Feminist interpretation of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Feminism is commonly understood to be the women’s movement for political, social, educational and economic equality with men. While the United States and Europe have been the geo-political arenas for feminist ideas, the rest of the world is also catching up. Feminist issues range from “access to employment, education, child care, contraception, and abortion, to equality in the workplace, changing family roles, redress for sexual harassment in the workplace, and the need for equal political representation”. The object of this essay is to discuss the following three books from the feminist perspective: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, Lucy by Jamaica Kincard and Carrie by Stephen King.

The novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier belongs to two genres – romance and crime. Though the two categories might appear incongruous, the author uses the suspense and intrigue created by the element of crime to portray in detail the relationship between the lady protagonist and her new found love Maxim. The novel is a feminist one on two counts – firstly the internal conflict and uncertainty associated with the girl narrator’s relationship with Maxim; secondly the aristocratic and self-assured sexuality of Maxim’s deceased wife Rebecca. The feminist underpinnings of the book come to surface when the young narrator compares herself to Rebecca and Maxim and feels inferior to both. What makes the girl apprehensive about her ‘romance’ is not just her youth and lack of experience with intimate relationships, but more importantly its expression in the class difference between her and Maxim, and also her and Rebecca. Her shabby and inelegant clothes draw critical remarks; she is also reminded of how much she actually earns, and also of her “down-at-heel middle-class niceness”. In essence, she and Maxim belong to different social classes, which are made explicit by him when he utters the following words: “instead of being companion to Mrs. Van Hopper you become mine, and your duties will be almost exactly the same” (p.58). This allusion here is a demonstration of how class interprets and regulates sexual behavior and expectations.

The girl’s jealousy of Rebecca arises from her perception that while the former “is no great lady”, the latter was the “mistress of Manderley”. The girl’s aspiration to acquire the passionate sexual flair of the aristocratic Rebecca indicates that she found the limits on sexual expression in a bourgeois setup are inadequate. The girl sees Rebecca as a more mature person, both socially and sexually. As the novel progresses, the girl idealizes Rebecca as the epitome of feminine sexuality which her own middle class background excludes. For the girl, acquiring a secure social identity as Maxim’s wife would mean re-interpreting Rebecca’s qualities. This meant that Rebecca’s image has to be altered from an idealized one to a despicable one. And as the novel comes to a close, Rebecca, the once perfect lady of the house, is branded by the narrator as a lesbian and a whore.