“The sexiness of [Rebecca] is maybe the most unsettling part, since it centers on the narrator’s being simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the memory and the mystery of her new husband’s dead wife.” —Emily Alford, Jezebel
NB: This essay contains all of the spoilers for Rebecca.
Rebecca had good taste—or maybe she just had the same taste as me, and that’s why I thought it was good. She loved a particular shade of vintage minty turquoise. The kitchen cabinets were all this color. As were the plates inside. The cups and bowls were white with dainty black dots on them. Not polka dots—a smaller, more charming print.
I loved them. I might have picked them out myself. It made me feel sick that I loved them.
I imagined Rebecca had picked out these cups and plates when she moved into this house, but the cupboards I was investigating, and the very lovely dishes inside them, now belonged to her ex-husband, my boyfriend. Rebecca lived fifteen minutes away.
Of course, her name wasn’t really Rebecca. But grant me a theme. We’ll call him Maxim.
Every once in a while, a book will pass through my writers’ group, all of us swept up in reading the same novel. In the early days of my dating Maxim, that book was Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. My friend Emily was rereading it to write an essay for Jezebel called “The Nihilistic Horniness of a Good Gothic Read: Ranking the Genre’s Sexiest and Scariest Secrets.” Rebecca ranks number one. Emily’s love for the novel was so persuasive the rest of us soon joined in.
The basic premise of Rebecca is that our narrator, a naive young woman, marries an older, brooding widower and goes to live in his strange and beautiful house, where it rapidly becomes clear that the legacy of his dead wife, the titular Rebecca, is … potent. The narrator constantly worries over whether she can run the house as well as Rebecca did.
At one point, Emily was in the bathtub with a scotch and the novel and somehow still had enough hands to text us: THIS WOMAN’S ONLY PROBLEM IS THAT THE SERVANTS ARE MEAN TO HER AND I WANT THAT LIFE.
The servants do not like the narrator for the very good reason that she is not Rebecca. Beyond the servants, of course, the narrator is also concerned that she’ll never live up to Rebecca in Maxim’s heart, that in the wake of his great and tragic love, she stands no chance.
Again, from Emily’s bath: EVEN THE DOGS DON’T LIKE HER.
I had never read Rebecca before. About fifty pages in I felt stupid because I hadn’t retained the narrator’s name. I flipped back through the opening and still couldn’t find it. Maxim was the husband. Rebecca was his dead wife. Mrs. Danvers was the housekeeper. Jasper was the dog.
WTF, I texted Emily, THE DOG HAS A NAME BUT NOT THE NARRATOR?
HE’S A VERY GOOD DOG, Emily said.
For 410 pages, the narrator of Rebecca is only ever known as The Second Mrs. de Winter—and isn’t that just the whole story?
CAN I TELL YOU SOMETHING HORRIBLE? I asked Emily.
I’VE BEEN FEELING A LOT LIKE THE SMDW LATELY
The little white house in New York where my Maxim lived was no Manderley, but like Manderley, the house was an issue. The house with Rebecca’s lovely dishes in the cupboard. The house with art on the walls no man would ever pick. The red, floral, calico curtains, which Maxim eventually took down because, despite having sewn them himself, he had never liked the print Rebecca picked (I did) and after that there were no curtains at all. The kitchen where I cooked us dinner and accidentally used a special salt Rebecca had favored but left behind, which made Maxim look up from his meal and ask, What did you put in here?
One afternoon I was working at a desk in the office and, playing with the drawer, found inside Rebecca’s birth certificate. I’d already known we were born a week apart because on our second date Maxim had asked my birthday and blanched when I’d said October.
More than once Maxim returned an article of women’s clothing to me that was not mine.
There were notes in Rebecca’s handwriting on the fridge and photos of her in the house, and this was right and good, because she and Maxim had a daughter, an eight-year-old girl who was funny and sweet and who I was very lucky to know for those nearly two years. I must leave her out of this—she is a still-becoming person—but of course she remains an invisible source of gravity in this story. There were photos of them at Disney World. Photos of them holding their daughter the day she was born.
All of which is to say that Rebecca was everywhere. In the house, and beyond it as well.
Once, playing music in the car, I put on one of my favorite albums, and Maxim grabbed for the dial to turn it off. I had accidentally played the song to which he and Rebecca had walked down the aisle at their wedding. We had eerily similar taste in music.
