book by Daphne du Maurier

annotation by Tina Rubin

Everything about this Gothic novel seems to be perfect: plot, setting, characterization, themes, buildup of suspense, irony, symbolism, language, a cliff-hanger to the very last scene. And happily, much of what I learned from it can be applied to my own novel.

Du Maurier sets an ominous tone from page one and carries it through the book in myriad details: scary dreams, stormy skies, mists and fog, Mrs. Danvers’ skeletal face/hollow eyes/mechanical voice, the swish of a woman’s skirt behind a tree, the dog—Jasper—wanting to take the trail to the beach rather than through the woods, the idiot who knew Rebecca was “down there” . . . each details builds the suspense to a crescendo.

While my novel is not a Gothic mystery, it contains suspense and a hint of the supernatural in that the newlyweds exchange personalities: one becomes the very evil that she’s trying to squelch, while the other grows more compassionate as time goes by. I learned so much from Du Maurier’s symbolism and foreshadowing.

The nameless heroine of the book, the second Mrs. de Winter, is in her own head throughout much of the story (in fact, there’s no dialogue until page 14). That was a lesson for me in creating a character who begins to lose herself, an important element in my own main character’s journey. Mrs. de Winter not only has a weak self-image but lives in her imagination, which makes her susceptible to being haunted by Rebecca. And just as Mrs. de Winter becomes obsessed with the dead Rebecca, I plan to develop a growing obsession for my character through her fascination with the stars.

Another element that stood out for me was Manderley burning at the end. Not just because it illustrated that Rebecca had won, but that there must be some consequence, in the grand scheme of things, to Maxim’s killing her. (And the loss actually freed them from her and ended the game, so it was an outstanding climax). It hit home for me, because I didn’t know how I would end my own story after the attempted murder; whether there would be legal repercussions and a trial or a reconciliation. I really like the idea of a symbolic payback; it feels right.

The book was masterfully structured. Just prior to the dress ball fiasco, the heroine actually slips into “being” Rebecca for a moment at dinner, pretending that she was receiving a call from Jack Favell (Rebecca’s cousin) and unconsciously mouthing the words and pantomiming the actions. Then, of course, she inadvertantly “becomes” Rebecca at the ball, and the very next morning falls under Mrs. Danvers’ evil spell and nearly jumps out the window to her death. At that point I made a note in the book that Rebecca was coming closer. Sure enough, a few pages later her body turns up in the raised boat. Right to the end, du Maurier has Rebecca becoming more and more a threatening presence, invading the heroine’s dreams and finally using Mrs. Danvers to set the house on fire. This helped me understand that every scene in my own work must move the plot forward, every character must have a raison d’etre, every bit of dialogue must reveal character.

In terms of character, each one was so clearly drawn, living and breathing and different from the next. Their manner of speaking, their tone, their choice of words, their demeanor—all so very distinct. Even the magistrate, Colonel Julyan, and Doctor Baker and Frank Crawley and the two butlers, Frith and Robert, were all unique. To me this is a gift worth studying.

Rebecca will be a novel that I turn to many times, I’m quite sure. Like its main character, the book will probably haunt me until I can master even a trace of the skill that its author had.


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