He Said She Said − or Didn't: Couple Disconnect in "Rebecca," by Daphne du Maurier
October 29, 2012
"Rebecca," by Daphne du Maurier, first published in 1938, has been called many things in its time: a love story, a thriller, a murder mystery, an examination of class, society, and gender roles in pre-World War II England. What it has never been called is a study of the impact of poor communication on relationship strength. That's my take. And I'd like to use it to highlight the importance of open communication between couples. Misunderstandings, self doubts, hesitations, and hastily drawn conclusions have a way of poisoning promising relationships, and while this kind of confusion is agonizingly fun to watch when it's happening to someone else on "Gossip Girl," or you're reading about in a book like "Rebecca," it's horribly painful to experience in person.
A word of caution before I get started: I'm sure there are plenty of scenarios among couples that warrant keeping one's mouth shut. It's also true that for every recommended course of action, there are always exceptions. I'm not here to talk about the exceptions right now. My point in this article is to focus on couples where both parties are trying to make things work, strengthen their relationship, deepen their trust, and grow together. So let's see how couples disconnect in "Rebecca."
We first meet "Rebecca"'s nameless female narrator in a hotel in pre-World War II Monte Carlo, where the young woman − let's call her Susanna − works as a paid companion for a wealthy American woman, Mrs. Van Hopper. When Max de Winter, a handsome British widower, registers at the same hotel, Mrs. Van Hopper shares the gossip about him with her unassuming young companion. Apparently de Winter, owner of an estate called Manderley, recently lost his wife, Rebecca in a drowning accident. The loss, we are given to understand, was no doubt devastating to de Winter, given Rebecca's beauty, elegance, and brilliance. In fact, Mrs. Van Hopper speculates, it must be his wife's death that makes him so curt.
Susanna acknowledges the information without much comment − neither is any expected of her. A well-educated, but poor young woman, and completely alone in the world, Susanna is painfully shy, her low self-esteem exacerbated by her second-class status in an era where her position hovers at slightly above that of servant. Everything else we come to know of Susanna, besides others' indirect reactions, comes from her own critical self-appraisal; she considers herself unattractive, awkward, and dull. Yet despite this, Maxim, as he asks Susanna to call him, begins to seek her out, and during Mrs. Van Hopper's afternoon naps, the two spend much of the next few weeks together companionably, touring, having meals together, and talking. Susanna is soon hopelessly in love with Maxim, but despite his insistence that he spends time with her because he wants to, despite his gestures of affection, from the very beginning, Susanna is convinced Maxim is only being kind to her, an impression strengthened by seeing the elusive Rebecca everywhere, and wishing she could in some way approximate her glamour. When Susanna summons the courage to say goodbye − Mrs. Van Hopper is moving on − Maxim proposes in his brusque way, and after trying to convince him otherwise in her utter incredulity ("I'm not the sort of person men marry"), Susanna capitulates and joyously accepts. Thus the groundwork is laid for the age-old tale of the girl from humble origins, elevated by the love and devotion of a handsome − albeit much older − and wealthy man. But this is not an article about class, so we'll leave that one alone.
Despite the initial euphoria of their honeymoon in Paris, once the couple reaches Manderley and begins the process of everyday life, Susanna is besieged by self-doubt and anxiety. Comparing herself to the ubiquitous Rebecca, Susanna sees herself as lacking in every way. Her own painful shyness and self-disparagement, combined with what she imagines Maxim and others must be thinking of her, embeds Susanna deeper and deeper into a snare of despairing self-loathing. Weaving itself insidiously around her, the sticky web of others' insinuations and suggestions ("you are so very different from Rebecca"; "…she was the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life"), and her own ruminations and flawed deductions ("I could picture them saying to one another as they drove away 'my dear, what a dull girl, she scarcely opened her mouth' ") takes hold of Susanna, its impact almost destroying her belief in Maxim's love.
Yet not once, before the book reaches its climax, does Susanna articulate the full scope of her feelings to Maxim. Not once, before the book reaches its climax, does Maxim, knowing the truth, reveal the underlying cause of his moodiness, his paranoia, his irritability, all of which Susanna had been ascribing to his grief over Rebecca, his regret over marrying her. The truth being that Maxim loathed Rebecca, that they lived separate lives, their marriage a sham, a bargain − Rebecca's promise to be the perfect hostess and mistress at Manderley, in return for Maxim's allowing her carte blanche in her private life. The truth being that Rebecca's increasing sexual recklessness led Maxim to confront her, that he finally shot her with a gun intended for intimidation purposes only, after she taunted him mercilessly, revealing that she was pregnant with another man's child whom she intended to pass off as Maxim's heir. And when Maxim finally confesses to Susanna, after Rebecca's boat is washed to shore, her body found shot on the cabin floor, calling into question the manner of her death, and the body Maxim actually identified at the time of her murder, Susanna realizes all the time she has wasted in barely articulated worries and fears:
“They were all fitting into place, the jig-saw pieces…the silence [when I spoke of Rebecca] that I had always taken for sympathy and regret was a silence born of shame and embarrassment. It seemed incredible to me now that I had never understood. I wondered how many people there were in the world who suffered, and continued to suffer, because they could not break out from their own web of shyness and reserve, and in their blindness and folly built up a great wall in front of them that hid the truth. This was what I had done. I had built up false pictures in my mind and sat before them. I had never had the courage to demand the truth. Had I made one step forward out of my own shyness Maxim would have told me these things four months, five months ago.”
So to come full circle, the couple disconnect in "Rebecca" causes needless suffering and, as it ultimately turns out, irrevocably impacts Maxim and Susanna's relationship, despite Maxim's miraculous acquittal − I'll leave you to discover exactly how that happens on your own. The fact is, open communication would have made the de Winters' lives infinitely easier, no matter what obstacles awaited them. And while "Rebecca" presents an extreme illustration of the disadvantages associated with lack of communication, its real-life implications are this: when couples connect, sharing their doubts and fears, real or imagined, for their relationship, it can make all the difference.
Du Maurier, Daphne (1979). Rebecca. London: Pan Books, Ltd.