None of this was Maxim’s fault. I must have felt like a haunting to him. It must have been uncomfortable. I came to recognize and dread the look and silence that came over him in those moments when I accidentally assumed a Rebecca-like posture. I felt guilty, though didn’t know precisely for what.
In the most excruciating scene in Rebecca, TSMdW throws a costume ball in an effort to be the kind of hostess and charmer Rebecca once was. She decides she will dress like a relative of Maxim’s, Caroline de Winter, whose portrait hangs prominently in the house and who TSMdW refers to as “the girl in white.” She prattles—extensively, tediously—about what a big secret her costume is and how bowled over everyone will be when they see it. She orders a wig that will curl just so. She orders a white dress. She means this to be a surprise for Maxim.
TSMdW waits til the party is underway to make her entrance and then appears at the top of the stairs, completely transformed into the woman in the painting. “They all stared at me like dumb things,” she says. “Beatrice uttered a little cry and put her hand to her mouth. I went on smiling, I put one hand on the banister.”
And then: “Maxim had not moved. He stared up at me, his glass in his hand. There was no colour in his face. It was ashen white … ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ he said…‘What is it?’ I said, ‘What have I done?’ ”
We come to understand that Rebecca once had this very same idea for a costume. “It was just what Rebecca did at the last fancy dress ball at Manderley. Identical,” Beatrice says.
Seeing her at the top of the stairs, Maxim believes TSMdW to be the ghost of Rebecca. He believes this to be a haunting.
The bit that sickens and thrills me most is when, just as everyone else sees she has blundered into a pantomime of Rebecca, TSMdW remains ignorant and continues smiling. She still thinks she is herself. She still believes she is unique.
This doesn’t last for long. As the novel goes on, TSMdW becomes desperate and horrible as she tries to outpace her predecessor’s shadow—but readers have little reason to believe she will succeed. The Second Mrs. de Winter believes she is narrating the story of her own life, but little does she know, the book in our hands is called Rebecca.
Often, when we went to restaurants, or on hikes, or to concerts, this would prompt stories of past times Maxim had been to those places. He had lived his whole life in this part of the country and so of course many of those stories had Rebecca in them or around the margins. Still, I came to feel like a verdict had already been passed on every song I might sing, every dish I might cook, every date we might go on—because Rebecca had already made them and sung them and been to these places before. I felt trapped in a rerun of someone else’s life, and I didn’t know how to fix it.
Of course, the only way Maxim could tell me about his life was with these stories and I couldn’t know and love him if I censored his past. So why did it hurt so much to move through these recently vacated spaces? Why did I feel like every date we went on had been used up because he had been here for the first time with someone else? Why could I not get over the feeling that this made our experiences somehow redundant, lesser?
That I felt this way betrays deep insecurity and narcissism in the same instance. Worse, it betrays a belief that to be a first love, or a great love, is the only way to be.
When I confessed to my boyfriend that I felt this way, he said a smart and beautiful thing.
He said, “Who says the first time is always the best time?”
I loved him so much when he said that. And I promised myself I’d stop seeing his past as an intrusion on our present. But knowing you’re being stupid seldom alleviates the stupidity—it only adds a blanketing layer of shame.
Why was I so obsessed with being first?
Have you ever watched one of those ensemble shows where they try to introduce new characters several seasons in? Chachi on Happy Days is the most famous example and I am still not over Joss Whedon’s cheeky Dawn Summers retcon. But because I am a child of the nineties, the most memorably painful of these late-stage introductions was Tori Scott on Saved by the Bell. After five seasons of one stable gang, Kelly and Jessie were disappeared from Bayside High without comment. The sixth season opened with an episode called “The New Girl” in which new-to-the-school motorcycle chick Tori takes Zach’s parking spot resulting in a presexual squabble. When Tori agrees to help Lisa organize the Fall Ball, Lisa, full of gratitude, exclaims, “You’re my new best friend!” She starts to walk away, and then, in a strangely meta moment, as if remembering the existence of Jessie and Kelly, turns back to Tori with a face of absolute horror: “You’re … my only best friend?” The show seemed to hope we would forget about Jessie and Kelly, forget about the past, and while there was nothing implicitly wrong with Tori, I felt like, Let’s not pretend we don’t know who the main characters of this show really are. Let’s not pretend we don’t know who counts. I was terrified I would never have enough gravitas to earn a permanent place in Maxim’s life, because I was afraid I had arrived too late to count. I was obsessed with being first because I didn’t want to be a Tori or TSMdW. Because, in my mind, the original cast are always the main characters—everyone else is expendable. I found the very existence of Rebecca threatening because of who it implied I was in this love story. And for more reasons than that besides.
