by Daphne du Maurier
Rebecca de Winter
Our title character is a puzzle we can never completely solve; the more we think about her, the more she eludes us. Our knowledge about Rebecca is filtered through the narrator, and because she's the second wife of Rebecca's husband, we can't be sure all of our narrator's information is quite reliable.
Through this narrative filter, we hear about Rebecca from a variety of different people who knew her. The chief sources of information about Rebecca – Mrs. Danvers, Maxim, and Favell – are extremely unreliable and maybe even insane. Ben offers some persuasive testimony about her, but Ben's grasp on reality and his motivations are questionable. We don't read any of Rebecca's personal writings, and she never actually appears in the story. Her power over the other characters seems entirely of their own making. Yet, things are left open enough to tantalize us with the possibility that Rebecca is somehow reaching from out from the grave.
Once we sift through the various takes on Rebecca, we can safely identify a few character traits. We know that she's cover-girl beautiful, extremely charming, and hospitable. We also know that she's really talented at organizing fabulous parties and an expert at running a mansion. We know she excels in every kind of sport, from hunting to horse riding to sailing. She seems fearless and independent. Of course, this is the surface view, which the unreliable characters are trying shave away to expose the "real" Rebecca.
Just Plain Mean
Maxim suggests that Rebecca has a serious mean streak, that she mocked everyone she met behind their backs, and that she played cruel and manipulative games with everyone she encountered. Mrs. Danvers admiringly confirms this comment on Rebecca's general nature. Of course. without hearing Rebecca's version, it's hard for us to know what to think about their claims.
We find Ben's take on Rebecca particularly compelling. As soon as we learn that someone threatened to put him in an asylum, we wonder if it was Maxim or Rebecca who did it. At one point, Ben explicitly blames Rebecca, describing what happened when Rebecca caught him peeping in the windows of the boathouse/cabin:
"[S]he turned on me, she did. 'You don't know me, do you?' she said. 'You've never seen me here, and you won't again. If I catch you looking at me through the windows here I'll have you put to the asylum,' she said. 'You wouldn't like that would you? They're cruel to people in the asylum.'" (13.48)
Now, these words sound exceedingly cruel – threatening to put a vulnerable person in an asylum isn't a nice thing to do. But what would you do if a seemingly weird person was peeping in your windows? You might call the cops, and the person might end up in jail, or, hey, an asylum. Rebecca doesn't actually follow through on her threat. Another mean act? Threatening to pass off another man's child as your husband's to spite him. But again, we don't know enough of Rebecca's story to truly understand why she did that, or even if she did.
The main question is: even if she did all these mean things, does it make her a monster that deserves to be killed? The aspersions cast on Rebecca's character make her all the more intriguing, and work to test our notions of justice and judgment.
Rebecca is the classic case of putting the victim on trial. There is little doubt that Rebecca embraces an unconventional attitude toward sex and has multiple affairs with men. These well-known lines from Mrs. Danvers even promote speculation from critics and readers as to whether Rebecca is bisexual:
"She was not in love with you [Favell], or with Mr de Winter. She was not in love with anyone. She despised all men. She was above all that."(24.119)
It's not clear whether Mrs. Danvers means that Rebecca is above love, or that she's above loving men. We also have nothing from Rebecca to confirm Mrs. Danver's claim. If Rebecca (like Daphne du Maurier, her creator) did have affairs with women, or was attracted to women, it only highlights the fact that, like Maxim, she was wearing a public mask completely at odds with her real desires and even her actions. In a way, Rebecca's ambiguous sexuality and her promiscuity makes her seem like even more of a tragic figure.
We get the distinct sense that Rebecca is living in the wrong time and place, turning to desperate acts to survive in a society that can never accept the "real" Rebecca. As with Maxim, we can't excuse any devious and cruel acts she might have committed, including her possible psychological abuse of him. But, we can recognize that there are some distinct social and class pressures driving her actions, whatever those actions were.