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.
Place, Imprisonment, and the Gothic ThemeTracker
Place, Imprisonment, and the Gothic 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.
“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.”
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 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.
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.