Literature / Rebecca

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"You're overwrought, madam; I've opened a window for you."

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."
The Second Mrs. de Winter, her opening narration from both film and novel.

A 1938 novel written by Daphne du Maurier (who also wrote Jamaica Inn, and the story that became The Birds). In 1940, Alfred Hitchcock directed the film version, his first American project, which starred Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. It won the Oscar for Best Picture. It was the only Hitchcock film to win Best Picture, and Hitchcock didn't win Best Director—he never did, in fact, and had to settle for a lifetime achievement Oscar late in life. A musical version debuted in Vienna, Austria in 2006.

While working in Monte Carlo as the companion for the wealthy Mrs. Van Hopper, our young unnamed heroine meets the much wealthier Maxim de Winter: a moody, inscrutable widower presumed still to be in deep mourning for his late wife, the beautiful Rebecca, tragically drowned in a boating accident. Thus no-one is more surprised than the shy, gauche little companion when Maxim not only seems attracted to her but impetuously proposes they wed there and then.

The first signs of trouble in Paradise appear when they arrive at his elegant old country estate, Manderley. The servants have grown too fond of its late mistress and receive their new one coolly. Mrs. Danvers, the current housekeeper and Rebecca's former handmaid, is especially less than thrilled with the prospect of anyone taking Rebecca's place, and has made something of a fetish of keeping her darling's things exactly as she left them — stationery in the desk, clothes in the cupboards — all monogrammed with that bold, decisive initial R.

As the novel progresses the shadow of Rebecca hangs more and more heavily over the house, making it increasingly difficult for our heroine to face the challenges not only of running a great estate but within her marriage — especially when it's increasingly clear that the two are related. Gradually, with a not-so-subtle assist from Mrs. Danvers, she begins to despair of ever living up to the perfect, proud, beloved Rebecca...

...then they find the remains of a boat...


This and its adaptations feature examples of:

  • Accidental Murder: In the Hitchcock film, Maxim accidentally killed Rebecca; he got angry and pushed her, and she fell and struck her head. In the original novel, he shot her, very much on purpose. She rather had it coming, to the point of taunting him into doing it.
  • Adaptational Heroism: Both the Hitchcock film and the musical do this to Maxim by eliminating his murder of Rebecca, the former by necessity of the Hays Code. By extension, this removes the potentially psychotic element from his wife's decision to help him, helping to make her more sympathetic and heroic after The Reveal. The musical in particular portrays her as becoming a confident woman that doesn't take Mrs. Danvers's bullying any longer so that the audience can root for her. She and Maxim are seen as very happy together and kiss at the end, which is much clearer than the ambiguous future of their relationship in the novel.
  • Adaptational Karma: In the book, Mrs Danvers escapes Manderly after she burns it to the ground. The film - by order of the Hays Code - shows her dying in the fire.
  • Adaptational Villainy: A consequence of the elimination of Maxim's murder of Rebecca in the Hitchcock film is that Jack Favell's persecution of Maxim is now based completely on a falsehood.
  • Affectionate Nickname: Both Rebecca and Favell called Mrs Danvers 'Danny' affectionately.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: The second Mrs. de Winter becomes even more passionately in love with Maxim once he admits that he killed Rebecca. Justified because the second Mrs. de Winter's greatest fear was that Maxim still loved Rebecca. When he confesses to killing her, it proves that he doesn't and never did. However, the novel repeatedly hints that Maxim is actually rather weak-willed (as demonstrated by Rebecca's successful Suicide by Cop). Moreover, when the novel opens, Maxim's bad boy days are long gone.
  • Alpha Bitch:
    • Mrs. Danvers pulls a lot of the tactics, despite being too old to qualify.
    • Alice, one of the maids, who sneers at the narrator's modest and plain underwear fits better.
    • Rebecca to the people she was openly nasty to.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Mrs. Danvers is coded as a lesbian as blatantly as the censors would allow, what with her caressing Rebecca's minks and lingerie, and talking about how Rebecca would undress in front of her and take a bath.
