Both Philip and Rachel have fractured and refracted identities. Before he meets her, Philip imagines Rachel as “a dozen personalities or more and each one more hateful than the last.” Even after Rachel arrives in England and Philip begins to fall for her, he notes that she is a much different woman by day than by night: “a new softness came to her by candlelight,” he says, “that was not with her in the day.” Philip himself also embodies multiple selves; Rachel and others note how much Philip physically resembles his cousin Ambrose, and Philip often feels as if “Ambrose stood beside [him] in the shadows.” In My Cousin Rachel, Du Maurier links the idea of multiple, repeated identities to the concept of destiny. In the opening chapter of the novel, Philip declares: “We would have both survived, had we been other men […] It did not happen that way because I looked like Ambrose. It did not happen that way because I felt like Ambrose.” Du Maurier thus imbues her characters with a certain helplessness: no matter what they do, their very identities doom them to their fates. At the same time, however, du Maurier delicately casts doubt on this premise, suggesting that the resignation her characters feel toward their fates means that they wind up at least partially contributing to their own misery.
From the opening chapter of the novel, Philip introduces the notion that he is a kind of reincarnation of Ambrose. “I have wondered,” he says, “whether his spirit left his body and came home here to mine, taking possession, so that he lived again in me, repeating his own mistakes, caught the disease once more and perished twice.” Rachel expresses a similar sentiment: “‘A woman can’t suffer twice. I have had all this before.’ And lifting her fingers to her throat she added, ‘Even the hands around my neck.’” It is as if these characters are stuck in a temporal loop, forced to relive their disastrous interpersonal relationships. While Philip believes himself to be replicating Ambrose’s path, Rachel’s suffering is depicted as even more compounded and all-encompassing. Rachel is often described as having an ancient quality about her; Ambrose claims she “reek[s] of old Rome,” and her knowledge of herbal medicine links her to an ancient tradition of medicine women. (And, not incidentally, suggests a connotation of witchcraft.) Philip even imagines that Rachel’s eyes hold the same “age-old look of suffering” as those of a beggar woman he observed during his visit to Italy.
It is details such as this one that refute the argument that the characters are condemned to their fates. Du Maurier seems to be deliberately exaggerating by suggesting that Rachel embodies a kind of ancient (and peculiarly feminized) suffering. Du Maurier undercuts Philip’s overt comparisons between Rachel and the Madonna, and even Rachel’s own conviction that she has already endured all forms of suffering by deliberately highlighting the melodrama of these claims. Rachel, she suggests, is nothing more than herself. While this might seem to Philip as though Rachel were “two persons, torn in two, first one having sway and then the other,” to imagine that a person contains an infinite number of selves is actually to obscure who the person really is. Philip becomes so wrapped up in all the possibilities of Rachel’s identity that he blinds himself to the person actually before him. Similarly, Philip’s conviction that he is living a parallel life to Ambrose becomes an impediment to Philip taking responsibility for his actions. For example, right before he chokes Rachel, Philip imagines himself into Ambrose’s shoes: “I think I knew, upon that instant, all that Ambrose had known too. I knew what he had seen in her, and longed for, but had never had. I knew the torment, and the pain, and the great gulf between them, ever widening.” Here, Philip is laying claim to all the resentment and anger that Ambrose felt toward Rachel. Of course, the nature of Ambrose’s relationship to Rachel was quite different than Philip’s. Ambrose was married to Rachel, and they conceived and lost a child together, while Philip is not even engaged to Rachel. Yet Philip, because of his resemblance to Ambrose, feels he has internalized Ambrose’s antagonistic feelings toward Rachel—and he allows those feelings to fuel his physical attack on Rachel. In this way, imagining himself to be a reincarnated version of Ambrose means that Philip is able to cede responsibility for the actions he takes regarding Rachel.
In this way, du Maurier pulls off a delicate balancing act. By emphasizing the fractured identities of her two main characters, she imbues the novel with a haunting feeling of mysticism, turning the idea of destiny into another tool for suspense. Simultaneously, however, du Maurier suggests that the intertwined processes of indulging in the idea of multiple selves and resigning oneself to a preordained fate merely leads people to blindness. As a result, characters are unable to clearly perceive their own actions, and become incapable of seeing others for who they truly are.
Identity and Destiny ThemeTracker
Identity and Destiny Quotes in My Cousin Rachel
Master Philip had gone forever. Mr. Ashley had come home. It was a strange feeling. In a sense it made me humble, and at the same time oddly proud. I was aware of a sort of confidence and of a strength that I had not known before, and a new elation. It seemed to me that I felt as a soldier might feel on being given command of a battalion; this sense of ownership, of pride, and of possession too, came to me […] But, unlike a soldier, I would never have to give up my command. It was mine for life.
Once, not so long ago, I had seen other eyes with that same age-old look of suffering. Those eyes too had held reserve and pride, coupled with the same abasement, the same agony of supplication […] it must be because the eyes are the same colour and they belong to the same race. Otherwise they could have nothing in common, the beggar woman beside the Arno and my cousin Rachel.
“Ambrose was wrong in what he said of women,” I shouted. “At half-past eight in the morning they look very well indeed.”
“Ambrose was not referring to half-past eight,” she called back to me; “he was referring to half-past six, and he did not mean downstairs.”
I felt strangely moved, as if all that I did and said was laid down for me and planned, while at the same time a small still voice whispered to me in some dark cell of matter, “You can never go back upon this moment. Never… Never…”
I went to my room, and catching sight of my reflection in the mirror paused, and stared. Surely it was Ambrose who stood there, with the sweat upon his forehead, the face drained of all colour? Then I moved and was myself again; with stooping shoulders, limbs that were clumsy and too long, hesitant, untutored, the Philip who had indulged in school-boy folly.
Then, tears coming to her eyes, she looked at me and said, “A woman can’t suffer twice. I have had all this before.” And lifting her fingers to her throat she added, “Even the hands around my neck. That too. Now will you understand?”
I looked over her head, straight at the portrait above the mantelpiece, and the young face of Ambrose staring at me was my own. She had defeated both of us.