Infantilizing the Narrator: The Husband as Father in Rebecca (1938)

Posted by Pam Sherman on June 09, 2017 in Blog, Pamela Sherman tagged with , , ,

Still from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940)

In my last post, female identity in Rebecca was discussed and the narrator’s goal of being a good wife as an ideal ego, Rebecca as the ego ideal, and Mrs. Danvers as a superego that attempts to tear down the narrator at every turn were established. This week, we will take a look at Maxim’s part in the narrator’s struggles with identity. Through his infantilization of the second Mrs. de Winter and attempts to protect her innocence, it becomes apparent that Maxim also performs a superego-like function by preventing her from fully embracing her role as a wife.

From the moment that they become acquaintances, Maxim de Winter and the narrator form an unusual relationship. Maxim, a member of the English gentry and owner of the great Manderley estate, is an image from the past for the narrator, a face “arresting, sensitive, medieval” and a figure belonging to “the steps of a gaunt cathedral” (du Maurier 15, 42). To the young companion of the elderly Mrs. Van Hopper, this man is mysterious yet also someone to be confided in. On their day long car rides through the countryside of Monte Carlo, Maxim often ignores the presence of the narrator and, when he does acknowledge her, it makes her feel as though she is “young and small and very much alone” (45). Her desire for his affection, coupled with the secrecy surrounding Maxim’s dead wife, makes the narrator wish she was older and more sophisticated: “a woman of about thirty-six dressed in black satin with a string of pearls” (40). Maxim’s vehement opposition to the narrator becoming more mature suggests that he wants to preserve her innocence. His rather business-like marriage proposal seems to contradict the idea that he feels a traditional romantic love for the narrator, but more like the protectiveness of a father. Certainly the less enlightened she is about particular facts of life, the more subservient of a wife she will be. Ultimately the manner in which Maxim treats the narrator like a child indicates that, at least in the beginning, he acts as more of a father to her than a lover.

One specific example of Maxim’s habit of infantilizing his wife occurs after she breaks the china cupid doll in the morning room. Surrounded by decorations selected by Rebecca, the narrator attempts to make the room her own when her art volumes, a wedding gift from her sister-in-law, knock over the china cupid. Rather than acknowledge her error, she hides the remains of the doll in the desk, but her plan is foiled when it is suspected one of the servants stole the piece. When she confesses her mistake to Maxim he calls her “a little idiot” and the narrator feels like a child being interrogated (du Maurier 158). To make matters worse, Mrs. Danvers is included in the conversation and what follows is a belittlement of the narrator by her husband: “I can’t think why she didn’t do so [tell Mrs. Danvers] yesterday. I was just going to tell her so when you came into the room” (159). Maxim also likens his wife to the “between-maid,” but even Mrs. Danvers would not let a lowly servant touch such valuable items (159). The manner in which Maxim discusses his wife’s mistake with Mrs. Danvers is almost verbally abusive. Michelle A. Massé likewise argues that this scene “foregrounds her [the narrator] part as negative exhibit as well as Danvers’s and Maxim’s affinity in their aggression…[they] speak as near equals, while the protagonist is the infantilized third” (163-164). The narrator acts like a naughty child by trying to hide the broken doll and Maxim’s scolding reaction reflects the ridiculousness of her behaviour. But the manner in which Maxim rebukes her only serves to degrade the narrator’s view of herself and causes her to retreat into her childish tendencies rather than move past them.

Maxim also blurs the lines between husband and father figure by attempting to protect his young wife from certain kinds of knowledge. A particular moment in which the second Mrs. de Winter imagines herself as Rebecca compels Maxim to, once again, forcibly reprimand the narrator. She gets so lost in Rebecca’s persona at this moment that her “own dull self did not exist” and the look on her face that accompanies this change alarms Maxim (du Maurier 225). He describes this look as “deceitful” with a “twist” to the mouth and a “flash of knowledge” in the eyes (226). A conversation ensues where Maxim identifies himself in a patriarchal role, much like the father, and asserts that his husbandly duty is to keep a mystery that which is not becoming of a woman to know. In their analysis of this passage, Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik reason: “Maxim, his judgment determined by culturally endorsed myths, associates sexual experience in women with evil; he therefore continually surveys the narrator for signs of a fall from innocence” (103). It is no coincidence that Maxim notices this change in countenance just as the narrator begins to identify with Rebecca; he recognizes this look. The narrator is as yet unaware of the fact that Rebecca came into her marriage with Maxim as a woman who had already embraced her sexuality. Her persistent carrying on with other men not only hurt Maxim’s pride, but also solidified his patriarchal fears about women and sexual experience. His primary motive in marrying the narrator was not as much about love as it was that she knew nothing about men and sexual matters. Maxim himself admits as much when he recalls “a certain expression” the narrator had on her face when they met, a look that led to his choosing her as his wife (du Maurier 226). After this discussion, Maxim puts his wife back into that infantilized state by threatening to put her in the corner. Treating her like a child is ultimately Maxim’s way of asserting his patriarchal power and preventing his wife from humiliating him like Rebecca once did.

In the last installment of this series, we will examine the narrator’s dream at the end of the novel. Specifically, I will attempt to link the imagery of the dream with the second Mrs. de Winter’s unconscious desire to embrace Rebecca’s defiance of patriarchal rule.


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.

Massé, Michelle A. In the Name of Love: Women, Masochism, and the Gothic. Cornell University Press, 1992.

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