Like many of Daphne du Maurier’s works, Rebecca studies how people maintain power over others. Surprisingly, the characters in the novel almost never rely on physical force (the simplest form of power, one would think) to assert themselves—in fact, on the one significant occasion when a character does use violence, his actions are presented as a total failure. Instead of violence, the powerful characters in Rebecca control their weaker peers using intimidation, manipulation, and various other psychological weapons.
Perhaps the most important such weapon in du Maurier’s novel is information. As a mystery novel, Rebecca is full of hidden information that must be gradually discovered or revealed. Throughout the novel in general, then, power means knowing this information, weakness means not knowing information, and control consists of the powerful keeping information from the weak. Even in the early chapters of Rebecca it’s clear that power and knowledge are closely related. The narrator’s weakness, uncertainty, and immaturity are synonymous with her ignorance of Maxim de Winter’s life and family. Although she’s admired Manderley since childhood, she has almost no idea what it contains. This weakness allows Maxim to “buy” her into marriage—essentially by saying that he’ll give her access to money, luxury, and, most importantly, some of the secrets of his life.
As Maxim’s example suggests, information must be managed carefully in order to control other people. Many of the characters in the novel try and fail to control their enemies, because they don’t quite understand what to do with their own knowledge. The most obvious example of this problem is Jack Favell, who tries and fails to blackmail Maxim into giving him money. Favell thinks that his knowledge of Rebecca’s unfaithfulness can send Maxim to jail, but when Maxim calls his bluff, Favell doesn’t know how to wield his own weapon—he tells Colonel Julyan, the local detective, everything he knows, but Julyan takes an immediate dislike to Favell’s aggressiveness, and so from the beginning he doesn’t take the information seriously. By the same token, Mrs. Danvers wields great power over the narrator, in spite of her inferior social rank, because she knows more about Rebecca and the de Winter family history. It’s only when Danvers begins to surrender this information voluntarily that she loses all power over the narrator—with no more secrets to keep, all the leverage is gone from Danvers’ relationship with the narrator.
In Rebecca, control always comes “from a distance.” Only rarely do the characters pose literal, physical threats to one another. More often, they control their peers by dangling money, access, and above all, information, in front of them. The tense, claustrophobic mood of the novel stems from du Maurier’s unorthodox understanding of power and control. The narrator isn’t being physically coerced during her time at Manderley, and yet Maxim and Mrs. Danvers are controlling her, using her ignorance to frighten, intimidate, or manipulate her.
Power, Control, and Information ThemeTracker
Power, Control, and Information Quotes in Rebecca
“Naturally one wants you to be happy, and I grant you he's a very attractive creature but—well, I'm sorry; and personally I think you are making a big mistake—one you will bitterly regret.”
“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 ought to have told you all this before,” I said.
“I wish you had,” he said. “I might have spared you some worry.”
“I feel happier,” I said, “much happier. And I've got you for my friend whatever happens, haven't I, Frank?”
“Yes, indeed,” he said.
We were out of the dark.
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?”
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.”
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.
“I thought I hated you but I don't now,” she said; “it seems to have spent itself, all the feeling I had.”
“Why should you hate me?” I asked; “what have I ever done to you that you should hate me?”
“You tried to take Mrs. de Winter's place,” she said.
I was free now to be with Maxim, to touch him, and hold him, and love him. I would never be a child again.
“I will give the orders about the lunch,” she said. She waited a moment. I did not say anything. Then she went out of the room. She can't frighten me any more, I thought. She has lost her power with Rebecca.
Thank God for Favell's laugh. Thank God for his pointing finger, his flushed face, his staring bloodshot eyes. Thank God for the way he stood there swaying on his two feet. Because it made Colonel Julyan antagonistic, it put him on our side. I saw the disgust on his face, the quick movement of his lips. Colonel Julyan did not believe him. Colonel Julyan was on our side.