  • Animal Motifs: Rebecca, the wild and untamed one, is likened to the horses she trained, whereas our young, submissive heroine is likened to the loyal de Winter dog, Jasper.
  • Antagonist Title: Arguably, since the heroine's main conflict (at first anyway) is that she can't live up to Rebecca's legacy.
  • Arch-Enemy: Mrs. Danvers to 'Maxim' de Winter and the second Mrs. de Winter.
  • Author Avatar: The second Mrs. de Winter's original name being "Daphne" implies that she was supposed to be one, though there are articles suggesting that the real author insert is Rebecca (du Maurier, at around the time that she was writing Rebecca, was also writing passionate, if self-loathing-filled, love letters to a straight, married woman; a lot of descriptors she uses for herself in these letters are similar to the descriptions of Rebecca in the novel). Of course, it could be both of them.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Discussed throughout the novel, with the narrator always thinking that Rebecca is conquering from beyond the grave. In the end, Rebecca loses her power to hurt the new couple, but Mrs. Danvers destroys Manderley and causes the bleak ending described in the prologue right when the couple were happy for the first time.
  • Big Bad: Mrs. Danvers.
  • Big Fancy House: Manderley. The prologue to the novel includes Purple Prose describing it and its grounds. It may be based on Milton Hall, which du Maurier visited as a child, or else Menabilly, Du Maurier's home of twenty-six years.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: The widely adored Rebecca was an utter selfish bitch who was nice to people on their faces but laughed and jeered behind their backs.
  • Birds of a Feather: The heroine and Maxim are this.
  • Blackmail: Favell attempts to blackmail Maxim with his note from Rebecca, which suggests that Rebecca did not actually suicide, implicating Maxim himself.
  • Brick Joke: During one of their early dates, the heroine confesses that she wishes she were thirty-six years old, wearing black satin and white pearls. Maxim makes her promise never to wear pearls or black satin. Later she attempts Beautiful All Along - in a black dress with white pearls. Maxim is understandably put-off.
  • Brutal Honesty: Beatrice is famous for never sugarcoating her opinions and to tell people face-on she doesn't like them. Fortunately she takes an immediate liking to the second Mrs. de Winter.
  • Bury Your Gays: In the film, Mrs. Danvers perishes when she burns down Manderley.
  • Can Not Spit It Out: The heroine is convinced that she's a complete failure compared to Rebecca, her husband's first (dead) wife, until she finds out that Rebecca was evil and the husband never loved her and murdered her. Which cheers her up immensely.
  • Character Title
  • The Charmer: Rebecca managed to charm whoever she met.
  • Cheshire Cat Grin: After what happened at the ball, the narrator gets freaked out by Mrs. Danvers, who sports a rather creepy smile.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Happens to the narrator when she sees Maxim for what she thinks is the last time at Monte Carlo. He asks her if she wants to go to New York with Mrs. Van Hopper or to Mandelay with him. After realizing that he's serious this exchange follows:
    "You mean you want a secretary?"
    Maxim: "No, you little fool. I'm asking you to marry me."
  • Counterpoint Duet: "Mrs de Winter Bin Ich!" (Mrs de Winter is me!) is a duet between, as you might have guessed, the new Mrs de Winter and Mrs Danvers. The former is busy ridding the house of any traces of Rebecca about which Mrs Danvers is less than happy.
  • Creator Cameo: Alfred Hitchcock, as usual, this time near the end, walking past George Sanders right after Sanders has exited a phone booth.
  • Creepy Housekeeper: Mrs. Danvers. She is creepy in herself, with a deathlike appearance, and in her devotion to the memory of Rebecca such that she doesn't wash the clothes of Rebecca's scent and goes to her room every day.
  • Dances and Balls: Rebecca and Maxim regularly entertained at Manderley, and another costume ball is held in the second Mrs. de Winter's honour, at the begging of the neighbours who loved the previous ones. It doesn't go well.
  • Dark Secret: Rebecca's murder. In theory, only Maxim and the new Mrs. de Winter know the whole story, but Favell guesses it (though he gives up on his guess in the end) and one of the servants and the magistrate also figure out an unspecified amount, leading to a lot of worry about who knows what.
