“Into the Moving Unquiet Depths”: Dreams and the Unconscious in Rebecca (1938)

Posted by Pam Sherman on June 16, 2017 in Blog, Pamela Sherman tagged with , , , ,

Still from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940)

This blog series has chiefly been concerned with investigating the narrator’s fight to establish her own identity in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. The second Mrs. de Winter’s almost morbid fascination with Rebecca as a model of the perfect wife, coupled with Mrs. Danvers’ cruel treatment and Maxim’s refusal to regard his wife as an adult are all contributing factors to the narrator’s struggles. However, when the mystery surrounding Rebecca is dispelled and Maxim reveals his crime, a change takes place in the narrator. Far from being surprised by her husband’s propensity for murder, she listens with relish as Maxim destroys Rebecca’s image as a flawless mate and displays his contempt for her abnormal (at least by patriarchal standards) sexual behaviour: “She was vicious, damnable, rotten through and through…Rebecca was incapable of love, of tenderness, of decency. She was not even normal” (du Maurier 304). This patriarchal condemnation of Rebecca’s rebellious nature, along with the realization that Maxim did not love his first wife, propels the narrator into finally asserting her position as the mistress of Manderley: “I was free now to be with Maxim, to touch him, and hold him, and love him. I would never be a child again…Rebecca had lost” (320). Their relationship transforms into a passionate love affair altogether different from their previous relations and the second Mrs. de Winter becomes a mature adult. Maxim laments the loss of “that funny, young, lost look” in the narrator, again equating the acquisition of knowledge (this time Maxim’s murder of Rebecca) with a loss of innocence (336).

Though appearances suggest that the narrator has set aside Rebecca as the model of what a wife should be and establishes her own identity as Maxim’s wife, her dream at the end of the novel implies that she still has an unconscious desire to emulate Rebecca:

I was writing letters in the morning-room…But when I looked down to see what I had written it was not my small square handwriting at all, it was long, and slanting, with curious pointed strokes…I got up and went to the looking-glass. A face stared back at me that was not my own. It was very pale, very lovely, framed in a cloud of dark hair…The face in the glass stared back at me and laughed. And I saw then that she was sitting on a chair before the dressing-table in her bedroom, and Maxim was brushing her hair…as he brushed it he wound it slowly into a thick rope. It twisted like a snake, and he took hold of it with both hands and smiled at Rebecca and put it round his neck. (du Maurier 426)

In his discussion of the unconscious, Sigmund Freud makes a connection to repression, an act in which a drive is “not removed or destroyed, but prevented from becoming conscious” (49). These repressed desires can manifest themselves in a variety of ways, including through dreams. From this definition, it can be surmised that the narrator’s dream is a manifestation of unacknowledged feelings or desires.

The contrast between the narrator and Rebecca’s handwriting indicates that she still compares herself to her predecessor. Rebecca’s writing exudes confidence and sensuality, while the narrator’s is “small” and “square,” a representation of her feeling of smallness in Rebecca’s wake and the unshapeliness of her clothes (du Maurier 426). She becomes even more disconcerted when she discovers that she is not only writing in Rebecca’s hand, but her reflection itself is Rebecca. Through this dream the narrator “signals a desire for Rebecca’s sexual and textual charisma” (Horner and Zlosnik 115). Though the narrator has been taught to fear the kind of knowledge Rebecca possessed, she also unconsciously identifies with Rebecca’s brand of sexuality. The merging of the narrator’s and Rebecca’s reflections symbolizes her longing to possess this forbidden sexual knowledge, an acquisition which would make the narrator indistinguishable from Rebecca.

Coupled with this envy of Rebecca’s sexual freedom is a desire to rebel against traditional patriarchal standards for women. The noose Maxim puts around his neck not only represents his flirtation with capital punishment, but also a longing of the narrator to assert her freedom from patriarchal authority. In her unconscious, the narrator recognizes that she has essentially traded her life as a paid companion for a marriage not unlike her previous occupation. In slipping the noose around Maxim’s neck, the narrator is also putting it around her neck and admitting that marriage has put to death her distinct identity as a woman. She will never fully realize her potential as long as she submits to her husband and plays her role in a male dominated society.

Rebecca explores the distinctly Female Gothic notions of identity and entrapment through its narrator, who begins her story as a relatively powerless woman at the beck and call of her employer, and remains so in her husband’s household. Her anxiety over trying to be the perfect wife and model of domesticity prevents the narrator from establishing her own distinguishable identity. Instead she is overwhelmed by the memory of Rebecca, so much so that the reader never learns the narrator’s name. Mrs. Danvers’ vengeful behaviour toward her new mistress as well as Maxim’s refusal to let the narrator become a mature woman do little to encourage her. Despite Rebecca’s portrayal as the rebellious, salacious woman, the second Mrs. de Winter continues to identify with her on an unconscious level. Ultimately, the narrator’s struggle with female identity stems from the expectations of patriarchal authority, an institution ready to condemn any woman who would dare to test its power. The novel closes much as it began, with a woman trapped by the confines of her occupation, a woman who shall remain nameless in the aftermath of Rebecca.


Works Cited

du Maurier, Daphne. Rebecca. Virago, 2015.

Freud, Sigmund. The Unconscious. Translated by Graham Frankland, Penguin Books, 2005.

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

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