I have a low threshold for surprises. Life is mostly surprises, to be fair, but I specifically mean the “you didn’t know this new large feeling was scheduled for today” sort. The “today is the day you are meeting my ex-wife she’ll be here in an hour is that okay” kind of surprise. The “Oh, these five people you are currently shaking hands with at a dance recital are my former in-laws” kind of surprise. All of which is to say, eventually I met Rebecca. In most ways it was uneventful. I found her beautiful. Blonde where I was dark. Quiet where I rambled. Remarkably little passed between us.
On this occasion, I behaved fine on the outside, but on the inside, I thought, “I am not good at this.” It was stupid, but I felt I hadn’t prepared adequately for our meeting.
I suspect you’ll make the same, understandable mistake Maxim made: he thought I was anxious about these meetings because of the usual bouts of awkwardness entailed in meeting a person’s ex, even if (especially if?) that person is the mother of your boyfriend’s child. And sure, it was a little bit that. But that’s not what I wished I’d prepared for.
I had to prepare myself not to understand Rebecca too much.
I am a person who always chooses women. Prefers the company of a woman. I suffer from a myopia that prevents me, in all but the most extreme circumstances, from seeing any hetero breakup as the fault of a woman.
I was very afraid that I was going to like Rebecca.
You’ll think I’m a misandrist or humble-bragging, and both are probably true. But what I’m trying to tell you is this: in my warped mind, the flip side of the coin that read liking Rebecca was disliking my boyfriend. I couldn’t conceive of any gray area.
I didn’t want to meet Rebecca, because if I did, I might see a glimpse of another version of the story of her and Maxim’s marriage, and I was unprepared to know anything at all that might make me doubt the way he had treated a woman.
We are all of us flawed, we have all of us behaved badly—and to expect someone in their thirties to have an immaculate history is unreasonable, I know this. But this was the first time I’d fallen in love with someone who used to be married. Who’d gone through a painful divorce. And in my desire to think of my boyfriend in the particular rosy way love encourages, in the story of his past, I wanted to see him as the good guy and her as the bad. I thought this was the only way I could be a good partner to a person who’d gone through a divorce. I thought this was the only way I could trust him.
A readerly confession: during every scene of Rebecca where TSMdW and Maxim hash out their relationship and life at Manderley, I found myself impatient, wondering, But could you say more about Rebecca? Because TSMdW is a drag and Rebecca is fascinating. Rebecca kept up a nautical sex-cabin in which to have affairs. Rebecca took the sailboat out to sea, even in storms. Rebecca organized inspired dinners and parties. She was loud, unruly, sexual, powerful, and charming. Rebecca wasn’t a “good person,” per se, but who cares! She was deeply fucking interesting in ways TSMdW could never be and, more importantly, she got there first.
On Valentine’s Day, in an effort to avoid celebrating someplace Maxim had once gone with Rebecca, and to avoid too many grand expectations of romance, I suggested we get drunk at the mall and visit the Mirror Maze, a curtained storefront with a glittering proscenium.
The mall, I swear to god, is called Destiny.
The Mirror Maze was janky but beautiful. We were given loose, crinkly plastic gloves to wear, so when we inevitably touched a mirror, mistaking it for a doorway, we would not smudge the glass. The mirrors were widely framed, slivers of neon color around their edges. Inside there were zones of multicolored lights and zones of black lights. We were reflected everywhere, ridiculous and clinical-looking in our gloves. It was a bit like a carnival’s hall of mirrors, except it was a back-channel mall outlet, swaddled in black cloth. Ambient mall noise trickled in despite the canned pop they played, echoing weirdly through the passages.
We’d had a beer or two before entering and were laughing a lot as we traveled the maze. We held hands until it became clear we’d hurt ourselves if we kept it up. We separated. I went down a hallway, which dead-ended, and then tried to get back to where I’d been. I saw Maxim, walked toward him, and banged into a mirror.
I was legitimately shocked. It’s the sort of thing that you think won’t happen if you know the trick. We were adults, and the maze was a game, but the maze could still fool us. At first, I felt delighted. Then, Maxim’s reflection disappeared. I tried to find a way out of the hallway I’d walked down but clunked into pane after pane of glass. Be reasonable, I thought, even as I panicked. Maxim was nowhere to be seen and I was multiplied everywhere. I willed my own reflection to open up for me, to transform into a door.