  • Death by Adaptation: Mrs. Danvers in the film. In the novel she escaped the burning house, but the Hays Code wouldn't allow her to survive. The musical takes this further and shows that this is a suicide.
  • Death by Falling Over: Rebecca, in the film version and The Musical; she stumbled and hit her head. This would be because of the Hays Code. In the book, she goads Maxim into shooting her.
  • Death Glare: Mrs. Danvers has a frightening one that she likes to shoot at the 2nd Mrs. de Winter
  • Depraved Bisexual: In the novel Rebecca is hinted to have had male and female lovers while married to Maxim. Mrs. Danvers contends that she loved no man at all.
  • The Disease That Shall Not Be Named: Rebecca was revealed to be dying of a tumor in her ovaries, which mean that she couldn't have children.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • Mrs. Danvers tries to do this to our heroine after the fiasco at the costume party, telling her how worthless and unlike Rebecca she is. This is foiled when they find the boat where Rebecca's Suicide by Cop happened.
    • Mrs. Danvers at the end of the film (but not the novel). She can't live with the verdict about Rebecca.
  • Driving a Desk: As unconvincing as usual when Olivier is driving Fontaine around.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: The narrator tries but does maybe not quite manage it; at the very least she and Maxim live in relative peace. It is hinted that she is satisfied, and her husband is with the woman he loves, despite feeling really bad about the earlier events of the book.
  • Eerie Pale-Skinned Brunette: Mrs. Danvers is described as being very pale with a deathlike appearance and usually has dark hair (sometimes with grey streaks).
  • Face of an Angel, Mind of a Demon: The title character is described by everyone as being incredibly beautiful, intelligent, cultured, loving, and basically the perfect wife. The end has Maxim reveal that she was actually a Bitch in Sheep's Clothing, who was excellent at getting people to adore her, and delighted in emotionally tormenting him.
  • Film Noir: The movie is sometimes considered an example of the genre, if only because of its visual style.
  • Flower Motifs:
    • Roses for the new Mrs de Winter.
    • Rhododendrons and azaleas for Rebecca. The rhododendrons are particularly interesting: they are notoriously invasive, with a tendency to crowd out any native plants by depriving them of food and sunlight, ensuring their takeover of large areas. Moreover, they have a reputation (of uncertain validity) for "poisoning the soil," meaning that even once the rhododendron has gone, no other plant can thrive where it used to be. Sound familiar?
    • In the musical it's orchids for Rebecca. Mrs. Danvers comments that they may seem dead sometimes but can come to blossom unexpectedly. Interestingly, the new Mrs. de Winter later replaces them with azaleas.
  • Foil: Rebecca, who was a self-centered and ruthless Manipulative Bastard Brainy Brunette, and the heroine, a kind and innocent girl almost always always portrayed with Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The novel begins some time after everything has happened, with the de Winters living a grim, inconsequential existence overseas. Or, at least, they have a mundane existence but at least they have each other's company.
  • Genre Blind: Mrs Danvers is suddenly being nice to the second Mrs de Winter? Nope, don't find anything suspicious about her behaviour and do as she asks.
  • Gentleman Snarker: Maxim gets decidedly snarky at the inquest. Not the cleverest tack to take when the police are suggesting you killed your wife...
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: Seems to be Jack Favell's main business after blackmail. It's one of the things the narrator dislikes about him.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: The titular Rebecca was, rather than the lovely and kind-hearted perfect wife her successor assumed her to be, a lying, manipulative, cruel sociopath who cheated on her husband Maxim with a series of lovers- and was not even really in love with them either. Maxim, meanwhile, is shown putting up with this until Rebecca actually intentionally provokes him into shooting her (because she has cancer and no way of treating it, and is apparently too afraid of committing actual suicide; as well as the fact that this makes him a murderer: her ultimate attack on him). She is, in fact, so awful that the heroine, Maxim's second wife, is glad he shot Rebecca, and the reader's sympathies are directed toward Maxim in spite of the murder. We also find out that Rebecca seduced Giles, Maxim's brother-in-law. Giles' wife (Maxim's sister) Beatrice either knows or strongly suspects this and avoids further visits with her brother for that reason. She and Giles still seem to get along well though, and the second wife at one point feels inferior because the two have a "good marriage".
