In addition to being a taut mystery, a Gothic romance, and a prototypical feminist text, Rebecca is an insightful coming-of-age story. When we first meet the narrator, she’s essentially a child: a young, innocent woman who has no idea what the future holds for her. By the end of the novel, she’s become a mature adult—as her husband, Maxim de Winter, says, she seems to have grown from a girl to a woman overnight. In a novel that’s so much about loneliness, paranoia, and uncertainty, what does it mean for a character to grow up?
To begin with, du Maurier portrays her protagonist’s initial immaturity as a kind of solipsism—an inability to understand that other people have thoughts and feelings of their own. Surrounded by obnoxious older women like Mrs. Van Hopper, her employer, the narrator struggles to assert her personality in public, and for the most part, she’s too shy to say anything. (It’s worth mentioning that Daphne du Maurier herself was notoriously shy in real life.) Frightened of speaking, the narrator is alone in her own head. By the same token, the people around her remain enigmas to her. Because she refuses to disclose any of her own personality, she’s powerless to wrap her mind around the personalities of others. Even her husband, Maxim de Winter, is impenetrable. At many points in the first half of the book, the narrator thinks that Maxim is angry, frustrated, or amused with her, only to learn much later that she was utterly wrong in her interpretation of her husband’s feelings. For du Maurier, immaturity and isolation are practically synonyms.
Consistent with her psychological insight, du Maurier portrays coming-of-age as an act of exploration. The narrator begins to grow up as she navigates her way through Manderley, and—even more importantly—begins to explore the motivations and emotions of the people around her. At first, Mrs. Danvers, the cruel, intimidating head servant at Manderley, terrifies the narrator, and makes her feel like a small child. But as the narrator begins to learn more and more about Mrs. Danvers, she’s surprised to find that Mrs. Danvers is a sad, sympathetic, and even pathetic character: though she’s an elderly woman, she’s still devoted, in an almost childish way, to her former mistress, Rebecca. After the narrator confronts Mrs. Danvers and witnesses her crying about Rebecca, the tables turn. The narrator learns an obvious yet valuable lesson—everyone has secret vulnerabilities—and when she realizes this, she begins to feel herself growing up. The most extreme example of such an insight comes when Maxim reveals to the narrator that, instead of still being in love with Rebecca, he’s actually deeply afraid of Rebecca. Maxim, who is on the surface the calmest, most mature character in the novel, turns out to be the weakest.
Some critics have also interpreted the novel from a Freudian psychoanalytic perspective, with the narrator’s discovery of the truth about Rebecca as the final stage of resolving an “Electra Complex.” The psychologist Sigmund Freud believed that most young boys are first naturally attracted to their mothers and thus want to overcome or kill their fathers—this is called an “Oedipal Complex,” based on the Greek figure of Oedipus, and its corresponding name for girls (wanting to kill their mothers and marry their fathers) is an “Electra Complex,” after the Greek figure of Electra. It’s only when these complexes can be resolved in some way that a child can mature in a healthy manner. Throughout Rebecca, Maxim is portrayed as a father figure, as well as a lover, for the narrator. Toward the end of the book, however, Maxim and the narrator work together to “destroy” Rebecca, the narrator’s rival for Maxim’s affections. In Freudian terms, this signals the narrator’s coming of age: by symbolically defeating Rebecca (the wife of the narrator’s father-figure, and thus a kind of mother-figure), the narrator becomes an adult. But even if one rejects a psychoanalytic interpretation, it’s clear that the narrator’s symbolic defeat of Rebecca signals the most important aspect of her coming of age. As the narrator spends more time with her husband, she begins to realize that Maxim and Rebecca’s carefully maintained image of respectability and sophistication is just an illusion. By embracing this truth, the narrator stops feeling intimidated, and grows up.
Coming of Age ThemeTracker
Coming of Age Quotes in Rebecca
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.
How many times she must have written to him thus, in how many varied moods. Little notes, scrawled on half-sheets of paper, and letters, when he was away, page after page, intimate, their news. Her voice, echoing through the house, and down the garden, careless and familiar like the writing in the book.
And I had to call him Maxim.
“If you think I'm one of the people who try to be funny at breakfast you're wrong,” he said. “I'm invariably ill-tempered in the early morning. I repeat to you, the choice is open to you. Either you go to America with Mrs. Van Hopper or you come home to Manderley with me.”
“Do you mean you want a secretary or something?”
“No, I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool.”
“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 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 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.
I dreaded his going. When I saw the car disappear round the sweep in the drive I felt exactly as though it were to be a final parting and I should never see him again. There would be an accident of course and later on in the afternoon, when I came back from my walk, I should find Frith white and frightened waiting for me with a message. The doctor would have rung up from some cottage hospital. “You must be very brave,” he would say, “I'm afraid you must be prepared for a great shock.”
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.
“Yes,” I said, “my sweet, my love.” But I looked away from him so he should not see my face. What did it matter whether I understood him or not? My heart was light like a feather floating in the air. He had never loved Rebecca.
“This business has been a shock to me, you know,” he said. “A bloody awful shock. Rebecca was my cousin. I was damn fond of her.”
“Yes,” I said. “I'm very sorry for you.”
“We were brought up together,” he went on. “Always tremendous pals. Liked the same things, the same people. Laughed at the same jokes. I suppose I was fonder of Rebecca than anyone else in the world. And she was fond of me. All this has been a bloody shock.”
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.