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

rebecca1  If 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.

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