  • Grande Dame:
    • Edythe van Hopper, who passes over into Rich Bitch territory.
    • Beatrice, who is on the more intelligent and sympathetic end of the scale.
    • Lady Crowen, who is rather ridiculous.
    • Maxim's grandmother was one before becoming senile.
  • Handsome Lech: Favell.
  • Happy Marriage Charade:
    • Maxim and Rebecca; they are thought to be a glorious couple even by the house servants, and neighbours for miles around speak of them, but their marriage is anything but.
    • It is hinted that the same is true for Beatrice and Giles.
  • Haunted Heroine: Figuratively speaking. The second Mrs. de Winter is obsessed with Rebecca, to the point that she feels like Rebecca is haunting the house, and sometimes imagines her visually. Mrs. Danvers helps things along...
  • I Am Not Pretty: The second Mrs. de Winter thinks she is bland and childish, but others find her reasonably attractive.
  • "I Am" Song: "I'm an American Woman" (which, aside from the title line, is entirely in German). Also, "Mrs. de Winter bin ich!" ("Mrs. de Winter is me!"), a duet between the heroine and Mrs. Danvers.
    • "Sie ergibt sich nicht" ("She's invincible") for Rebecca, sung by Mrs. Danvers.
  • "I Want" Song: "Zeit in einer Flasche" ("Time in a Bottle"), where Mrs. de Winter-to-be wishes for a way to capture the magic of a moment, the reality of a dream, and the miracle of understanding in order to remember her time with Mr. de Winter in Monte Carlo, not knowing that he intends to marry her.
  • Impractically Fancy Outfit: Played with in the film. The heroine, having just married former widower Maxim, is desperate to prove herself a Proper Lady (and not an Inadequate Inheritor to the titular Rebecca). Hoping to appear elegant and tasteful, she buys a fancy party dress from a fashion magazine... but quickly learns that it's completely out of place for a quiet evening at home, Big Fancy House and Fiction 500-status be damned.
  • Innocent Inaccurate: Mrs. de Winter thinks that her husband, Max, is cold with her because he is still in love with his late wife, Rebecca. She feels that she cannot measure up to Rebecca in Max's eyes. The truth turns out to be quite different.
  • It's a Costume Party, I Swear!: The fancy dress ball held in the second Mrs. de Winter's honour. It was in fact a costume party, but Mrs. Danvers suggested M. de W. II dress up as a certain painting in the house, something Rebecca had done in the past, in order to humiliate her.
  • Kissing Cousins: Jack Favell and Rebecca, first cousins and lovers alike.
  • Large Ham: Mrs. van Hopper as portrayed by Carin Filipčić in the musical.
  • Let the Past Burn: Mrs. Danvers goes over the edge and sets Manderley on fire. All that symbolically remains of Rebecca is burned down along with the house. In some adaptations Mrs. Danvers also burns.
  • Literary Necrophilia: The book got a sequel in Susan Hill's Mrs. De Winter.
  • The Lost Lenore: Played with. Rebecca seems to be this to her widowed husband Maxim, but it turns out that she was an utterly despicable woman whom he later murdered, and his haunted behavior regarding her death was caused by the strain of having to maintain a facade of devoted mourning and the knowledge that he was unable to be good enough for his innocent young second wife because of this. On the other hand, Rebecca is this trope in lesbian fashion to her onetime nanny and later housekeeper Mrs. Danvers.
  • Meaningful Name: Rebecca means "a snare" or "captivating".
  • Memento MacGuffin: Manderley.
  • Motif: The big flourished R of Rebecca's name, as written by the woman herself, appears and is described several times and used to bring out her character. In the musical, this is translated to the main poster, which is a flaming R and the shadow of a face.
  • Nameless Narrative: The central character is never named. Her very namelessness is a defining aspect of her character.
  • Nice to the Waiter: The protagonist is very polite to waiters and assorted serving staff, but they are not nice to her. The personnel in the hotel at Monte Carlo were rude and unhelpful and from the Manderley staff only Clarice makes her feel welcome and comfortable.
