I recently watched the BBC Biopic on Daphne DuMarier, *Daphne* (2007), which dramatizes her bisexuality; her seemingly passionless marriage; her unrequited love for Ellen Doubleday, her publisher’s wife; and her affair with actress Gertrude Lawrence, as well as her writing career from the plagiarism trial over Rebecca to the writing of her short story “The Birds.” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0963169/)
It had been a long time since I had read Rebecca (1938), so I watched the Hitchcock film to refresh my memory (1940). According to Wikipedia, the film is fairly faithful to the novel with a couple of exceptions, namely changing the death of Rebecca from a murder by her husband to an accidental fall when he angrily confronts her and changing the character of Mrs. Danvers to make her younger, more mysterious, and more, well, lesbian.
My own interpretation of the film version of Mrs. Danvers was that she was almost pathologically loyal to Rebecca and resentful of the second Mrs. de Winter, to the point of wanting to get rid of the second wife, almost like a child who hates her step-mother. Mrs. Danvers is presented as unambiguously evil. She always wears black and displays a malignant expression. If you read her as lesbian, it could be because in those days the stereotypical lesbian was often a vampirish predator.
I don’t remember the novel well enough to speculate on whether this lesbian association could be found in the original text, but du Maurier may have seen her own same-sex attraction as evil, or at least, deviant. In any case, her diaries reveal that she saw two sides to her own personality: the conventional wife and mother and the hidden male lover that energized her creativity. (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/935280.Myself_When_Young)
What if Rebecca were an expression of these two sides of her psyche? Why is the narrator of the novel (the second Mrs. de Winter) unnamed? Why is a crucial scene in the plot based on a costume that both Rebecca and the narrator wear? Why does Rebecca herself have two sides to her personality: her public image as the beautiful, elegant wife of Maxim de Winter and her hidden side of sexual promiscuity, selfishness, cruelty, and deception? Identity is clearly a prominent theme.
The unnamed second Mrs. de Winter is young, inexperienced, and naïve, compared to the sophisticated, worldly, and manipulative first wife, Rebecca. The second wife could represent the conventional wife and mother identity that Daphne du Maurier presented in public, while Rebecca represents what du Maurier saw as her dark side of forbidden desire, sexual transgression, and duplicity.
So, why is the “good wife,” so to speak, unnamed? Is that the author’s way of erasing her conventional self? Is Rebecca’s death a way of symbolically killing off the dark side? Does the novel express an identity conflict? Does du Maurier unconsciously, if not consciously, reject both sides of her personality?
A Freudian or psychoanalytic critic would have no problem answering in the affirmative, and, I must say, I find that interpretation persuasive.
If Mrs. Danvers’ attachment to Rebecca, even after death, is read as lesbian, then her burning down of Manderly could perhaps represent the destructiveness that du Maurier saw, or feared, in her hidden desires. Fire, of course, also represents the heat of passion. Danvers’ own death in the conflagration may express du Maurier’s fear of her own self-destructive passion. Is that why she retreated for the rest of her life into her conventional marriage after the death of Gertrude Lawrence?
On the other hand, her own words attribute her creativity to the “male lover” within. Perhaps she was aware of the Freudian theory that repressed desire will manifest itself indirectly, often in creative work. Perhaps it is safer to speculate, since speculation it is, that du Maurier was ambivalent about her same-sex desire, seeing it as potentially destructive if acted out and a source of energy if channeled into creative work.
I pose this interpretation tentatively and interrogatively because psychoanalytic criticism is often viewed skeptically as a form of practicing psychology without a license and pathologizing an author one has never met or interviewed. Yet literature is a form of fantasy, and fantasy is often an expression of what has been sublimated, repressed, or denied. I will leave it to my readers to conclude whether the parallels between du Maurier’s own autobiography and the novel are valid and significant.
Other ways of reading the novel include the gothic fear of irrationality and death and the age-old pattern of initiation, or coming-of-age, in which the “innocent” second wife comes to terms with the evil in the world, including, in her case, the knowledge that she loves, marries, and ultimately protects a murderer. In either case, our narrator could be nameless the better to represent a universal human experience. Neither of these readings is inconsistent with the other nor with the psychoanalytic interpretation.