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My Cousin Rachel | Symbols

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House

Much as du Maurier's house Menabilly was her sanctuary where she could be alone and free, the Ashley house is Philip's and Ambrose's before him. The house symbolizes their disaffection for the human race, especially the company of women. Tailored to their liking with only male servants and unfussy to the extent Ambrose claims they could spit on the carpet if they wish, the house symbolizes a male domain and confirmed bachelorhood. Philip even says he does not need a woman in his life because he has the house: "If it's warmth and comfort that a man wants, and something beautiful to look upon, he can get all that from his own house if he loves it well." When he realizes "the whole living entity of the house" is his alone forever, he says, "I knew a moment of happiness that I have never had in life, before or since."

The downside of bachelorhood, however, is the ending of the family line. The house represents the Ashley family—its name and its legacy. The Ashleys are well respected in the county and known to be an ancient bloodline. The family has influence and power, and Philip assumes he will go to Parliament one day as Ambrose and other Ashley men have done. The estate has tenancies, lodgers, and farms all generating income for the wealthy Ashleys, who have the responsibility to manage it all wisely, which Philip does and Ambrose did. Therefore, in addition to being a hideout for reclusive bachelors, the house is a great source of pride for the two men. It is their job; it is their destiny.

Representing power, money, pride, and freedom, the house is the only thing in the world Philip loves besides Ambrose. Even when he married Rachel, Ambrose held onto it and protected it—never suspecting that Philip would give it away ignorantly and selfishly.

Jewels

The jewels symbolize the Ashley fortune—wealth and status—as well as the love and admiration of the Ashley men for their wives. The jewels are meant to stay in the family, suggesting loyalty and fidelity.

When Philip first looks over the jewels, he simply wants a gift for Rachel. A jewel from the family collection would be meaningful and romantic, assuming the recipient understands its source. But Philip goes for the pearl collar worn by Ashley women on their wedding day. Now, his gift clearly symbolizes his wish to marry Rachel. When Rachel must return the collar, the romance is derailed as well. As a symbol of the family fortune, Philip does not have rights to the collar or to the estate until his birthday.

When he does come into his inheritance and gives her all the jewels, the collar is around Rachel's neck as they spend an intimate night together. "I looked down at her ... the pearl collar around her neck, and all of a sudden I was serious and remembered what the collar meant." The collar means marriage and he, in his mind, proposes to Rachel. The next day she says she will never marry him; their night together was her way of thanking him for the jewels. Philip realizes the jewels and all they symbolize—his love and family fortune—are lost, and his desperation turns to intimidation. The collar style has some implication of ownership and foreshadows his hands around her neck. She is wearing the collar when he nearly strangles her, the marks left on her neck foreshadowing her death: "Anyone ... could fall and break their neck."

Rachel had secretly returned the jewels to the bank, as revealed by Mr. Couch's note Philip discovers among her belongings. Her instructions were to leave them for Philip. The estate will be his upon her death as outlined in the signed document, so the symbolism here has more to do with closing the door forever on any question of marriage between them. Ethical and fair, she makes a statement: if she will not marry him, she will not keep the jewels. Would this be the act of an unfeeling gold digger? No, it is the act of loyalty expected of an Ashley to preserve the jewels for the family line. The jewels have exposed another argument for her innocence, adding to Philip's lifelong torment.

Laburnum

Laburnum, a yellow blooming deciduous tree (a tree that loses its leaves seasonally), also called Golden Chain Tree, is an important symbol in My Cousin Rachel. It represents the suspicion of Rachel poisoning Ambrose and Philip because its seeds, which resemble peas in a pod, are known to be "poisonous to cattle and to men." Laburnum trees grow at both the Villa Sangalletti and the Ashley estate.

The first mention of laburnum is Philip's seeing a shade tree in the courtyard of Rachel's villa. It is past the time of blooming and many seed-filled pods litter the ground. When the child throws the pods in the fountain pool, the servant woman scolds him and sweeps up the pods. Is it simply untidy? Is it bad for the fountain? Or, is it a poison needing to be controlled? Philip does not think anything of it at this time. Though not yellow at the time of Philip's visit, the color of laburnum blossoms is associated with the heat of the Italian sun, the closeness of the courtyard, and the pathetic trickle of the fountain, all in stark contrast to the blue, green, and rocky gray of the wind-whipped Cornwall coast. The warm yellow symbolizes Ambrose's desperate homesickness and all the dangers Italy poses for him—heat, poison, and Rachel.

Philip sometimes thinks back to that airless courtyard but makes no direct connection until Ambrose's lost letter: "Are they trying to poison me?" Even then his infatuation with Rachel eclipses Ambrose's question. However he is reminded, after his own illness, of the poisonous nature of laburnum when Tamlyn plans to relocate the estate's trees to avoid killing cattle. Tamlyn also reports, "there was a fellow ... who died eating these." Philip then recalls the tree in the courtyard and the servant sweeping the pods.

When Rainaldi visits, Philip's tisana has "a bitter unaccustomed tang," and then he relapses, repeating the pattern Ambrose reported. Not long after Philip finds pods and seeds in Rachel's locked drawer. She is a gardener, so perhaps she plans to grow new trees from the seeds. But suspicion grows, as does the tension in the story.

At the end, Philip imagines the hands he had once thought beautiful "take the laburnum pods in deft fashion and empty out the seeds, then crush the seeds and rub them in her palm." His suspicion has now raised the laburnum to a symbol of Rachel's guilt. He decides it had all been premeditated: she married Ambrose for his money, and now she will "rid herself of another burden": Philip. The thought seems justified when Philip discovers the envelope of seeds and pods is gone, but doubt creeps back in when Rachel's list of plants, including laburnum, indicates nothing of poison. Does he really expect instructions on how to poison one's husband? Still, the symbol of poisoning and Rachel's potential guilt offers no resolution.

Questions for Symbols

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