From the first sentence, it’s apparent that Rebecca is constructed as a memory. The narrator (never named) remembers her time at Manderley after marrying her husband, the handsome, mysterious Maxim de Winter. As the novel goes on, however, we realize that life at Manderley is dominated by the memory of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca. In essence, the novel Rebecca is about the memory of a memory. In light of memory’s obvious importance to the novel, it’s worth examining this theme a little more closely.
Much of the eerie, uneasy tone of Rebecca derives from the clash between past and present—in other words, from the ambiguous dynamics of memory. By definition, a memory involves the past “replaying” in the present. At Manderley, Rebecca’s past is constantly being replayed in its inhabitants’ memories—the servants mention Rebecca whenever possible, for example. Even Manderley itself is the embodiment of Rebecca’s past, since she designed the gardens, the bedrooms, etc. Simply to walk through Manderley is to relive Rebecca’s life. As the book moves on, we realize that this is exactly what Rebecca intended: sadistically, she filled Manderley with personal mementos, ensuring that Maxim would be cursed to forever remember the wife he hated. As du Maurier sees it, a memory is like a zombie—a dead, vanished being that’s been recalled to life, often with terrifying results.
There’s no doubt that memories can be painful and intimidating. And yet there’s something undeniably comforting about remembering, no matter what the individual memory consists of. Although the narrator spends the majority of the book frightened of Rebecca—a woman she’s never met—she recognizes that the people around her, including her husband, find meaning and even pleasure from memory. The people who worshipped Rebecca, such as Mrs. Danvers, base their entire life around the act of remembering her—at times spending long hours reconstructing her wardrobe and her bedroom. Even Maxim, who, we learn, despised Rebecca, gets an undeniable sense of comfort from his wife’s memory. Though Maxim hated Rebecca’s cruelty and manipulation, Rebecca stands for Manderley itself in his mind, so to forget Rebecca would be to forget who he is altogether. Through Maxim’s behavior, du Maurier makes one of her most provocative points about memory: it’s better to have flawed, even horrifying memories of one’s past than to have no memories at all.
But is there any way to escape memory without surrendering one’s identity altogether? At the end of Rebecca, Mrs. Danvers, furious with Maxim for murdering Rebecca, has set Manderley on fire. Symbolically, this suggests that Rebecca’s past no longer has a stranglehold on the characters’ lives. Not coincidentally, this scene coincides closely with Maxim’s decision to share the sordid details of Rebecca’s past with the narrator. Perhaps the suggestion here is that the only way to move past a painful memory is to share it with someone else. Thus, Maxim escapes the haunting influence of his dead wife by sharing his memories with the narrator. By the same token, the narrator transcends her own haunting experiences at Manderley by passing them on to someone else entirely: the reader.
Memory Quotes in Rebecca
On and on, now east now west, wound the poor thread that once had been our drive. Sometimes I thought it lost, but it appeared again, beneath a fallen tree perhaps, or struggling on the other side of a muddied ditch created by the winter rains. I had not thought the way so long.
But I never dared ask Mrs. Danvers what she did about it. She would have looked at me in scorn, smiling that freezing, superior smile of hers, and I can imagine her saying: “There were never any complaints when Mrs. de Winter was alive.”
Mrs. Danvers. I wonder what she is doing now.
“When we climbed the hills and looked down over the precipice. I was there some years ago, with my wife. You asked me if it was still the same, if it had changed at all. It was just the same, but—I was thankful to realize—oddly impersonal. There was no suggestion of the other time. She and I had left no record. It may have been because you were with me. You have blotted out the past for me, you know, far more effectively than all the bright lights of Monte Carlo.”
How many times she must have written to him thus, in how many varied moods. Little notes, scrawled on half-sheets of paper, and letters, when he was away, page after page, intimate, their news. Her voice, echoing through the house, and down the garden, careless and familiar like the writing in the book.
And I had to call him Maxim.
I heard myself saying boldly, brazenly, “Rebecca must have been a wonderful person.”
I could not believe that I had said the name at last. I waited, wondering what would happen. I had said the name. I had said the word Rebecca aloud. It was a tremendous relief. It was as though I had taken a purge and rid myself of an intolerable pain. Rebecca. I had said it aloud.
I dreaded his going. When I saw the car disappear round the sweep in the drive I felt exactly as though it were to be a final parting and I should never see him again. There would be an accident of course and later on in the afternoon, when I came back from my walk, I should find Frith white and frightened waiting for me with a message. The doctor would have rung up from some cottage hospital. “You must be very brave,” he would say, “I'm afraid you must be prepared for a great shock.”
She had relaxed against the pillows, plucking at her shawl, and her mouth began to tremble. “You talk too much, all of you. I don't understand.” Then she looked across at me, a frown on her face, and began shaking her head. “Who are you, my dear, I haven't seen you before? I don't know your face. I don't remember you at Manderley. Bee, who is this child? Why did not Maxim bring Rebecca? I'm so fond of Rebecca. Where is dear Rebecca?”
He considered me a moment, his eyebrows raised, whistling softly. “Listen, my sweet. When you were a little girl, were you ever forbidden to read certain books, and did your father put those books under lock and key?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, then. A husband is not so very different from a father after all. There is a certain type of knowledge I prefer you not to have. It's better kept under lock and key. So that's that. And now eat up your peaches, and don't ask me any more questions, or I shall put you in the corner.”
“I wish you would not treat me as if I was six,” I said.
“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?”
“Our marriage was a farce from the very first. 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.”
“This business has been a shock to me, you know,” he said. “A bloody awful shock. Rebecca was my cousin. I was damn fond of her.”
“Yes,” I said. “I'm very sorry for you.”
“We were brought up together,” he went on. “Always tremendous pals. Liked the same things, the same people. Laughed at the same jokes. I suppose I was fonder of Rebecca than anyone else in the world. And she was fond of me. All this has been a bloody shock.”
There was no moon. The sky above our heads was inky black. But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all. It was shot with crimson, like a splash of blood. And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.