  • The Nicknamer: Rebecca seemed to have been one. She called Mrs. Danvers Danny and Maxim Max. Maxim does not seem to care much for the nickname, at least after her death when it reminds him of her. The narrator thinks this means she was close with Mrs. Danvers and Maxim, and wishes that she could use Max herself.
  • No Ending: Played with. The novel ends very abruptly with "And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea," and gives no description of what happens next or even details of the fire. However, the ending has already been written in the form of the prologue, which takes place some time later. The prologue is very bleak, but when first reading it one has no idea what causes it.
  • No Name Given: The second Mrs. de Winter. She mentions that her name is unusual, and people rarely spell it correctly, but doesn't tell what it is. In earlier drafts of the novel, her name was Daphne. A bit unusual, and, back in the days before Scooby-Doo, easy to misspell. In The Musical, she's just know as "Ich" ("I").
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Ben, kinda. He really is mentally disabled, but can play it up, but isn't clever enough to say that nobody told him to say nothing.
  • Ominous Fog: Manderley is often shrouded in it, making the place all the more creepy.
  • Only Sane Woman: The second Mrs. de Winter becomes this, as everyone around her slowly starts to lose it.
  • Orange/Blue Contrast: A very blatant example in the form of the musical's poster, which is a massive flaming R with a big flourish on a strong blue background.
  • The Perfect Crime: Subverted at the inquest, when the boat's builder explodes the theory that the boat went down accidentally.
  • Posthumous Character: Rebecca. When the story opens, she has been dead for a year already but even in her absence, her presence is inescapable, as her memory casts its shadow over the entire story.
  • Present Absence: Rebecca is dead, yet she influences everything and everyone around her.
  • Pretty in Mink: Mrs. Danvers proudly showing the furs Maxim brought Rebecca.
  • Prim and Proper Bun: Mrs. Danvers in the film.
  • Psycho Lesbian: Mrs. Danvers, though in the film version, this was put only in subtext. In the musical, she dies wearing Rebecca's nightgown, which she has never washed since Rebecca wore it last.
  • Psycho Supporter: Mrs. Danvers.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: Rebecca is described as having had a cloud of dark hair and very white skin. Frank also describes her as the most beautiful creature he had seen.
  • Redemption Equals Affliction: Downplayed in the 1997 version; Maxim saves the life of Mrs. Danvers at the cost of slight scarring and a limp.
  • Replacement Goldfish: The main source of tension. The second Mrs. de Winter spends most of the book failing to live up to the memory of Rebecca, her husband's first wife, who had drowned accidentally. She is explicitly told, often, that she doesn't measure up, by Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca's personal maid. The second Mrs. de Winter becomes more and more desperate in her attempts to live up to Rebecca's memory, because Mrs. Danvers has her convinced that that is what Maxim, her husband, wants. Just when the second Mrs. De Winter (she is never given a first name, and the book is a first person narrative) is near a breakdown, and Mrs. Danvers suggests that she throw herself out of a window, it is revealed that Maxim never really loved Rebecca, and in fact, came to hate her, because she was cruel, cold, manipulative, and unfaithful. Not only that, she had taunted him one night until he murdered her, by telling him she was pregnant with another man's child, which she intended that he would support. It doesn't end there, and Maxim is vindicated, so they can go on with their lives together.
  • Rich Bitch:
    • Mrs. Van Hopper is relentlessly unpleasant.
    • Rebecca, as it turns out.
  • Romanticized Abuse: (verbal) Maxim calls the heroine "fool" and "idiot" pretty frequently.
  • Sanity Slippage Song: The second reprise of "Rebecca".
  • Save the Villain: In the 1997 TV series, Maxim runs upstairs to save Mrs. Danvers from the fire.
  • Second Love: The heroine for Maxim, although he grew to hate Rebecca and she never loved him; their marriage was a charade.
