The recent release of Netflix’s “Rebecca” has renewed interest in Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel and the original 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier.
The movie is wonderful. It’s not as good as the original (even the handsome Armie Hammer can’t beat the charm of a young Laurence Olivier), but it’s worth watching for the wonderful acting and beautiful scenery. The original was also as close to perfect as a movie could be, and it’s hard to top one of the most famous psychological thrillers of all time.
The movie also renewed discussions of how readers and viewers interpret the story, especially the debate over if the mysterious Rebecca is the hero or the villain of the story.
Major spoilers are ahead. I would highly recommend reading the book or watching the 1940 or 2020 adaptation before you continue.
Rebecca Is a Classic Story of Ghosts and Gaslighting
Rebecca is narrated by an unnamed young woman (Lily James), who meets the wealthy and recently widowed Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) while serving as a lady’s companion in Monte Carlo. The two quickly form a bond and decide to marry after a whirlwind romance, but the fun stops when they return to Manderley, Maxim’s estate on the Cornish coast.
The new Mrs. de Winter (how she is known throughout the rest of the story) quickly discovers that the majority of the staff at Manderley are obsessed with Maxim’s late first wife, Rebecca, who drowned in a sailing accident about a year before the story began.
The housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), is the most sinister of them all. Obsessed with the first Mrs. de Winter, she does everything in her power to make the second Mrs. de Winter insecure and paranoid. She constantly compares her to her predecessor, leading her to believe that she will never be as beautiful, well-liked, or loved as much as Rebecca. This also leads the second Mrs. de Winter down an obsessive path of learning everything she can about Rebecca. Maxim’s refusal to talk about her, as well as the rest of the staff at Manderley praising their late mistress, doesn’t help her insecurity and paranoia.
After Rebecca’s body is discovered along with her boat in the ocean, the second Mrs. de Winter confronts Maxim. He reveals that he never loved Rebecca like everyone says he did but despised her. After their wedding, he quickly discovered that she didn’t love him and married him for his money. Rebecca controls Maxim by convincing him that his reputation would be over if he divorced her because she had manipulated the entire community into thinking she was the perfect wife. In reality, Rebecca was having multiple affairs and using her husband for money and status. Although he's miserable, Maxim refuses to leave the marriage out of fear of how a divorce would tarnish the reputation of his beloved Manderley.
Maxim reveals that Rebecca confronted him one night, saying that she was pregnant. She tormented him that his reputation would be ruined when it was discovered that his wife was carrying another man’s child; she told him that she was sure he would love to kill her for it. Her bastard child would inherit his family's estate, and there would be nothing he could do to prove otherwise. She puts a gun in his hand, and Maxim shoots her. He leaves her body on her boat and lets it sink, making it appear to be a suicide.
Realizing that his fear of scandal and guilt over Rebecca's murder are what kept Maxim from confiding in her, the second Mrs. de Winter does whatever she can to protect him. Maxim goes to trial for Rebecca’s murder, and it’s revealed that Rebecca was just as mysterious in death as she was in life. Through an investigation, the second Mrs. de Winter discovers that Rebecca was not pregnant; she was sick with ovarian cancer and didn’t have much longer to live. This forces the detective to clear Maxim of Rebecca’s murder after her death is ruled as a suicide.
Is Rebecca Abusive and Manipulative or a Feminist Hero?
Rebecca as a feminist hero.
Today's feminists, just like the seminal Rebecca, twist the narrative of the story to fit their taste. They don't take the second Mrs. de Winter’s word as truth, instead viewing her as an unreliable narrator.
Liz Hoggard of The Independent UK writes, “For feminists, Rebecca is a book about the fear of powerful women, and especially of women who assert their sexual freedom. Rebecca is killed because she defies the patriarchal order. Not only is she unfaithful, she proposes a sham marriage. ‘I'll play the part of the devoted wife, mistress of your precious Manderley,’ she tells her husband. ‘I'll make it the most famous showplace in England if you like — and people will visit us and say we're the luckiest, happiest couple in the whole country.’"
Hoggard continues, "Maxim rejects this sham and is rewarded by a second marriage to an adoring child-woman. It may even be a mariage blanc. There is much talk of single beds, and at one point, the heroine cries out pathetically: ‘I'll be your friend and companion, a sort of boy’.”
Feminists want to reframe Rebecca as a feminist hero rather than a villain. It's a common theme nowadays to paint villains as misunderstood outcasts. There are two fundamental flaws in the argument Hoggard presents. First, what Rebecca did was not express her "sexual freedom." She lied to everyone, blackmailed them, and used the men around her as pawns for her own sick games.
Sexual freedom must come with morals, or it's just hedonism in another form. For Rebecca, sex and beauty were forms of power that she wielded over everyone around her. She didn't use sex to find freedom, she used it to enslave others.
For Rebecca, sex and beauty were a form of power that she wielded over everyone around her.
Second, Hoggard assumes that marriages are an invention of the patriarchy meant to trap strong women. The truth is, marriage protects women from toxic masculine behavior and has done for centuries. Marriage is supposed to be a partnership of men and women. Yet Rebecca used her marriage with Maxim as the feminists claim men use it on women: to trap him for use of her own devices.
Rebecca as a cruel, manipulative psychopath.
A more accurate interpretation of Rebecca is that Maxim fell in love with the second Mrs. de Winter because she was a breath of fresh air and very different from his first wife. After they married and returned to Manderley, he realized he couldn’t be happy in the same house where he lived with Rebecca, who tortured him with her cruelty. Much of the staff at Manderley (especially Mrs. Danvers) is just as cruel as Rebecca and gaslights the second Mrs. de Winter into insanity.
When Rebecca discovered that she was dying, she wanted to get under Maxim’s skin one last time and egged him on to kill her. I believe that if he had refused to kill her, she would have committed suicide and made it look like Maxim killed her. Rebecca liked to put on a show, so why not put on a show as her final act? In reality, Rebecca was sadistic and cruel, Maxim was a battered husband, and the second Mrs. de Winter was the kind girl who gave him a happier life.
What’s Wrong with the Nice Girl Winning?
Another feminist argument about Rebecca is that it’s a case of the good woman triumphing over the rebellious woman, which they claim is unrealistic. Psychologist Dorothy Rowe says, "Rebecca, like Jane Eyre, taps into that favorite piece of feminine mythology that the love of a good woman will reform a man, and although it's been disproved many times, women still believe it."
Through this lens, when you look at a story like The Little Mermaid, Ursula is the hero and Ariel is the villain. But why should we encourage our young women to become cruel and power-hungry to achieve their goals? Are we really saying that Ursula, Rebecca, or any other number of manipulative women are role models for today's girls?
Making excuses for abusive women under the guise of "fighting the patriarchy" is not going to move women's rights forward. What feminists don't want to admit is that the feminine hero story is the woman who reforms the hero. And there's nothing wrong with that.
Rebecca is a classic story that’s still enthralls readers as much as when it was first published 82 years ago. Modern feminists may attempt to excuse Rebecca's murder as punishment for rebelling against the patriarchy, but we know better. The story is really about how lies, deceit, and lust for power can linger on long after the villain is gone. So be careful who you marry.