Rebecca begins with a dream:
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
That first line has never failed to delight me and that dream sets the tone for the book. I’ve read it many times and each time I fall under its spell. Identity is a recurrent theme, just who was Rebecca, what was she really like and what lead to her death. I still want to know the narrator’s name and her awe of Rebecca still exasperates me. Daphne du Maurier described the book to her publisher as:
a sinister tale about a woman who marries a widower … Pyschological and rather macabre.
Dreaming is another theme. The new Mrs de Winter is in awe of Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife, and has nightmares about her. She daydreams, imagining what Rebecca was like, how beautiful she was, how much Maxim and everyone else must have loved her and how capable and talented she was. She pictures what she thinks life was like for the family in the past and imagines what will happen in the future. She builds up false pictures in her mind and lacks the courage to demand the truth.
Then of course there is the house, Manderley:
A thing of grace and beauty, exquisite and faultless, lovelier even than I had ever dreamed, built in its hollow of smooth grassland and mossy lawns, the terraces sloping to the gardens, and the gardens to the sea. (page 73)
There is a nightmarish quality to the house, approached down with a dark and twisting drive, that turns and twists like
“a serpent … very silent, very still … like an enchanted ribbon through the dark and silent woods.
Then coming out of the dark woods the drive is edged on either side by
a wall of colour, blood-red, reaching far above our heads. We were among the rhododendrons. There was something bewildering, even shocking, about the suddeness of their discovery. The woods had not prepared me for them. they startled me with their crimson faces, massed one upon the other in incredible profusion, showing no leaf, no twig, nothing but the slaughterous red, luscious and fantastic, unlike any rhododendron plant I had seen before. (pages 71 and 72)
The “slaughterous red” symbolises blood and death. The rhododendrons intrude into the house, not only are they growing outside the morning room “blood-red and luscious”, making the room glow with their colour, but they are also filling the room – on the mantlepiece, on the writing desk and floating in a bowl on a table. There are more shocks lying in wait for the new Mrs de Winter, a shy and socially awkward young woman, married to a man twice her age, haunted by Rebecca and as she struggles to fit in with the social class, her confidence is continually undermined by her own insecurity and the hostile and resentful presence of the housekeeper Mrs Danvers, whose eyes were “dark and sombre” in her “white skull’s face”, “malevolent” and “full of hatred”.
A novel where secrets are only just supressed, like a ticking bomb waiting to explode revealing the devastating truth.