Shadows & Guilt: Rebecca



Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again

So starts the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s first directorial effort for Selznick and his first American picture, Rebecca (1940), a film closely based on the novel of the same name by Daphne DuMaurier.

Many readers and viewers find this chilling story romantic with all its gothic overtones, its mystery, the haunting deceased figure hovering over a developing relationship, possessing a disturbing housekeeper’s every waking thought. I’ve always found Rebecca to be more harrowingly bleak than romantic, a story about a nameless narrator and her circle doomed to be squelched under the weight of memory; forever in a sort of shadow, never able to escape a person who has gone before.

The estate of Manderley, as it scales the Cornwall coast in turreted aplomb, is rather more imprisoning than refined. When the nameless narrator speaks to it in a voice-over at the beginning of the film, the longing she feels for it is dragged down by a kind of obligation to it. It’s a place more spirit than substance that follows you wherever you go: “And finally, there was Manderley… secretive and silent. Time could not mar the perfect symmetry of those walls. Moonlight can play odd tricks upon the fancy, and suddenly it seemed to me that light came from the windows. And then a cloud came upon the moon and hovered an instant like a dark hand before a face. The illusion went with it. I looked upon a desolate shell, with no whisper of the past about its staring walls. We can never go back to Manderley again.”

Physically, perhaps, the second wife of Maxim de Winter (as mentioned, she is never given a name) and Maxim de Winter himself can never return to the homestead, but they are a slave to its memory and the strange happenings therein. Moreover, they are also enslaved to the eponymous Rebecca who still holds the fate of her husband, his new wife and the strong opinions of many from beyond the grave.

It’s interesting Hitchcock began his illustrious career here, as the mastermind of the psychological thriller. Rebecca does nothing if not wreak havoc on your brain and your visual and emotional senses. Since the Hollywood Production Code of the time forbid the killing of a spouse without punishment, Maxim does not shoot Rebecca as in the novel; rather her death is the result of an accident following a heated and passionate argument. This does not remove, however, the plaguing guilt and palpable shadow that hangs over Maxim’s head. Not unlike a 20th Century Rochester, de Winter’s relationship with his much more docile second wife seems a welcome reprieve from melodrama.

Indeed, the narrator is so docile, so nameless, and such an everywoman that she fails to espouse the bold characterization of other Hitchcock heroines (Alicia Huberman in Notorious is one example). What the narrator fails to offer in characterization, she makes up greatly in how she reflects and often embodies the feelings, moods and natures of those in her closest acquaintance. She is, to paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, a “conductor of light.” She allows us to see things for how they truly are as they are painted around her rather blank canvas. Certainly, Hitchcock and his band of writers needed to secure her, as DuMaurier does, as an anchor and a focal point for the action taking place in Monte Carlo and beyond; but importantly, to the audience, she is a bystander as she soaks in the dysfunctional and downright creepy actions and thought processes of her husband, his sinister housekeeper and the other secondary characters. She remains our guide not only through the central action of the film but through the maze of faded memory. As the presence of Rebecca hangs on for dearly departed life (Mrs. Danvers even keeps her furs and unmentionables intact!), so everything that propels de Winter and Manderley are confined to the memory of Rebecca.

This isn’t quite a grudge, per se, but it is certainly begrudging. This facet of the story—being trapped so wholly in the past that even a timely fire cannot erase the hurt and ache and passion—reminds me so much of that awful, plaguing feeling you get when harboring hate, jealousy or pride. As Rebecca remains, for better or worse, as a hallowed, revered and equally despised figure (beyond the circumstances of her death) so are we often prey to the clutches of what has gone before. I think about how I acted in a certain moment or how I feel I was wronged: surely exacerbating the seriousness of a moment to defend my obsession with it. The same can be said of anger and hurt. Christians are taught, by Christ’s example, to just let go. Certainly on a chilly autumn night it’s fun to sink into the world of Rebecca: the glorious mansion, the Cornwall cliffs, the handsome Laurence Olivier and the pale, fair prettiness of Joan Fontaine. But, theirs is a world so shrouded in the past that it’s hard for them or the audience to move forward. Literally, this is a film that stays with you, much like the source material would have stayed with its creators when they decided to transpose it to the screen.

Harboring obsession, guilt and anger over past wrongs and circumstances makes for needed conflict in a well-spun story such as this… but, in real life? Shouldn’t we be forgiving and forgetting? Showing immeasurable grace? Excusing ourselves from the plight of our pasts in order to pave a better future, to rise up and try again?

Manderley can be a bit of an albatross, I think. A millstone that can pull us down—as Rebecca does Danvers and Sir Maxim and the like—when there is so much love and life waiting, beyond the ashes and horizon, struggling to break free. ■



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