“A dreamer, I walked enchanted, and nothing held me back.”
When I began to read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, I could sense how she intended to create an atmosphere radiating with suspense, but never did I imagine it to take the shape of a narrative where dreams culminate and give rise to a reality which wasn’t any further from a nightmare.
Maurier’s Rebecca is a story where the main subject is not physically present. This doesn’t imply that Rebecca isn’t there in the story, for she is omnipresent, living through Manderley, her scent lingering from one corner to another. Whether it was Mrs Danvers’ servicing the dead or the present Mrs de Winters’ whose insecurities sheltered Rebecca, everybody got to live and play their identities through her.
Rebecca, the woman with white skin and dark clouds for hair.
Rebecca, the dream and the nightmare alike.
It’s her absence-presence which stands out the most throughout the novel. Her story is another retelling of Bertha Mason who lived as long as Thornfield did. Both these characters are constantly present as a contrast, a battle between the socially acceptable woman and the stigmatised ‘other’ who’d give you ‘the feeling of a snake’, one who is a ‘threat’ to society and a man’s pride and shall therefore be silenced even if that implies locking the ‘mad woman’ in the attic or shooting her if that doesn’t work. These women are ‘dangerous’ to the point that even a mention of their names is a threat, since they continue to ‘haunt’ the other characters. The only time they are not present in their respective stories is when they come to an end, set aflame and burnt down into nothingness, just like Thornfield and Manderley.
In their respective cinematic representations, they’re either wearing red or represented through it. Red as rhododendrons, they’ve been portrayed as opposites to white, purity and innocence. They’re as red as evil, as blood, as fury, as the first flames which burnt down their houses, order and societal norms. They’re enchanting, breathtaking and just as horrifying, like nightmares in flesh. In Netflix’s adaptation of Rebecca, we come face to face with the symbol of red when Mrs de Winters recreates Rebecca’s look at the Manderley Ball. Her hallucinations of the woman in red and the special effects in cinematography project not just the brazen image of Rebecca, but also Mrs de Winters’ envy.
Flipping the pages, the readers are invited to a tale that is told through a flurry of daydreams, the narrator dangling from one and then moving onto another, failing to hold sight of reality almost as if she exists in a universe woven by her own fantasies, unaware that soon her dreams would take up the shape of an unceasing nightmare.
Are these really dreams or a foretelling of some tale that hasn’t been unfolded yet?
Through suspension of a linear narrative, the readers are exposed to a multi-layered reality viewed from various perspectives, where the ghosts of the distant past stand end to end with the present, all boundaries blurred. The characters who may seem like they exist in the present are living in the past, occasionally letting the readers peep into a never-ending series of phantasms revealed through fragments.
Some of these fragments are weighed down by emotions, a sense of loss, while others are trivial. However these may be, when picked up and compiled with each other, they deliver a mind blowing story. They are not disparate, but well connected pieces of a puzzle which meet edge to edge to display a clear picture. The fragments which seem to resemble vague scribbles at first, turn out to be finely fleshed out paintings, all thanks to Maurier’s skills.
The first painting is that of Manderley, where this story takes place. What once seemed to the narrator a dreamy landscape in a postcard ended up as a nightmare swallowing her whole, throwing her identity into flames and burning it to ashes, along with everything else that it represents – the grave past and the secrets it hides.
Living in Manderley, our fantasist, the narrator almost comes to resemble a dream where her identity melts into nothingness, pushed to the background as Rebecca takes over. She lacks power and identity and settles at playing ‘Jasper’ for Maxim.
And her significance? Not being Rebecca.
Her role doesn’t last though (at least not as one of the main protagonists), since she deliberately attempts to erase her identity by desperately wanting to be 36, dreaming to be her. She thinks she ‘couldn’t fight the dead‘ so becoming like her in the flesh seems like a better idea. What she’s fighting for now is winning Maxim’s love.
Despite the narrator constantly emphasizing that ‘Rebecca is dead’, I, as a reader, would disagree. She certainly was living, not as a ghost, but as a mystery. She lived as the very idea which haunted Manderley, Maxim and his wife.
“If only there could be an invention that bottled up a memory, like scent. And it never faded, and it never got stale.”
And I believe the present Mrs de Winters would agree. The very same character who talks about bottling up memories ends up burning the page of the book gifted by Rebecca to Maxim in order to get rid of memories which didn’t even belong to her in the first place.
It’a certain, however, that she did get to live those memories to some extent through her fantasies, enacting and replaying Rebecca in her head, sitting where she would, touching the same pens she did, losing herself in her daydreams laced with thoughts of Rebecca, spending time with her husband in Happy Valley, smelling the fragrant ‘azaleas’ and uncorking the bottles containing the ‘scent’ of Rebecca.
Or maybe it wasn’t Rebecca living through her but vice versa.
“Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
Whichever way it might be, and whoever lived or didn’t, Manderley certainly did. Even when it was ‘no more’, it still existed in the narrator’s dreams.
Beginning from and ending at the mention of Manderley, the story comes full circle.