Where It All Goes Down
Manderley, 1938ish (and some other lovely places)
Sigh. Manderley. This fictional estate in England owned by Maxim de Winter, is basically a dream come true. (And check it out: dreams do come true! Manderley is primarily based on a real place, called Menabilly, in Cornwall.)
Like Menabilly, Manderley is a natural paradise, complete with woods, beach, and sea. It's isolated from the larger society, and it comes with a whole staff of servants. But Manderley is more than just a house and some land. It is a way of life, which holds locals and tourists alike in its sway. For Maxim de Winter and his second wife, known only as Mrs. de Winter, Manderley is a full blown obsession, and ideal dream house.
But there's one major problem: it's actually uninhabitable, forever out of reach, except in dreams and memories. We know from the beginning of the story that our narrator can never return. And at the end, we suspect that no one can return – it may have been burned completely to the ground. The nostalgia surrounding Manderley makes it even more desirable. We always want what we can't have, right?
Manderley is also very closely connected with Rebecca. It's Rebecca who lavished care on Manderley, from the house to the grounds, making it a total showpiece. Since everything at Manderley has been touched by Rebecca, Manderley is also a store house of memories of this woman. In fact, the presence of this dead woman almost turns it into a haunted house. Nothing overtly supernatural happens at Manderley, but it's still pretty creepy. The ghost of Rebecca seems to be created by the characters, who are faced every day with the objects she used and the atmosphere she cultivated.
"What's the time? […] What's the time?" (27.86)
What is the time? The present action of the novel is happening some years after the events that make up the bulk of the story (namely, Mrs. de Winter meeting and marrying Maxim, and living with him at Manderley). As we learn in Chapter 6, Mrs. de Winter is remembering these events from her room at a villa somewhere outside of England, where she and Maxim have stayed for two nights. She's packing, and looking back on those days. We aren't given a year, or anything else to date the story, so we assume it's set around the time of Rebecca's publication: 1938.
The bulk of the story takes place over about six months. When Maxim and Mrs. de Winter come to live at Manderley after their honeymoon, it's sometime in May. They've been married about a month and Rebecca's been dead for nearly a year. The costume ball happens a few months later, sometime in July, and all of the events after the costume ball take place over a period of about a week. So yeah, time isn't particularly set in stone here.
For all the fuzziness of days and dates, we are always being told precisely what time it was when this or that happened. This is particularly strange because Mrs. de Winter is rarely living in the present moment, as they say. She's always imagining or anticipating some future, past, or fictional time, and often wishing she was in another place.
Her story – the entire narrative of Rebecca – is case in point; the whole thing is a memory, rather than the story of what she's doing now. The quote we used to title this section is the cry she utters when she wakes from her dream of Manderley at the end of the novel. It highlights the fact the she's obsessed with time, but never quite knows whether it's past, present, future, or hey, even a dream.
East vs. West
Imagine living in a house so big that each wing holds a separate meaning. Well, at Manderely, much is made of the difference between the west wing, where Maxim and Rebecca lived, and the east wing, where Maxim and Mrs. de Winter live. The west wing overlooks the ocean, and the woods. It's framed by blood-red rhododendrons which Rebecca herself cultivated and which also are used to decorate the morning-room, also Rebecca's personal domain.
The west wing is truly the larger and more beautiful wing, and Rebecca's bedroom is exceptionally gorgeous. Creepily, Mrs. Danvers tries to preserve the room as it was when Rebecca was alive. She doesn't even smell the musty odor so obvious to Mrs. de Winter. In fact, some of the novel's strangest scenes, between Mrs. Danvers and Mrs. de Winter, happen in Rebecca's bedroom.
The east wing has just had an expensive redecorating job and overlooks a rose garden. Yet, with some help from Mrs. Danvers, Mrs. de Winter becomes convinced that her installment in what she sees as the inferior wing of the house is proof of her status as inferior wife. She believes that Maxim is preserving Rebecca's bedroom to preserve his memory of their great love.
Of course, this isn't the case. Maxim is actually trying to avoid all things Rebecca related. The rose garden gives us a deeper clue to his motivation. While the hydrangeas are intimately associated with Rebecca, the rose garden is associated with his mother. He tells Mrs. de Winter:
"I love the rose-garden, […] one of the first things I remember is walking after my mother, on very small, unsteady legs, while she picked off the dead heads of the roses." (7.103)
This little comment could suggest that what Maxim wants from his life with Mrs. de Winter is more like the life his mother gave him. Maxim wants to live an innocent life, free from the wild, unpredictable life with Rebecca, which the west wing represents. He wants the new Mrs. de Winter to help erase Rebecca's death from his life, rather like his mother erases death from the rose garden.
Lonely Planet describes Monte Carlo as "the epitome of extravagance". Located in France's Cote d'Azur, it's the kind of place where – even today – we can find the rich, the famous, and the popular. Monte Carlo is where Maxim and Mrs. de Winter meet, and is therefore the site of her reversal of fortune. One minute she's a penniless orphan with few job prospects who seems condemned to a life of serving people like Mrs. Van Hopper; the next minute she's marrying the rich, handsome, and mysterious Maxim de Winter.
During Maxim and Mrs. de Winter's brief courtship in Monte Carlo, he drives her up to a high precipice overlooking the ocean, where she gets a little afraid Maxim might push her to her death. Turns out, she wasn't being completely crazy: during Maxim's big confession, he tells Mrs. de Winter that five days after his wedding to Rebecca, he really wanted to toss Rebecca off the cliff. So, Monte Carlo is also the site of the beginning of Maxim and Rebecca's years of marital torment and the beginning of Maxim's murderous desires.
La Bella Italia
Maxim and Mrs. de Winter spend their honeymoon in Italy. We don't see them there, but it's constantly recalled as a place where they were happy and healthy. The more time that passes between Italy and Manderley, the thinner, paler, and more desperate they become. Italy is the yardstick by which the current state of affairs is measured. Hey, some good gelato can make anyone happy.
When Maxim shows his loving and carefree side, Mrs. de Winter thinks, "'This is better, […] this is like it was in Italy'" (9.27). And on the other side of the coin, when things are going wrong, Maxim will say, "We ought to have stayed in Italy […] Oh, God, what a fool I was to come back" (10.123). But, even if they had stayed in Italy, would they have been able to escape the past? We think not. Rebecca's body still might have been found, and if it hadn't, Maxim would still spend his days and nights angsting over the possibility.