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The White Dress Symbol Analysis

The White Dress Symbol Icon

At the de Winter costume party, the narrator wears a beautiful white dress at the suggestion of Mrs. Danvers. It’s only when she appears before Maxim himself that the narrator learns, to her horror, that the white dress matches the one that the late Rebecca wore to the last costume party. On the surface of things, the white dress symbolizes Mrs. Danvers’ cruel—and rather petty—manipulations. But it’s also a more subtle symbol of the importance of social and gender roles in Rebecca. The narrator wants to fit in with her new life in Manderley, but as she spends more time there, it dawns on her that the only way to “fit in” is to imitate the actions and habits of her predecessor, Rebecca—in essence, to become Rebecca. Wearing Rebecca’s white dress is, on a symbolic level, the culmination of the narrator’s attempts to adjust to her new life—and proof of why these attempts are utterly misguided.

The White Dress Quotes in Rebecca

The Rebecca quotes below all refer to the symbol of The White Dress. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Memory Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Harper edition of Rebecca published in 2006.
Chapter 16 Quotes

“What the hell do you think you are doing?” he asked. His eyes blazed in anger. His face was still ashen white.
I could not move, I went on standing there, my hand on the banister.
“It's the picture,” I said, terrified at his eyes, at his voice. “It's the picture, the one in the gallery.”
There was a long silence. We went on staring at each other. Nobody moved in the hall. I swallowed, my hand moved to my throat. “What is it?” I said. “What have I done?”

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker), Maximilian de Winter (speaker)
Related Symbols: The White Dress
Page Number: 217
Explanation and Analysis:

In this uncomfortable scene, the narrator prepares to enter the Manderley summer ball, a fixture of social life in the community. With Mrs. Danvers's help, the narrator has chosen for her costume a beautiful white dress. To her horror, though, the narrator discovers--as she enters the party itself--that the dress is identical to one worn by Rebecca years before. Mrs. Danvers has tricked the narrator into humiliating herself in front of her guests and her husband.

The scene is designed to show the narrator in a state of total cluelessness: at this point, the narrator has no idea what she's done, or why her behavior has enraged Maxim. And yet we, the readers, can already guess what's going on. The narrator has dared to wear Rebecca's clothes--symbolically, she's attempted to step into Rebecca's role as wife and socialite, and she's utterly failed. In short, the passage confirms the narrator's worst fear: that she's an embarrassing, inadequate substitute for Rebecca de Winter.


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Chapter 17 Quotes

I remember Robert dropping a tray of ices, and the expression of Frith's face when he saw Robert was the culprit and not one of the minions hired for the occasion. I wanted to go to Robert and stand beside him and say “I know how you feel. I understand. I've done worse than you tonight.”

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker), Frith , Robert
Related Symbols: The White Dress
Page Number: 228
Explanation and Analysis:

In the immediate aftermath of her humiliation at the party, the narrator falls into a state of trancelike calm. She's been so utterly embarrassed by Mrs. Danvers that she feels she can't sink any lower. And yet in the depths of her humiliation, the narrator seems to mature. Before the party, she was shy and mousy, avoiding conversation as much as possible; now, she's become more sympathetic and comfortable with her servants--she reaches out to Robert when he makes a mistake, offering sympathy and support.

In short, the passage shows the narrator regrouping after her embarrassment, and growing from a shy young woman into a mature adult. The passage is also important because it illuminates a crucial difference between the narrator and Rebecca. Rebecca was a glamorous socialite, but she was also cold and bullying. The narrator, by contrast, is a reluctant hostess, but she's also compassionate in a way that Rebecca could never match.

Chapter 18 Quotes

That was why I had come down last night in my blue dress and had not stayed hidden in my room. There was nothing brave or fine about it, it was a wretched tribute to convention. I had not come down for Maxim's sake, or Beatrice's, for the sake of Manderley. I had come down because I did not want the people at the ball to think I had quarreled with Maxim. I didn't want them to go home and say, “Of course you know they don't get on. I hear he's not at all happy.” I had come for my own sake, my own poor personal pride.

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker), Maximilian de Winter , Beatrice Lacy
Related Symbols: The White Dress
Page Number: 235
Explanation and Analysis:

In the aftermath of her humiliation, the narrator makes the difficult choice to continue with her party. Mrs. Danvers has embarrassed her horribly, but instead of fleeing to her room, she decides to continue on with the party, playing the part of a gracious host.

It's important to note that it's the narrator's pride, nothing else, that compels her to continue on with her hosting duties. In a slightly different sense, the narrator chooses to continue on because she doesn't want her hundreds of guests talking about her behind her back: she's concerned with her reputation in the community. Ironically, in spite of Mrs. Danvers best efforts, the narrator's humiliation at her party has caused her to become a more competent hostess and a more confident partner to Maxim de Winter--she's finally playing the part of Maxim's wife. The narrator presents this as a character flaw, but in reality it's a sign of growth--she's doing things for her own sense of dignity and self-respect, rather than just because she thinks Maxim (or Rebecca) would approve.

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The White Dress Symbol Timeline in Rebecca

The timeline below shows where the symbol The White Dress appears in Rebecca. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 16
Feminism and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Coming of Age Theme Icon
Place, Imprisonment, and the Gothic Theme Icon
...dancing. Only one day before the ball, the shop in London sends the narrator the white dress , which has turned out beautifully. She decides to keep her costume a secret from... (full context)
Chapter 17
Memory Theme Icon
Coming of Age Theme Icon
Place, Imprisonment, and the Gothic Theme Icon
...the narrator’s bedroom, wearing an “Eastern” gown. Beatrice explains the truth to the narrator: the white dress she wore was the same white dress that Rebecca wore to the last costume party.... (full context)
Feminism and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Place, Imprisonment, and the Gothic Theme Icon
Power, Control, and Information Theme Icon
...touches the narrator, a clear sign of his discontent. Guests ask the narrator about her white dress , which, thanks to Giles and Frank, everyone thinks was too small for her to... (full context)