At the heart of Philip and Ambrose’s infatuation with Rachel is a desire to fully possess her. Both of the Ashley men are deeply jealous of Signor Rainaldi, Rachel’s Italian friend and advisor, and suspect Rachel of having an affair with him. Eventually, Philip even begins to feel jealous of his late cousin Ambrose, the person he loves above all others, because Ambrose was married to Rachel prior to his death. Du Maurier portrays this possessive jealousy as particular to male characters: because social norms code women as subordinate to their fathers and husbands, women become objects that can be coveted by male characters. However, du Maurier also suggests that the root of jealousy and distrust in all relationships is a fundamentally unbridgeable gap between people: the inherent unknowability of another person.
The only non-male character in the novel to openly exhibit jealousy is Louise Kendall, Philip’s childhood friend and would-be sweetheart. (Rachel does mention in passing to Philip that she felt jealous of Ambrose’s affection for him in the early days of their marriage.) Yet, even though Louise seems envious of Rachel’s captivating influence on Philip, she remains a true friend to Philip. This is perhaps most powerfully exemplified when Rachel and Philip have a public disagreement after Philip announces their “engagement” at his dinner party. The following day, Louise sends a note to the Ashley house offering to meet Philip in town in case he “want[s] someone to talk to.” Contrastingly, the men of the novel—namely Philip and Ambrose—are virulently self-absorbed in their performances of jealousy. Philip finds himself resenting any and all men whom Rachel interacts with, including his godfather, Nick Kendall, and the vicar, Mr. Pascoe. Ambrose, too, immediately assumes that Rachel must be having an affair with her long-standing friend Rainaldi, ignoring the possibility that Rachel needs someone other than her husband in whom to confide about the loss of her child after her miscarriage. By limiting this kind of possessive jealousy to male characters, du Maurier powerfully illustrates men’s frustration at not having a monopoly on the women to whom they consider they have a claim.
Yet, despite her clear emphasis on the way that society convinces men they have a right to women as a sort of commodity, du Maurier also has a broader argument to make: she is attempting to show that the root of jealousy is the fact that it is fundamentally impossible to really know another person. This is true across the gender divide in the novel. Ambrose is mystified by how Rachel’s manner “alter[s]” after the loss of their child, unable to fathom the depth or extent of her grief (which du Maurier also hides from the reader, as Rachel never directly discusses her miscarriage in the novel). Philip, too, constantly references how mysterious and elusive he finds Rachel to be. Du Maurier intends to show how ill-equipped her male characters are at understanding her female characters, thanks to the way society has taught them to view women. However, she pushes this argument further, suggesting that no one, regardless of gender, can ever truly know someone else. This is clear in the following passage, which occurs near the end of the novel, when Rachel is planning her return to Italy: “She must believe me happy, to have peace of mind. I had left the land of fantasy, to her to enter into it. Two persons therefore could not share a dream. Except in darkness, as in make-believe. Each figure, then, a phantom.” While this passage does, once again, highlight a divide between men and women—only “in darkness,” presumably in the act of lovemaking, do men and women come close to “sharing a dream”—it is noteworthy that du Maurier uses non-gendered nouns. This passage references persons and figures, a distinction that separates it from other passages in the novel that explicitly discuss the two sexes. Here, du Maurier is making a much broader philosophical point: on an existential level, people are no more than phantoms to each other.
Du Maurier underscores this point by paying careful attention to the letters Ambrose writes to Philip. Philip is flabbergasted at the news that his cousin has married, since, as Louise points out, Ambrose has never “admire[d] a woman yet.” As the novel unfolds and he discovers more missives from Ambrose, Philip becomes less and less able to understand his cousin’s thoughts and actions leading up to his death. Indeed, the novel ends without Philip ever building a clear picture of Ambrose’s marriage to Rachel and his physical decline. As Philip falls in love with Rachel, he begins to realize why Ambrose was so taken with her—yet the rupture between Philip and his beloved cousin remains. Philip, it turns out, did not know Ambrose as well as he believed, and neither he nor the reader will ever know the truth of Ambrose’s death.
