In Rebecca’s Shadow: Female Identity in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938)

Posted by Pam Sherman on June 02, 2017 in Blog, Pamela Sherman tagged with , , , ,

Still from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940)

Ellen Moers first coined the term “Female Gothic” to simply refer to Gothic texts written by women. Since then, the field of Female Gothic has expanded to include issues relating to women in these texts, including anxieties surrounding identity and entrapment. Patricia Murphy makes a distinction between Female Gothic of eighteenth and nineteenth century novels, and what she calls New Woman Gothic. She argues that, in earlier texts, “the period preceding marriage typically is fraught with Gothic difficulties such as entrapment whereas, in the latter texts, marriage itself becomes the horrific factor” (Murphy 151). A similar struggle takes centre stage in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) as the narrator recalls her memories of Manderley and the unhappy circumstances that dominated her time there. Not only does the narrator struggle to establish her own identity as a wife, but also discovers that she has escaped a domineering employer only to be trapped in an equally troubling marriage.

When the narrator becomes Mrs. de Winter, she experiences an identity crisis as she feels overshadowed by the memory of her husband’s first wife Rebecca. It seems that Rebecca was the epitome of a perfect wife to Maxim, managing the household and acting the part of social butterfly. The narrator constantly compares herself to Rebecca’s successes and fixates on her own inadequacies of youth and inexperience, while also being provoked by the oppressive Mrs. Danvers and treated like a child by her husband. She only begins to find her own footing after Rebecca’s true character and Maxim’s hatred and murder of his first wife are revealed. In spite of Rebecca’s image of perfect femininity and domesticity being proven false, the narrator seems to unconsciously desire to become Rebecca herself. A dream at the end of the novel suggests this to be the case, as the narrator looks at her reflection only to see Rebecca in the mirror. Though the narrator ultimately embraces the traditional female role valued by patriarchy and promoted by Maxim, she also unconsciously wants to rebel against its dictates as Rebecca did. This three-part blog series will analyse the narrator’s struggles through the lens of Lacanian psychoanalysis, exploring issues of self-identity and emotional abuse of the narrator. The series will conclude with a close reading of the narrator’s dream at the end of the novel and how it betrays her desire to undermine patriarchal expectations of femininity.

It is illuminating to approach this issue of female identity through Lacan’s interpretations of the ideal ego, ego-ideal, and superego. Lacan defines the ideal ego as “the idealized self-image of the subject,” or that which the subject wants to become (Žižek 80). For our reading of the text, the ideal ego represents the narrator’s desire to be a good wife. The ego-ideal is explained as “the agency whose gaze I try to impress with my ego image…the ideal I try to follow and actualize” (Žižek 80). In this case, the narrator allows preconceived notions of Rebecca as a wife to influence her own journey into married life. Acting as an extension of the ego-ideal “in its vengeful, sadistic, punishing aspect” is the superego (Žižek 80). Mrs. Danvers functions as the superego in this story, using her own brand of psychological torture to convince the narrator of her inability to take Rebecca’s place at Manderley. Maxim also embodies these superego-like attributes through his infantilization of the narrator (we will look at this at length next week). Between being insecure in her identity and her anxiety about living up to Rebecca’s legacy, the second Mrs. de Winter struggles to achieve her ideal ego.

The narrator’s curiosity and obsession with Maxim’s first wife leads her to compare herself with Rebecca, based on what others have told her of Rebecca as well as qualities she has imagined herself. At the start of her narrative, the second Mrs. de Winter is quick to point out her “lack of poise” and her awkwardness when she first encounters Maxim in Monte Carlo (du Maurier 10). Her ill-fitting clothes, which do nothing to accentuate her more womanly features, not only demonstrate her naivety, but also suggest that she struggles to embrace her appeal as a woman. She is disbelieving when Maxim asks her to marry him, arguing that she is “not the sort of person men marry” (57). Rebecca, on the other hand, is described as tall with a “beautiful figure” and a “mass of dark hair, standing out from her face like a halo” (190). In addition to her physical attractiveness, Rebecca thrived in society and made a good impression on anyone she met. Receiving and returning social calls only serves to irritate the narrator, who feels that those she encounters only see her as second-best to Rebecca. Helene Meyers suggests that “living in the shadow of this seemingly perfect first wife…the plain, shy, and often clumsy second Mrs. de Winter comes to feel like an inferior replacement” (35). From these accounts of Rebecca, the narrator dwells on her predecessor’s attributes and fantasizes about Rebecca in the domestic sphere, her successes in society, and her relationship with Maxim. By letting her imagination run away with her, she simultaneously sets up Rebecca as an unattainable ego-ideal and prevents herself from becoming the “good” wife she wants to be.

Mrs. Danvers does nothing to relieve the second Mrs. de Winter’s insecurities as she does everything in her power to make her new mistress feel unwelcome at Manderley. Not only is her manner toward the narrator chilling, but Mrs. Danver’s outward aspect itself is forbidding: “tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheek-bones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face, parchment-white, set on a skeleton’s frame” (du Maurier 74). If we read her as the superego, the vindictive ego-ideal, Mrs. Danvers physically embodies her beloved Rebecca as a living and breathing corpse bent on the narrator’s humiliation. From their first meeting, the narrator senses Mrs. Danvers’ dislike as she is welcomed “in a voice as cold and lifeless as her [Mrs. Danvers’] hands had been” (74). Mrs. Danvers seems to come to life only when talking of her dead mistress and forces the narrator to listen to her praises of Rebecca. She intentionally tries to sabotage Maxim and the second Mrs. de Winter’s marriage by suggesting a costume for the Manderley ball, the same costume worn by Rebecca the year before. Though she does little to personally inflict physical harm on the narrator, Mrs. Danvers attempts to influence her to commit suicide at a time when the narrator feels she and Maxim’s relationship is irreconcilable. These attacks by “a grotesquely reductive version of Rebecca” leave the narrator almost powerless to resist Mrs. Danvers’ provocation to jump from the window of the west wing (Horner & Zlosnik 119).

Next time, the infantilization of the narrator by her husband will be explored, highlighting how Maxim treats his wife and uses his patriarchal influence to shield her from forbidden knowledge. If Rebecca’s continuing presence at Manderley and her own inferiority weren’t enough, Maxim’s behaviour toward the narrator does little to encourage her to embrace her role as his wife.


Works Cited

du Maurier, Daphne. Rebecca. Virago, 2015.

Horner, Avril and Sue Zlosnik, Daphne du Maurier: Writing, Identity, and the Gothic Imagination. Macmillan Press, 1998.

Meyers, Helene. Femicidal Fears: Narratives of the Female Gothic Experience. State University of New York Press, 2001.

Moers, Ellen. Literary Women. The Women’s Press, 1978.

Murphy, Patricia. The New Woman Gothic: Reconfigurations of Distress. University of Missouri Press, 2016.

Žižek, Slavoj. How to Read Lacan. Granta Books, 2006.

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