Who is this woman? Really, we want to know. Sure, she's the narrator of Rebecca. But even so, she's a very mysterious character. She doesn't tell us her first name, her maiden name, or a whole lot about her past.
Here's what we know: during the bulk of the story she's twenty-one. She's from a working class family. When her parents die, she has to find a way to support herself, which isn't easy, because there are limited employment and educational opportunities available to her (and most women). So she becomes a paid companion to a snobby American, Mrs. Van Hopper. In Monte Carlo, with Mrs. Van Hopper, she meets the dashing and wealthy Maxim de Winter and his dark past. A few flirts later, and she's the lady of Manderley.
"Put a ribbon round your hair and be Alice-in-Wonderland," said Maxim lightly; "you look like it now, with your finger in your mouth." (16.50)
In Chapter 16, which features the build-up to the Manderley costume ball, Maxim suggests (three times!) that Mrs. de Winter go as "Alice-in-Wonderland" (16.50, 16.129, 16.146). She could have spared herself some agony if she'd listened to him instead of Mrs. Danvers! But, she's blind as usual and thinks he's kidding or insulting her. Here at Shmoop, we find Maxim's suggestion intriguing .
Clearly, Maxim has a decent grasp on aspects of Mrs. de Winter's character. She is like Lewis Carroll's famous heroine in that she has a vivid imagination and an extreme curiosity. Manderley is Wonderland – a magical but scary place – for Mrs. de Winter. But Maxim shouldn't want her to be curious, right? The second time he suggests she dress as Alice is right after he catches her pretending to be Rebecca at the dinner table and tells her, "There is a certain type of knowledge I prefer you not to have. It's better kept under lock and key" (16.21).
Eventually, however, Maxim decides he must tell his new wife the truth. Once she knows what really happened to Rebecca, she's forever changed. She's no longer the innocent girl that Maxim married. He famously notes this change, saying: "It's gone for ever, that funny, young, lost look that I loved. It won't come back again. I killed that too, when I told you about Rebecca... It's gone, in twenty-four hours. You are so much older..." (21.219). By the end of the novel, Mrs. de Winter seems to have come of age, just as Alice has by the end of her adventures in Wonderland.
Mrs. de Winter officially crosses over to the dark side of the force after she learns that Maxim killed Rebecca. She's so psyched that Maxim doesn't love Rebecca that she doesn't even seem to care that he's a murderer. We are told that she "sat there on the carpet, unmoved and detached thinking and caring for one thing only, repeating a phrase over and over again, 'He did not love Rebecca, he did not love Rebecca'" (21.2).
Now, Mrs. de Winter will do anything for her husband. She thinks, "I would fight for Maxim. I would lie and perjure and swear, I would blaspheme and pray" (21.3). As Favell points out, Mrs. de Winter isn't supposed to testify against her husband. She's supposed to stand by him, and try to get him released if he goes to jail. So, she's not legally guilty of participating in the cover up, like Frank is. Whether she's morally guilty of a crime is for you all to decide.
But here's the thing: after she learns the truth, she wishes she could "[shoot] Favell [and hide] his body in a cupboard" to keep him quiet (23.177). When she realizes Rebecca's doctor, Dr. Baker, is being located and that he could implicate Maxim, she thinks "Please God make Baker be dead" (25.175). She also expresses absolutely no sadness over Rebecca's death, or, even a thought for what she thinks is Rebecca's unborn child.
Wishing and having bad thoughts are not the same as actually doing something, but in her mind, death has become the best way to solve problems. It makes us ask a more dangerous question: If she had the opportunity, would Mrs. de Winter kill to protect Maxim? Would she kill to keep him? Is she different years later, when she's remembering the events? Or do the two time periods blend together as one?
Here's a snippet of conversation between Maxim and the soon-to-be Mrs. de Winter, from the marriage proposal scene:
"I don't think I know how to explain. I don't belong to your sort of world for one thing."
"What is my world?"
"Well – Manderley. You know what I mean."
"You are almost as ignorant as Mrs. Van Hopper, and just as unintelligent. What do you know of Manderley? I'm the person to judge that, whether you would belong there or not." (6.62-6.66)
Aside from showing how Maxim talks to Mrs. de Winter, this passage expresses her constant preoccupations with class. She prides herself on not being a snob, but she sees people with wealth as alien and unapproachable, almost like another species. She can't see herself becoming one of them.
Maybe part of why she likes Maxim is that he seems to be able to cross class lines: he actually helps her wipe up the water she spills on the table instead of immediately calling for a waiter, and he rescues the wounded crewmember just before Rebecca's boat is discovered. Is it possible that Maxim is deliberately looking outside his class for a new wife, because his new wife needs to be the opposite of Rebecca? Either way, the new Mrs. de Winter seems to like this about him.
Mrs. de Winter herself has always been precariously perched between classes. When she's Mrs. Van Hopper's paid companion, she's looked down on both by the upper-class Mrs. Van Hopper and by others of her own class, who resent her. When she marries Maxim, Mrs. de Winter is officially considered an upper-class woman, but she has a hard time feeling comfortable in the role.
At Manderley, she's sure that her new peers think that she's not good enough. But she's most concerned about what the servants, especially Mrs. Danvers, think about her. In the end, though, Mrs. de Winter finally comes into her own and stops worrying so much about what everybody thinks about her. We have to say we're really proud of her when she finally puts Mrs. Danvers in her place.
How else has Mrs. de Winter changed from the beginning of her story to the end?Timeline