Thus, du Maurier depicts male jealousy as yet another byproduct of a patriarchal society that relegates women to the status of property. Yet she also suggests that jealousy is rooted in people’s fervent yet ultimately futile desire to bridge the gap that separates them from people they love. In this way, du Maurier gestures toward a powerful, invisible force at work in the lives of her character: it is not the question of guilt or of love, but rather the threatening, looming realization that one can never fully know another person—and thus that the condition of humans is to be always, on an existential level, lonely.
Jealousy, Possessiveness, and Unknowability ThemeTracker
Jealousy, Possessiveness, and Unknowability 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.
I don’t know what I thought to see. Something bold, perhaps, with loops and flourishes; or its reverse, darkly scrawled and mean. This was just handwriting, much like any other, except that the ends of the words tailed off in little dashes, making the words themselves not altogether easy to decipher.
Somewhere there was a bitter creature, crabbed and old, hemmed about with lawyers; somewhere a larger Mrs. Pascoe, loud-voiced, arrogant; somewhere a petulant spoilt doll, with corkscrew curls; somewhere a viper, sinuous and silent. But none of them was with me in this room. Anger seemed futile now, and hatred too, and as for fear—how could I fear anyone who did not measure up to my shoulder, and had nothing remarkable about her save a sense of humour and small hands?
I looked up, startled, and it seemed to me, as we stared at one another, that she knew now all my fantasies, my dreams, that she saw one by one the faces of the women I had conjured all those months. Denial was no use, protestation absurd. The barriers were down. It was a queer feeling, as though I sat naked in my chair.
I hoped she had not noticed—I had barely noticed it myself—that for the first time I had not called her cousin, but Rachel. I don’t know how it happened. I think it must have been because standing there, with my arms about her, she had been so much smaller than myself.
She would take great care about her person, when she went calling. Her best mantle, and her new veil and bonnet. I would sit with my back to the horses, in the carriage, so that I could look at her; and, I think to tease me, she would not lift her veil.
Her shoulders were bare. She had dressed her hair higher than usual, the roll of it was looped up and drawn back, showing her ears. Around her neck was the collar of pearls. It was the only piece of jewellery [sic] upon her person. It glowed soft and white against her skin. I had never seen her look so radiant, or so happy. Louise and the Pascoes had been right after all. Rachel was beautiful.
And I could see them sitting on the terrace of the villa, with this strange shadow between them, built out of nothing but their own doubts and fears, and it seemed to me that the seeds of this same shadow went back beyond all reckoning and could never more be traced.
She lifted her veil, and the eyes that looked into mine were not smiling as I had hoped, or tearful as I had feared, but steady and serene and quite unmoved, the eyes of someone who has been out upon a matter of business and settled it to satisfaction.
For no great reason I felt blank, and in some sense cheated. I wanted the eyes to be as I remember them at sunrise.
She did not answer. She went on looking at me, incredulous, baffled, like someone listening to words in a foreign language that cannot be translated or comprehended […] She had not understood what it was I asked of her at midnight, nor I, in my blind wonder, what she had given, therefore what I had believed to be a pledge of love was something different, without meaning, on which she had put her own interpretation.
I tried to think what else I had to give. She had the property, the money, and the jewels. She had my mind, my body, and my heart. There was only my name, and that she bore already. Nothing remained. Unless it should be fear. I took the candle from her hand and placed it on the ledge, above the stairs. I put my hands about her throat, encircling it; and now she could not move, but watched me, her eyes wide. And it was as though I held a frightened bird in my two hands, which, with added pressure, would flutter awhile, and die, and with release would fly away to freedom.
So we had come to battle. Her words were a challenge that I could not meet. Her woman’s brain worked differently from mine. All argument was fair, all blows were foul. Physical strength alone disarmed a woman.
Now, no part of her was strange. I knew the best, I knew the worst. Even the motives for all she did, baffling perhaps even to herself, I guessed them too. She hid nothing for me now, Rachel my torment…
Her head was turned to him as she listened, so that from the head of the table, where I sat, I looked on her in profile. She was always a stranger, thus. Those neat clipped features on a coin. Dark and withdrawn, a foreign woman standing in a doorway, a shawl about her head, her hand outstretched. But full-face, when she smiled, a stranger never. The Rachel that I knew, that I had loved.