At the core of My Cousin Rachel lies a pair of questions: Did Rachel kill her husband, Ambrose? And, did Philip kill Rachel? The murky concept of guilt drives the novel forward, as Philip struggles to reconcile his loyalty to his beloved cousin Ambrose with his growing infatuation with Rachel, Ambrose’s widow. However, the question of guilt is more than just a plot mechanism propelling the story. Over the course of the novel, du Maurier subversively reveals how guilt is more a social construct than a moral absolute. Through the character of Rachel (and, to a lesser degree, Philip), du Maurier argues that guilt exists on a spectrum; people are neither wholly guilty nor wholly innocent. Du Maurier also shows that the very notion of guilt is powerfully inflected by social norms. Because society has much more rigid definitions of acceptable female behavior than it does of male behavior, women like Rachel who do not conform to societal expectations are judged much more harshly when they do morally (rather than socially) transgress.
While her characters tend to think in black-and-white terms, du Maurier shows that guilt actually exists on a spectrum, and the spectrum itself differs depending on a person’s gender. Twenty-five-year-old Philip begins narrating the novel in the wake of Rachel’s death: “every day,” he says, “haunted still by doubt, I ask myself a question which I cannot answer. Was Rachel innocent or guilty? Maybe I shall learn that too, in purgatory.” Ostensibly, Philip is referring to Ambrose’s death; the novel never makes it clear whether Ambrose died of a hereditary brain tumor, or if Rachel poisoned him using laburnum seeds. On a deeper level, though, Philip is gesturing at the myriad ways that Rachel defies societal convention: she is “guilty” of having extramarital sex, of not wanting to remarry, and of being enterprising and self-sufficient. (Philip himself is practically stunned by Rachel’s suggestion that she give Italian lessons to the estate workers as a means of financially supporting herself.) Furthermore, du Maurier hints that even if Rachel were to have murdered Ambrose, she may have had motive: Rachel confesses to Philip that Ambrose was physically violent toward her, a claim that seems to be confirmed by one of Ambrose’s letters to Philip, in which he writes that his headaches created “great excitation of [his] brain, driving [him] near to violence.” Du Maurier thus demonstrates that guilt is not a clear-cut concept. Not only are there shades of culpability, she suggests, but the way society pronounces judgment on a person’s guilt is powerfully affected by whether that person conforms to society’s expectations for them.
Du Maurier reinforces the notion that guilt is a spectrum by refusing to describe the aftermath of Rachel’s death. The reader knows that Philip feels at least some responsibility for allowing Rachel to cross a bridge he knew to be unstable; this much is indicated by Philip’s conviction that he will end up “in purgatory”—a place of suffering where people are cleansed of their sins before continuing on to heaven. However, du Maurier does not explain what happened after Rachel died. Philip was at her side, as the reader sees in the closing scene, but there is no mention of whether Philip was questioned in regard to Rachel’s death or of how other characters in the novel feel about Rachel’s “accident.” In fact, Philip implies that he has faced absolutely no suspicion following his cousin’s death: “I shall continue to be honoured and respected,” he says, “like all my family before me […] No one will ever guess the burden of blame I carry on my shoulders.” This passage clearly shows how Philip’s aristocratic status (and, perhaps, his gender) protects him from censure in the case of Rachel’s death.
A final crucial component of du Maurier’s argument about guilt is the fact that she refuses to definitively state whether Rachel poisoned Ambrose and attempted to do the same to Philip. Instead, she shows how Rachel’s defiance of social norms makes Philip more readily disposed to find her guilty of murder. Because Philip knows that Rachel has flouted other social conventions (for example, she has had extramarital sex, and she is widely considered to be “extravagant” in the amount of money she spends) he easily makes the jump into believing that she is capable of murder as soon as he discovers poisonous laburnum seeds in her room. The fact that Rachel is guilty of defying societal expectations based on her gender acts as a kind of evidence that she might also be guilty of killing Ambrose. Du Maurier thus shows how women are subjected to a much harsher standard than men.
Thus, even as she builds a “whodunit” plot—a detective story that invites the reader to solve the crime alongside the protagonist—du Maurier makes it clear that there exist shades of guilt and innocence, and people are not purely one or the other. In addition, she also highlights that not everyone is subject to the same kind of scrutiny when it comes to assigning blame or blamelessness in a patriarchal society. Women, particularly those like Rachel who buck fundamental societal expectations based on their gender, are ultimately judged much more critically than men.
Guilt Quotes in My Cousin Rachel
How soft and gentle her name sounds when I whisper it. It lingers on the tongue, insidious and slow, almost like poison, which is apt indeed. It passes from the tongue to the parched lips, and from the lips back to the heart. And the heart controls the body, and the mind also. Shall I be free of it one day? In forty, in fifty years? […] Perhaps, when all is said and done, I shall have no wish to be free. As yet, I cannot tell.
“There is a tisana for that too,” she said, “made from the leaves of raspberries and of nettles. If a woman drinks that for six months before the birth, she has her baby without pain.”
“That’s witchcraft,” I said. “They wouldn’t think it right to do so.”
“What nonsense! Why should women suffer?” said my cousin Rachel.
As I lay there in the darkness I was not aware of danger, or of fear. Only compassion. I saw her as someone not responsible for what she did, besmirched by evil. Compelled and driven by the man who had power over her, lacking, through fault of circumstance and birth, in some deep moral sense, she was capable by instinct and by impulse of this final act. I wanted to save her from herself, and knew not how.