Monday, March 16, 2009

The NH Presents "Rebecca" by Daphne du Maurier

It’s been a long time...

I apologize for the unscheduled hiatus, but an uncommon cold and heavy workload conspired against posting anything last week.

However, we are back and back with a bang!

Tricia and I proudly present the inaugural book blog discussion. As promised two weeks earlier, this post will be about Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca.”

We are trying to turn this blog into a proper book club. Of course, that depends on participation from the viewing audience.

Consider yourself warned. If you haven’t finished “Rebecca,” do not continue unless you want to read a major spoiler. I mean it.

So, without further ado, I give you “Rebecca.”

We can debate “great” works of literature all day long.

I’ll admit, I don’t understand the fascination with some of them. Whatever happened to enjoyment? Isn’t literature supposed to be entertaining? Back in the day (waaaaay before my time) reading was the only game in town. No movies. No TV. No People did this for fun.

And so what makes “Rebecca” a great work of literature for me is that I find it entertaining. I was in grade school the first time I read it, and after re-reading for the who-knows-how-many-times time this weekend, I still enjoyed it.

I’ll just focus on a few of the reasons why.

It’s that first sentence. It draws me in every time. From the get-go, I am at Manderley. Daphne du Maurier sets that scene so well that sentence by sentence as you wind up the drive, she pulls you in even more. How did it get that way? What tragedy befell its inhabitants? I can’t turn the pages fast enough.

It’s the main character. du Maurier cleverly does not name her main character. How much easier that makes it to identify with her. Her feelings of inadequacy, first as the paid companion to Mrs. Van Hopper, then as the second wife to wealthy, attractive, widowed Maxim de Winter, are my own. Her plainness, her desire to please, her averageness is so much more universal when not burdened by her name.
And yet, despite those feelings, when the chips are down, it is she who has the real strength. It is not the incomparable Rebecca or the dashing Maxim or the, I’ll say it, creepy Mrs. Danvers. It is the woman who quietly tried to do the right thing, even as those around her do not. How can you not love that??!

It’s in the pacing. Each event reveals just a little bit more about the goings-on at Manderley and its inhabitants. At first the older Maxim de Winter seems so strong, so sure of himself and in control. But events reveal that to be a facade. It is the women around him, his sister, his wives, even his housekeeper, who have the power. And at first you almost feel sorry for the narrator. How can she compete? But as the costume ball proves, she shouldn’t even try. At first, Manderley seems perfect, it’s gorgeous, it’s massive and it comes with a staff. But it’s also cold and unforgiving.

It’s the plot. Yeah, at first glance, it might seem a bit Harlequin Romance. Poor young girl meets wealthy older man. There’s an obstacle. They overcome it and wed. But, this is so much more.

There is a depth here not found in those novels.

So what did you think?

Hold up, wait.

Maxim de Winter admits that he shot and killed his first wife, Rebecca. And instead of being horrified, his new wife, Mrs. de Winter II: The Sequel, only thinks, “Good, he loves me more.”

Before, I get into the language, characterization or setting of “Rebecca,” we need to address the moral. And that moral is, “It’s OK to shoot your wife as long as she cheated on you and was otherwise a jerk.”

Moreover, if someone accuses you of murdering your wife — just because you shot her and sunk her body in the sea to hide it — they’re a stupid drunk.

I understand that Daphne du Maurier wrote “Rebecca” pre-woman’s lib, but I’m pretty sure divorce would have been the better option.

OK, I’ve got that out of my system. Let’s talk characters.

For me, any book lives or hangs by its characters. If the characters are interesting, I’ll tolerate predictable plotting. The contrary is rarely true. I can split de Maurier’s characters down the gender line. Her female characters are brilliant. The men? Sometimes likable, always forgettable.

(It’s OK. A lot of good authors can’t write across the gender line. Name the great Ernest Hemingway heroine.)

Mrs. de Winter II (henceforth, known as MDW II) is an interesting choice for narrator. She’s deliberately plain. (She’s supposed to contrast with the vivacious Rebecca.) MDW II is a bundle of neuroses — too poor, too plain and too podunk to keep pace in her husband’s social circle, she feels. Even the servants tease her.

Her growth from housegirl to lady occurs in gradual steps and never feels forced or unnatural. She’s the best developed character, which is only natural because we spend the entire book in her head.

Maxim de Winter, however, is not a real character. He is a prop the other characters act around. He lacks the depth of his dead wife, who never makes a true appearance in this book. His emotions seem arbitrary, at best, and manipulative, at worst. He only tells MDW II that he loves her after he confesses to murder.

No satisfactory reason is given for his mood swings or aloofness, except plot convenience. If Maxim de Winter is taken at face value, then he is an impulsive man who fails to learn from his mistakes. du Maurier tries to convince us that he’s the victim because he was in an unhappy marriage and too proud to get divorced.