  • Secondary Character Title: The protagonist is the second Mrs. de Winter (whose first name is never given). Rebecca herself is a Posthumous Character.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: The second Mrs. de Winter attempts this twice. The first time she dresses up to look like a woman on a magazine hoping to impress her husband, at which he's a little alarmed. The second time backfires horribly when she is tricked into dressing up as Rebecca for the costume ball.
  • Shrinking Violet: The second Mrs. de Winter is meek and shy, which allows Mrs. Danvers to intimidate her.
  • Sidekick Song: "Die lieben Verwandten" ("Beloved relatives"), sung by Beatrice and Giles, with the second Mrs. de Winter joining in at the end.
  • Smug Snake: Jack Favell, especially as played by George Sanders, is one of the smuggest snakes in media history.
  • Suicide by Cop: Rebecca manipulated Maxim into shooting her after learning she had cancer by pretending to be pregnant with another man's child. Because of the production code, this is amended in the film and musical versions to Rebecca dying in a convenient fall just as Maxim was ready and willing to pull the trigger.
  • Suicide Dare: The Creepy Housekeeper Mrs Danvers very seriously encourages the second Mrs de Winter to commit suicide. That was because she was passionately devoted to the first Mrs de Winter and felt the successor was taking her place. (Mrs Danvers was, as you may presume, a total psycho.) She is not impolite or emotional when she does it, which makes it all the more scary.
  • Sympathetic Murder Backstory: Maxim murdered Rebecca. But she was a horrible person, and she manipulated him into doing it.
  • Table Space: In the film, the table isn't quite as oversized as some examples, but they do sit on opposite ends.
  • Take Our Word for It: Several characters mention how attractive and charming Rebecca was in life, but she never appears onscreen (or in the text of the novel).
  • Tall, Dark and Handsome: Described to the first Mrs. de Winter:
    "Tall, slim, dark, very handsome?" said Colonel Julyan quietly.
  • Thanatos Gambit: See Suicide by Cop.
  • Triumphant Reprise: "Hilf mir durch die Nacht" ("Help Me Through the Night") is a Distant Duet with Maxim and wife unable to get through the demons at Manderley. It is reprised triumphantly in "Jenseits der Nacht" ("Beyond the Night"), where they are together and happy at last.
  • Undying Loyalty: Frank to the de Winters.
  • The Unfair Sex: Massive subversion; Rebecca was a sociopathic bitch who cheated on Maxim with a series of lovers, and wasn't even loyal to them either. Our young heroine, who had earlier aspired to be just like her predecessor, is glad that she's dead.
  • Unknown Character:
    • The main character is the second wife of the eponymous Rebecca's husband. She's compared unfavorably to Rebecca without ever being told anything about her by his staff. Nothing is revealed abut her as they figure she doesn't need to know, except that she died. In the end the protagonist learns more about Rebecca and gains the respect of the inhabitants by saving them from a fire.
    • In the film adaptation, the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, refuses to accept her and stays behind to die in the fire.
  • Unreliable Narrator: The second Mrs. de Winter describes herself as plain, a bit foolish, and makes out she's not very emotionally strong. Other characters regularly comment on her prettiness, and she is clearly both intelligent and emotionally strong underneath her shyness.
  • Upper-Class Twit: The second Mrs. de Winter finds herself surrounded by these.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Mrs. Danvers has a mild one in all versions, but the musical takes the cake when she puts on Rebecca's nightgown and walks through Manderley in a daze, lighting the place on fire as she goes.
  • Villainous Incest: Rebecca and Jack.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Rebecca
  • Villain Song: "Rebecca" and its two reprises, sung by Mrs. Danvers when showing the second Mrs. de Winter Rebecca's room, when trying to make her commit suicide and when she learns Rebecca had cancer, where this becomes a Sanity Slippage Song. Also "Eine hand wäscht die and're Hand" ("One hand washes the other") for Jack Favell, crossing over to Sidekick Song territory as he explains his extortionist philosophy.
  • Wham Line: Maxim's "I hated her!".
  • Woman in White: Both Mrs. de Winters dress up as one for the fancy dress ball.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: The second Mrs. de Winter keeps imagining herself as the heroine of a conventional romance novel, instead of a gothic romance.


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