Danvers quarters and fires her early on, but then Danvers opens up and tells her she has nowhere to go and that Manderley is her life. The narrator is softened by Danver’s vulnerability, and basically asks for Danvers help in learning to run the house and it seems the two are on better terms.
Then with the surprise dress, her maid tells her about dressing up as the ancestor, and after it goes wrong the maid tells her Danvers gave ger the idea. The suspense of the dress debacle also just wasn’t built up as much as the book or the 1940 movie did.
The scenes with Danvers and the narrator in Rebecca’s room as Danvers tells her about Rebecca are also not as tense as the book or movie. Kristin Scott Thomas is good as Danvers, but Judith Anderson as Danvers in the 1940 movie was just so incredible and Thomas doesn’t match up to the crazy obsessions of Anderson’s Danvers. The narrator also doesn’t seem as distressed as Fontaine in the ’40 movie.
Moving on the retrial after Rebecca’s body is found-here Maxim gives into Favell’s blackmail and pays him to not mention the note Rebecca had written Favell! What?? In the book he stood up to Favell and called the cops himself and had Favell tell them, not playing into Favell’s game. But here he pays him off, only for it to be called out in court by Danvers. Maxim is then put in jail, and it is up to the narrator to find out the truth about Rebecca’s doctor visit and she helps clear Maxim’s name.
Then in the end, Manderley is burning, and she sees Danvers standing on the edge of the cliff and they two have a brief interaction and she stands up to Danvers once more, before Danvers jumps off.
In the movie, Danvers lives in the end. In the ’40 movie she dies, but she dies in Manderley as it burns which was a better death scene in my opinion.
The narrator in this movie though is too assertive and is the focus of the movie. It seems like they changed her character to maybe be more relatable to modern audiences, I guess. But the point of Rebecca is that the narrator is in the shadow of Rebecca and Rebecca is the person who leaves a lasting impression on you. They just totally changed that dynamic here!
Oh, and the very end of the movie shows them living in a hotel, and in voiceover she says something about how true love is worth walking through fire for and we see her and Maxim in love living their best life. Again, totally changing the point of the book! When they move to live in hotels, they live a very mundane life and she is still careful not to “trigger” Maxim and when she reads aloud to him, she knows what things not to read because he will be upset and reminded of Manderley. She has grown from how she was through most of the book, but she and Maxim don’t have like this perfect ideal relationship by any means.
The new movie made their relationship something you could be rooting for (to some extent) and that wasn’t the case in the book or even the 1940 movie. This movie isn’t making a statement about the power dynamic in marriages, it doesn’t lean into the lesbian aspect that was present in the book (the 1940 movie makes that more apparent even than the 2020 one!), and Rebecca isn’t the memorable character that she was in book or ’40 movie, despite us never even seeing her in the flesh. Oh, and I didn’t even say how in this movie she enjoyed seeing Favell and rode horses with him when she saw him at Manderley. Ugh, just all these little changes, that are actually big changes and totally change the story.
So basically, do not waste your time with this adaptation. Stick to the book, and the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock movie!