It doesn’t work. I spent the final third of this book wondering why I was supposed to root for the dork.

Rebecca, however, is six flavors of awesome with sprinkles of spectacular. Du Maurier makes Rebecca the most interesting character in the book, and she’s dead before it starts. Every anecdote adds to her mythical stature, whether it be flattering, horrible or salacious. Consequently, MDW II’s inferiority complex is understandable.

Du Maurier deliberately shifts our perception of Rebecca without cheating. In books with “surprises,” authors tend to telegraph the twist too obviously or cheat by pulling an unhinted surprise out of their crevice. du Maurier layers Rebecca. When she wants to reveal a new facet to the audience, she removes another layer.

Du Maurier’s plot is a trifle. “Rebecca” is a romance with a murder thrown in for spice. This would be a Lifetime movie if du Maurier were a worse author. But it is well-written, if unnecessarily verbose. (MDW II repeats herself, sometimes within the same paragraph. I understand that it is supposed to demonstrate her obsessive nature, but I prefer concise writing. Must be a newswriting tic.)

Like many older writers, du Maurier’s language feels unnatural at first, because it’s different from daily dialect. But you acclimate to it eventually.

Du Maurier reserves her best work for when she sets a scene. Manderley is as much a character as MDW II (and more so than Maxim de Winter.) Du Maurier creates locations carefully. Her details will tell more about the characters than the dialogue. The obscene rhododendrons, the crashing waves, the smell of azaleas — they all mean more in context.

So let’s cut to the chase. Did I like “Rebecca?” It’s treacle, a romance, a postcard for the English coastline — that’s it. Don’t let Tricia tell you, otherwise.

But, yeah, I did enjoy it — in the same way I can enjoy a Gwyneth Paltrow movie. It’s a simple story, but it has depth if you feel like looking for it.

Still though, he killed her... Are we supposed to be OK with that?

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Blogger News-Herald Blogs said...

You gave me two weeks. I took a month and two weeks.

Yet the first thing I did when I finished “Rebecca” was turn to the front of the book and re-read the first two chapters before I wrote this.

Doing so verified what I'd been thinking all along: I like the adult main character far more than to the young.

Interestingly I had the complete opposite feeling when I read the book in grade school.

I'm glad you two inspired my return to du Maurier's work because it speaks differently to me now. That must be why it's a staple in English curriculums – so young readers get the opportunity to experience that contrast later in life.

There are, of course, more reasons to read than that. Du Maurier tells the story beautifully with feeling. She's so visual, you can almost watch the events unfold like a movie. The first two chapters serve more as a “Where Are They Now” update, but beyond the pages turn themselves, thought-provoking and self-reflective.

I agree with Tricia up to that point then veer off, as I find the main character especially weak and unfortunate. A younger Sandy found her smart and heroic, I remember, and today I certainly relate to her simpleness, inferiority complex and hopeless devotion to a complicated man. Her transformation after learning Rebecca was the devil felt especially familiar. But “doing the right thing” is arbitrary under the circumstances, doesn't it? In my adulthood now I read her as extremely immature, rather in need of a mother or good girlfriend to help her out. Clearly Maxim isn't in her corner.

I enjoyed watching the main character's understanding of Maxim fan out over time. However I kind of understood why a strong soul like Rebecca might grow to hate him. Always manipulative, Maxim had no redeeming qualities until his senior years – and even then, only faithfulness and comparative boredom. Thankfully the novel didn't ask me to like Maxim; had it, I might not have stayed along for the ride.

In fact, I found antagonist Rebecca more likable than Maxim. My favorite revelation came at the very end, when we learn she handled Danvers very much the same as everyone else and find the old housekeeper to be most tragic of all. Perhaps I lived vicariously through the main character in this way; old friends' recollections of “the other woman” are an entirely realistic way to get to know the person, aren't they? And doesn't it feel so great to snag those bits and pieces, over time, about how awful she was?

Unfortunately I think Jason suffers from being a police reporter in his critique. (Maybe he didn't want to inflame his sources.) Let's face it: When murder happens in real life it should be punished, yes. But if every story ended with the bad guy going to prison, his wife acknowledging the error of his ways, what would that leave us? Characters in books are designed to tug at our heartstrings, challenge our morals and invite introspection, not stand trial in a court of law. I respect your anger at Maxim getting away with the murder and at her acceptance, but I just felt sad for the main character. Come on, she never stood a chance.

Verdict: I'd sooner spend a month and two weeks experiencing “Rebecca” than two hours with Paltrow. If you're serious with your comparison, well I say that's a shame.

-- Sandra M. Klepach,

April 18, 2009 at 2:43 PM 

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