“The most beautiful creature I ever saw…”: Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca”

rebecca1 ┬áIf we live on after we die in the people who loved us, how do we live on in the people who hate us? That’s the concept “Rebecca” plays with, it’s unnamed narrator a young woman who finds herself becoming the ghost of her husband’s first, recently dead, wife. The titular character of the novel never appears on the stage, is never physically present, and has been dead for decades when the novel begins. Yet her presence haunts every page, her shadow appears on every wall, and her ghost possesses every character, drives every action.

It’s a daring thing, to have a protagonist who is dead from the novel’s beginning, who never speaks for herself, who never exists outside of her influence on the living. du Maurier did something spectacular with this novel, manipulating the format of the gothic novel to produce a fascinating psychological portrait, and using a series of characters to create a single, overpowering, astounding personality.

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As with most books Hitchcock adapted, the movie “Rebecca”‘s fame has eclipsed the book’s. But the movie is actually a very faithful adaptation of the book, such that the characters seem to have walked off the page and onto the screen. And there are only two major differences between the movie and the novel’s plots.

No one knows how they’ll be remembered, and moralizing about heaven and hell does little to soothe our anxiety. The novel closes as the characters reflect that Rebecca has somehow won at last, from beyond the grave. And if immortality is winning–and Rebecca would have thought so–indeed she did win.

rebecca

An Americanized Fairy Tale

downloadAmerica has never been a place for fairies. There aren’t ancient traditions of little people among Americans (at least, among non-Native Americans). American children were never taught to leave milk out for the creatures, or not to listen to the noises on a dark night.

America’s a place of realism, of journey literature and settlement, of independence and frontier mentality. It’s a place of racial amalgamation, of half-remembered and half-made-up traditions.

So when you do what John Crowley did, and combine the classic American novel with the fairy tale, you get something very strange.

You get a family with one foot in America, one foot in progress and change, one foot in new architectural styles and in the cycles of the cities, and the other foot in fairy tales, in magic and fairies, in strangeness and charms. You get something filled with the eerie, where American independence breeds with semi-religious faith in the power of fairies.John Crowley, Little, Big, or, The Fairies' Parliament

Nothing is quite what it at first seems to be, in this book. Re-read even the last chapter, and you find the book is something completely different. Strange rhymes surface, and the book seems to remember itself just as the characters remember one another.

It’s American, but it’s something else too. It’s something that makes you suspicious when your flower pots are overturned in the morning, suspicious of more than the neighborhood cat. It makes you wonder when you’re walking in the woods, out in the country, and you hear something odd. It makes you question the surface of the world.