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Place, Imprisonment, and the Gothic Theme Analysis

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Place, Imprisonment, and the Gothic Theme Icon

In Rebecca, du Maurier addresses the theme of imprisonment in many ways. From a feminist standpoint, for example, it’s easy to see that the narrator is imprisoned by the gender roles of her time. But du Maurier also confronts the theme of imprisonment in an even more literal sense: by studying the role of a physical place, Manderley, in the narrator’s life. In order to study Manderley, the de Winter family estate, Rebecca imitates the conventions of a familiar genre of English literature: the Gothic. In a Gothic novel (Samuel Richardson’s Pamela is a good example), a young, naïve (usually female) protagonist comes to an old, mysterious place, usually a big English manor house, and tries to make a new life for herself there. Du Maurier both honors and subverts Gothic conventions in her novel, painting a unique picture of psychological—and literal—imprisonment.

As in the Gothic novel, Manderley represents both imprisonment and liberation. At the beginning of Rebecca, the narrator has no home to speak of—almost all of her family is deceased, and she’s inherited no property. The narrator has no “base”—no place she can point to and call her own. She’s cast adrift in the world, and as a result, she’s forced to take on various dull and humiliating jobs, such as working for the obnoxious Mrs. Van Hopper. The narrator’s fortunes then improve—and decline—when she marries the wealthy, landed aristocrat, Maxim de Winter. As Maxim’s new wife, the narrator finally has a place of her own—indeed, an enormous house, surrounded by sprawling grounds. The tradeoff of this arrangement is that the narrator can only claim Manderley as her own property by sacrificing her own personality. Surveyed by Maxim, and by servants, the narrator feels a constant pressure to become something she’s not—an elegant lady.

One of du Maurier’s most important insights is that Manderley represents imprisonment and freedom, not only to the narrator, but to Maxim himself. Maxim is completely comfortable at Manderley—he’s familiar with every inch of it, having lived there since childhood. Ownership of the estate gives him the freedom to build relationships with his wealthy and powerful neighbors, and allows him to earn an income without lifting a finger. And yet Maxim, even more so than the narrator, has no life outside of Manderley. We can see this especially clearly at the end of the novel, when he’s accused of murdering Rebecca. While the local detective, Colonel Julyan, orders that Maxim should be put under house arrest until his innocence can be determined, we sense that these measures are redundant—Maxim doesn’t haven’t have anywhere to run off to.

At the end of a typical Gothic novel, the protagonist becomes the owner of the big house where she used to be a stranger. The implication is that an estate, even if it’s a prison, is the source of too much power to give up. At the end of Rebecca, however, du Maurier subverts the usual Gothic tropes: in the final sentence of the book, we learn that Manderley is burning to the ground. Instead of adjusting to their prison, Maxim and the narrator must build new lives for themselves. It’s a powerful reminder of the influence, both positive and negative, that a place can wield over its owner, and (especially in light of the novel’s early 20th century setting) of the declining power of the English aristocracy.

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Place, Imprisonment, and the Gothic ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Place, Imprisonment, and the Gothic appears in each chapter of Rebecca. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Place, Imprisonment, and the Gothic Quotes in Rebecca

Below you will find the important quotes in Rebecca related to the theme of Place, Imprisonment, and the Gothic.
Chapter 1 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Manderley
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

In the dreamy opening pages of the novel, the narrator (who's never named) describes Manderley, the vast manor house where she used to live with her husband. She describes the "path"  to Manderley, a path that twists and turns unpredictably. While the narrator is speaking of a literal path--i.e., a road--we understand that she's also alluding to the more metaphorical "path" of memory. Throughout the novel, the narrator will look back on her time at Manderley, as clearly she's still haunted by her experiences there. Sometimes, her memories will seem exaggerated or uncertain, the product of her fear and anxiety. In short, the quotation is a kind of "thesis statement" for the entire book: the narrator will circle back, again and again, to her time at Manderley, lost on the meandering path of that oppressive, unforgettable place.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker), Rebecca de Winter , Mrs. Danvers
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the narrator recalls her former housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, for the first time. Right away she describes Mrs. Danvers as a severe, intimidating woman. Furthermore, Mrs. Danvers like to compare the narrator with her predecessor--Rebecca de Winter (the narrator's husband's former wife). Danver's constant, silent judgment of the narrator makes the narrator feel anxious and uncertain: everything the narrator does is being "weighed" against Rebecca's memory.

And yet the narrator doesn't seem the least bit anxious about Mrs. Danvers, in the present. On the contrary, she seems calm and collected, wondering offhandedly what ever happened to her former tormenter. The fact that Mrs. Danvers--a veritable institution at Manderley--is gone suggests that something has happened to Manderley itself. The narrator's former life as a resident of Manderley, alongside her husband, is over--but it'll take 300 pages before we understand what has happened to it.

