Rebecca | Study Guide

Daphne du Maurier

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Rebecca | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How does the opening line of Rebecca begin to develop the theme of Past versus Present?

The opening line of Rebecca, "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again," suggests that the narrator has had this dream before. Readers do not yet know what or where Manderley is or its importance in the narrator's story arc; nor do they know if the dream was a pleasant or unpleasant one. But the line immediately communicates Manderley's importance as something with the power to recall the narrator from the present into her past.

How does the author use figurative language and symbolism to create an atmosphere of horror in Chapter 1 of Rebecca?

The author creates an atmosphere of horror with the use of imagery, figurative language, and symbolism Figurative language: The narrator uses personification to describe the "triumph" of the trees, with "their branches intermingled in a strange embrace." The ruined house is compared to a "sepulchre." The narrator also describes herself as "possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers" and passing "like a spirit" through the rusted, padlocked gate to invoke images of a ghostlike presence. Symbolism: The overgrown, blood-red rhododendrons, which readers will come to associate with Rebecca, are introduced and serve to intensify the dark mood. Manderley is also presented as a classic gothic centerpiece—a grand, forbidding, mysterious estate.

Why did Daphne du Maurier choose to name Rebecca after a character who never appears as a living person in the book?

All of the central characters are in one way or another living their lives in response to Rebecca's life and death. The nameless narrator's jealousy and her need to establish her own identity form the central dramatic conflict of the novel. Maxim's relationship with Rebecca has left him haunted by the fear of discovery and limited in his ability to achieve intimacy with his new wife. Mrs. Danvers and Jack Favell, who loved Rebecca, are damaged by their grief and compelled to avenge her death. In addition, Rebecca represents rebellion against society's strictures and disruption of the rules of marriage. In this way, she is a sharp contrast to the narrator and a far more interesting character.

How does Rebecca depart from the gothic tradition in its treatment of the theme of Identity?

Rebecca includes many of the elements of gothic fiction, such as a young female protagonist; a brooding, tormented male romantic lead; an isolated, seemingly haunted estate; and a dark secret. However, du Maurier's treatment of the theme of Identity departs from the gothic tradition. In opposing the spell of the dead Rebecca, the unnamed narrator tries to claim her identity and her rightful place as the mistress of Manderley. Yet she ties her search for identity to a murderer, not a traditional hero. Also, the story does not have a clear, happy ending. In the end, the narrator is forced into a life of exile with Maxim and is still defined only as the "second Mrs. de Winter."

Compare and contrast the narrator and Rebecca in Rebecca.

The narrator and Rebecca are simultaneously mirror images of one another and opposites. They are both young women who marry the same man to become Mrs. de Winter and the mistress of Manderley. However, the resemblance ends there. While the narrator is innocent, shy, unsophisticated, and insecure, Rebecca is worldly and indiscreet, outgoing, sophisticated, beautiful, and confident. The narrator's insecurity and her motivation for marrying Maxim stem from her feelings of inferiority; she longs to raise her social status. Rebecca, in contrast, comes from Max's social world. She marries him in order to broker a marital deal that will allow her independence in return for running Manderley.

How does Maxim's intense pride in Manderley advance the plot of Rebecca?

Maxim's pride in Manderley causes him to enter into a dishonest and unsavory agreement with Rebecca. He will overlook her promiscuity in exchange for her ability to transform the estate into a showplace. Ironically, it is this "deal with the devil" that leads to Manderley's destruction. Rebecca's presence there is inescapable, and the marriage between Maxim and his new wife is doomed until, and even after, they leave the house behind. Since Maxim would never have left Manderley willingly, it must burn to the ground before he can find any shred of future happiness. That happiness, of course, is bittersweet, since the couple will forever mourn what they have lost. As the narrator says in Chapter 2, "The past is still too close to us."

Who is the villain of Rebecca: Maxim or the title character?

Both Rebecca and Maxim can be seen as the antagonist. Despite the fact that Rebecca is dead, her presence haunts Manderley and harries the narrator at every turn. Mrs. Danvers and Jack Favell present conflicts for the narrator and Maxim, but they do so as proxies, acting in the interests and name of Rebecca. Mrs. Danvers in particular acts as the physical representation of Rebecca's presence at Manderley by maintaining her traditions. The housekeeper confirms the narrator's fears that she is inferior to Rebecca and even tries to persuade the narrator to kill herself, saying, "It's you who ought to be dead, not Mrs. de Winter." Even after the narrator learns that Maxim loves her, Rebecca's corpse rises from the sea and, setting in motion the ruin of Manderley, foils the couple's chance for happiness. Maxim can also be seen as the antagonist. He forged a deal with Rebecca on their marriage, and then betrayed and murdered her. She was a strong, independent woman in an era and a society in which women were defined by their marital roles. Since appearance is everything to Maxim, he can't tolerate her behavior and shoots her. He provides the narrator with the social status she lacks, but to escape gossip and suspicion, he also forces her into a nomadic existence in a series of hotels. Du Maurier leaves the question of "Who is the real villain?" for readers to decide. There is ample evidence for casting either character in this role.

What role does fire play in the novel Rebecca?

The first fire in Rebecca occurs near the beginning of the novel, when the narrator burns the page from Maxim's book of poetry that was inscribed by Rebecca. After ripping up the page, with its reminder of Maxim's first wife, the narrator feels the need to complete its destruction by burning it. This small fire foreshadows the second, larger fire that occurs at the end of the novel, when Manderley is destroyed. Although the narrator and Maxim mourn Manderley, its destruction forces them to leave the past behind and allows them to believe in a future promise of happiness.

In Rebecca, how does the author justify Maxim's murder of Rebecca?

The author seems to justify the murder in two ways. First, the revelations of Rebecca's cruelty toward Maxim could be seen as justification for a crime of passion. Second, the author reveals at the end of the novel that Rebecca was dying of cancer. She suggests that Rebecca manipulated Maxim into shooting her to save herself from a long, painful death. However, du Maurier does not completely absolve Maxim, who has gone to great lengths to conceal his crime. Instead she relegates him to a kind of purgatorial exile, dooming him to wander endlessly without a home. She also dooms the narrator, who has helped cover up Maxim's crime, to make this fruitless journey with her husband.

In Rebecca, how does the narrator's relationship with Maxim develop over time?

The narrator's relationship with Maxim at the beginning of the novel is much like that of a young girl and an older male relative. The narrator hopes for Maxim's approval, and he humors and patronizes her. Feeling this condescension, the narrator wishes she were older and more sophisticated, but Maxim tells her that he prefers her as she is. Even after their marriage, Maxim continues to treat the narrator more like a child than as an equal partner. During the climactic scene at the fancy dress ball, when Maxim see the narrator in her costume, he explodes and essentially sends her to her room in disgrace. In all these ways, he can be seen as a father figure to the orphaned narrator. It is not until after the narrator learns the truth about Maxim's relationship with Rebecca that Maxim finally begins to treat his wife as an equal. However, Maxim seems saddened by her loss of innocence and says he will miss her "lost" look.

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