Rebecca is a dated novel in many ways. When it was published, about 75 years ago, assumptions about how women, especially married women, should behave were markedly different than they are today. To “get into” the novel, readers would have to believe that the public would be shocked by the thought of a wealthy aristocrat divorcing his wife—something that seems fairly uncontroversial by modern standards. Additionally, Du Maurier blurs many of the sexual details of her novel: it’s unclear, for example, if the narrator sleeps in the same bed as her husband, if she ever has sex with him, if she’s attracted to other men, etc. (We should also keep in mind that many of these omissions reflect the publishing norms of the 1930s, rather than du Maurier’s artistic decisions.) It’s worth thinking a little more closely about the ways in which Rebecca’s portrayal of gender roles has aged badly, and the ways in which it was ahead of its time.
The biggest challenge to a pro-feminist interpretation of Rebecca is Rebecca herself. As we learn more about Rebecca, our impression of her becomes increasingly negative. We learn that Rebecca was a two-faced liar, that she was a skilled manipulator of everyone around her, that she had extramarital affairs, that she was “loose” in London, etc.—by the final chapters, Rebecca seems to be the book’s primary antagonist, while Maxim de Winter, Rebecca’s one-time husband, seems like her helpless victim. Any conclusion about Rebecca’s merits as a work of feminism must stem from a conclusion about whether or not we agree with this interpretation of Rebecca’s character. By modern standards, Rebecca doesn’t seem so bad. As far as her duplicity and her reckless affairs are concerned, she could even be considered a victim of the sexism of her era (it’s also telling that we only learn the “truth” about her from Maxim himself). If du Maurier agrees with Maxim that Rebecca is a villain, then Rebecca is a more simplistic novel overall, as well as badly dated in its treatment of gender roles: it judges Rebecca (and sentences her to death!) according to a set of rules for female behavior that simply don’t carry much currency anymore.
A more radical interpretation of Rebecca is that du Maurier herself disagrees with Maxim’s take on his wife. Though du Maurier herself never weighed in on this possibility, critics have suggested that Maxim is the real villain of the novel: he’s a controlling husband who expects his wife to behave like an obedient child, then lashes out at her when she refuses to play along. (Some critics have likened Rebecca de Winter to Bertha Mason from Jane Eyre—another character who could be either the hero or the villain of her own story.) Judging from the way he treats his second wife, the narrator (he calls her “lamb” and “child” countless times), Maxim is sexism incarnate, a domineering man whose obsession with appearances is so great that he remarries mere months after his first wife’s death.
Even if it will never be clear whether or not du Maurier agreed with feminist critics’ interpretation of her novel, Rebecca is an important feminist work insofar as it studies the ways that men dominate women. The narrator feels that she’s constantly being watched during her time at Manderley: her smallest action is measured against a social standard for how “proper ladies” should behave. Perhaps most tellingly, we never learn the narrator’s real name: she’s only ever known as Madame de Winter. The narrator’s identity is subsumed into her husband’s name and family history. Du Maurier suggests that (heterosexual) marriage is itself a sexist institution: the woman not only takes her husband’s name, but she’s also forced to structure her new life around the husband’s existence.
In some ways, Rebecca reflects the social mores of the early 20th century England. Yet in other ways, it critiques society’s assumptions about how women, especially married women, should behave. It’s telling that du Maurier complained that no one understood Rebecca when it was first published: critics, she claimed, didn’t understand that it was a novel, first and foremost, about a weak woman under the influence of a strong man. By applying an uncommon level of psychological depth to this theme, du Maurier makes what could be a conventional mystery novel an important—and at times prophetic—feminist work.
Feminism and Gender Roles ThemeTracker
Feminism and Gender Roles Quotes in Rebecca
“When we climbed the hills and looked down over the precipice. I was there some years ago, with my wife. You asked me if it was still the same, if it had changed at all. It was just the same, but—I was thankful to realize—oddly impersonal. There was no suggestion of the other time. She and I had left no record. It may have been because you were with me. You have blotted out the past for me, you know, far more effectively than all the bright lights of Monte Carlo.”
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.
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.
“Our marriage was a farce from the very first. She was vicious, damnable, rotten through and through. We never loved each other, never had one moment of happiness together. Rebecca was incapable of love, of tenderness, of decency. She was not even normal.”
“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.