Chapter 8 Quotes

“Who is it?” I said, “who do you want?”
There was a strange buzzing at the end of the line, and then a voice came, low and rather harsh, whether that of a woman or a man I could not tell, and “Mrs. de Winter?” it said, “Mrs. de Winter?”
“I'm afraid you have made a mistake,” I said; “Mrs. de Winter has been dead for over a year.” I sat there, waiting, staring stupidly into the mouthpiece, and it was not until the name was repeated again, the voice incredulous, slightly raised, that I became aware, with a rush of color to my face, that I had blundered irretrievably, and could not take back my words.
“It's Mrs. Danvers, Madam,” said the voice. “I'm speaking to you on the house telephone.”

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker), Mrs. Danvers (speaker), Rebecca de Winter
Related Symbols: Manderley
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:

In this darkly amusing scene, the narrator answers the telephone in her new home, Manderley. Unfamiliar with the voice on the other end of the line, the narrator explains that "Mrs. de Winter"--i.e., Rebecca de Winter--is dead, only to realize that Mrs. Danvers is trying to get in touch with the narrator herself.

The narrator is so uncomfortable with her new role as the mistress of Manderley that she doesn't even answer to her own title. The narrator has become Mrs. de Winter, but she continues to think of Rebecca as the true owner of this elite title. The narrator's nervousness reflects her lack of familiarity with the lifestyle of the English aristocracy. A middle-class girl, she hasn't a clue how to go about running Manderley--the contrast between Rebecca's legendary competence and the narrator's incompetence is crystal-clear, and a crucial aspect of the power dynamic between Mrs. Danvers (who also clearly thinks of Rebecca as the real Mrs. de Winter) and the narrator.

Chapter 11 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker), Rebecca de Winter
Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the narrator takes a leap and speaks the name of Maxim de Winter's former wife, Rebecca. The narrator is in the middle of a visit to the wife of the local bishop--one of her many duties as the wife of an English aristocrat. Away from her husband--who refuses to hear the name Rebecca at any time--the narrator takes the opportunity to vent some of her pent-up frustrations, and speaks Rebecca's name in a kind of cathartic release.

The narrator has been frightened of Rebecca for a long time now, even though Rebecca has been dead for more than a year. She feels that she's an incompetent, childish young woman, whereas Rebecca must have been an impressive, beloved wife to Maxim. After repressing her guilt and fear for so long, it's enormously satisfying for the narrator to name the source of her frustrations. The quotation is important because it signals that the narrator is beginning to explore the mysteries of Manderley, starting with the mysteries' source, Rebecca herself.

Chapter 27 Quotes

I would learn more about the estate, too. I should ask Frank to explain things to me. I was sure Frank liked me. I liked him, too. I would go into things, and learn how they were managed. What they did at the farm. How the work in the grounds was planned. I might take to gardening myself, and in time have one or two things altered. That little square lawn outside the morning-room with the statue of the satyr. I did not like it. We would give the satyr away. There were heaps of things that I could do, little by little. People would come and stay and I should not mind. There would be the interest of seeing to their rooms, having flowers and books put, arranging the food. We would have children. Surely we would have children.

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker), Maximilian de Winter , Frank Crawley
Page Number: 382
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the narrator and Maxim de Winter are driving back to Manderley, having resolved the mystery of Rebecca's "illness." With law enforcement satisfied that Rebecca died by suicide, Maxim is free of all suspicion--in short, he and the narrator can finally begin their life as a married couple, finally free of Rebecca's influence. In the car, the narrator plans her new life as Maxim's wife. Although she's been living at Manderley for months now, it's as if she's going there for the first time: she envisions doing all the things she should have been doing all along. The narrator has been too intimidated by Rebecca's memory to play the part of the aristocrat's wife--now, however, she's looking forward to doing so.

And yet there's a subtle hint that all is not well. The mention of Frank "liking" her suggests that the narrator is still a little dissatisfied with her marriage. (Notice that the narrator insists, "We would have children," even though the only man named in the passage is Frank, not Maxim) In short, the narrator seems be settling into her role as Maxim's wife, planning to host parties and give birth to children--as a good wife ought to, she believes--and yet there's also a suggestion that she's not entirely comfortable with such a role.

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.

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker), Maximilian de Winter
Related Symbols: Manderley
Page Number: 386
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the novel, the narrator and Maxim return to Manderley, ready to start a new life with one another. And yet when they approach their manor home, they're shocked to see that it's in flames: someone (Mrs. Danvers, it's implied) has set the building on fire.

What does the destruction of Manderley mean for the narrator? Just as the narrator was getting ready to settle into the role of mistress of Manderley, her home is destroyed. By the same token, the narrator's chances of a stable adult life have disappeared: although she's still married to Maxim, she'll never be entirely respectable--because of the destruction of Manderley, her name will always be tied to some mysterious scandal.

And yet the destruction of Manderley is a beginning as well as an ending. Throughout the novel, the narrator has struggled to liberate herself from Rebecca's memory. In no small part, the narrator's struggle was so great because Rebecca and Manderley were practically synonymous. Now that Rebecca's legacy has finally been buried, it's only fair that Manderley should be "buried," too.