Dead or Alive?
Mrs. Danvers, the head housekeeper at Manderley, is one the scariest people we can imagine sharing a gothic mansion with. Every bit the gothic figure, she's first described as "tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black […] [with] prominent cheek-bones and great, hollow eyes [that] gave her a skull's face, parchment-white, set on a skeleton's frame" (7.32). Mrs. de Winter never mentions her without describing "her white skull's face" (7.57, 12.51, 14.49, 18.89) or her "dead skull's face" (7.90) or just, you know, her "skull's face" (14.28). At one point, Mrs. de Winter gets too close to her and notices Mrs. Danvers has "little patches of yellow beneath her ears" (14.30). What's up with that?
We aren't sure what those yellow patches are about. It's probably just another gruesome touch to make sure we associate Mrs. Danvers with death and decay. Success! We imagine her as recently loosed from a grave to walk among the living, carrying out the afterworldly will of her powerful mistress, Rebecca. In less dramatic terms, it makes us understand that Mrs. Danvers' own identity is so intertwined with Rebecca that she practically dies with her. She only becomes animated or lifelike when she's talking about Rebecca.
We might also catch ourselves wondering if Rebecca is acting through Mrs. Danvers. Mrs. Danvers would totally love that, but if she's actually possessed by Rebecca, she isn't aware of it. One thing that makes Rebecca so tantalizing is that it's always right on the verge of the supernatural. We're given plenty of hints to let our imaginations run wild, but are never told about any actual explicit ghostly happenings. It's not like we're in, say, a Stephen King novel or Wes Craven movie where the supernatural elements are totally obvious. But with character like Mrs. Danvers, who even needs the supernatural?
Maxim tells Mrs. de Winter that Mrs. Danvers is "an extraordinary character" (7.15, 7.109). We have to agree with him on that one. She's always creeping around in some dark passageway, or spying from across the way, or with her ear to the door, or her eye to the key hole. She's bullying, manipulative, sneaky and downright mean. In spite of Mrs. Danvers' frightening appearance and frightening manner, Mrs. de Winter finds herself feeling sorry for the housekeeper on several occasions.
For example, when she goes to confront Mrs. Danvers about tricking her into wearing the Caroline de Winter costume, she sees that Mrs. Danvers has been crying, too. She thinks:
I had not expected to find her so. I had pictured her smiling as she had smiled last night, cruel and evil. Now she was none of these things, she was an old woman who was ill and tired. (18.94)
Oh yeah? Just wait a minute, Mrs. de Winter. As soon as she confronts Mrs. Danvers, things get very scary. Within moments, Mrs. Danvers has her leaning out the window, ready to jump. Mrs. Danvers seems to know that in large part due to her own efforts, Mrs. de Winter's self-esteem is at a low point. Mrs. de Winter has also shown Mrs. Danvers in so many ways that she's easily manipulated and that takes everything very personally. So, she's really ripe for a fall (so to speak), and Mrs. Danvers knows just wish buttons to push.
Mrs. Danvers tells Mrs. de Winter:
Don't be afraid […]. I won't push you. I won't stand by you. You can jump of your own accord. What's the use of your staying here at Manderley? You're not happy. Mr. de Winter doesn't love you. There's not much for you to live for, is there? Why don't you jump now and have done with it? Then you won't be unhappy any more. (18.142)
Mrs. Danvers is clearly crossing a line here, even though the incident doesn't end in suicide. Does it mean this old housekeeper is evil, or insane, or is she just having a bad moment? That's what you readers are here for, to answer those lofty questions!
Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca
Mrs. Danvers claims to have a wonderful relationship with Rebecca, to have been her confidante, and true friend. We know that Mrs. Danvers has been in Rebecca's life since Rebecca was at least twelve. She came with her to Manderley as her personal maid and eventually, she also rose through the ranks to head housekeeper and organizer/multitasker extraordinaire. After Rebecca's death, she basically has the run of Manderley.
What we're getting at is this: Mrs. Danvers is also a consummate bully and ace manipulator. It seems to be an integral part of her character and probably was when Rebecca was alive. Is it possible that she also manipulated and bullied Rebecca?
However you slice it, Mrs. Danvers has a complicated, mysterious relationship with Rebecca. At least in her eyes, she and Rebecca have a lot in common and share the same system of values. Since Rebecca can't speak for herself, and since everything we know about Mrs. Danvers is filtered through Mrs. de Winter's memory, the novel asks more questions about their relationship than it answers. That's part of what makes Rebecca so creepily fun.