In the fourth grade, I used to sneak away with other girls to do Bloody Mary in a small mirror that hung in the teacher’s supply closet. The room smelled of construction paper and tempera paint. The lighting was dim and the mirror very smudged. We chanted and chanted at that supply closet mirror, and I was scared, but I also really wanted to see something. But it was only ever my own scrawny face I saw in the mirror, overfull with desire, wishing something remarkable would happen. I frightened myself.
Eventually Maxim called out to me that he’d found the exit to the maze. I followed his voice and left behind the tunnel of my own reflections.
We went back to the beer hall and had another drink and soon were in the middle of an enormous fight that was mostly my fault.
We had found out earlier that week that Rebecca was going to have a baby with her new boyfriend. I’d asked Maxim if he wanted to talk about this, and he’d said no. I’d pressed, and he’d demurred and so I’d left it. But now, four beers deep, still a little dizzy from the hall of mirrors, still inside the Destiny mall, on Valentine’s Day, he brought it up. Suddenly he was talking about how our plans to move in together would need to be indefinitely postponed until Rebecca had the baby, until Rebecca decided where to live with the baby. We didn’t know, couldn’t know, the how or when of any of this. We would just have to wait until Rebecca had made her choices about where to live, Maxim said, and then we could make our own, in response to hers.
Maxim’s timing was lousy, but that’s no excuse for how upset I got. I cried. I shouted a stupidly elaborate metaphor about being the rattled caboose of a driverless train. I made all of my first-rush feelings known instead of understanding that this was hard for him and this was not the moment for my feelings. But I was too drunk to access fine motor skills of emotional control. On the cab ride back to his place I raked my nails along my forearms, leaving long trailing welts, as if to persuade myself the pain wasn’t all inside my head.
If you’ll let me explain without trying to excuse: I felt like I couldn’t even have one night where I wasn’t asked to stand behind her in line. Like all the important decisions about our life were being decided by Maxim and Rebecca, instead of Maxim and me. Like I was a mall-mirror reflection of a reflection of a girlfriend. A thing diluted beyond meaning. What was the point of me?
I needed to get out of the maze, get out the mall, get out of this other woman’s story. I didn’t want to live inside a book named for someone else.
The secret in du Maurier’s novel is, of course, that Maxim has murdered Rebecca. A body washes up, two thirds of the way through the book, soon to be revealed as hers, and this is what prompts Maxim to come clean to his new wife. His confession comes as a surprise to very few readers, I am sure, seeing as Maxim behaves like petulant schoolboy sociopath for the entire first half of the book and always looks funny when people mention the cove.
What’s interesting though, narratively, is that his confession is a misdirection.
The real surprise is still two beats away, and this is du Maurier’s genius.
After Maxim confesses the murder to TSMdW the reader relaxes into his horrific but expected revelation … only to then be jump-scared by the thing they could not have seen coming, which is how gleefully TSMdW responds to the news that her husband is a murderer:
I held his hands against my heart… I did not care about his shame. None of the things he had told me mattered at all. I clung to one thing only, and repeated it to myself, over and over again. Maxim did not love Rebecca. He had never loved her, never, never. They had never known one moment’s happiness together. Maxim was talking, and I listened to him, but his words meant nothing to me. I did not really care.
TSMdW does “not really care” that Maxim is a murderer. She is ecstatic, romantically aroused by the news. The Second Mrs. de Winter is relieved Maxim murdered Rebecca because this means he did not love her. Never, never. Which means that she, and not Rebecca (who let me remind you, is dead), comes first in Maxim’s affections.
She is preceded by no one.
What a fucking takeaway.
The murder as a literal act means nothing to TSMdW—but the murder as a metaphor for erasing the past, for expunging her visions of Maxim and Rebecca’s happy history together, means everything.
It’s so deliciously fucked up.
And I kind of understood it.
Because I was trying to erase my boyfriend’s Rebecca. I was afraid of her. Afraid of her primacy, and the sway she held over my life, sure. But more than that I was afraid of knowing her, liking her, allowing for the possibility that she was a good person who was part of a divorce that was, as is literally always the case, to do with two people and not one. I wanted to erase all that from the record. In a warped contradiction, I wanted to keep loving my wonderful, complicated boyfriend, who was who he was because of his past, but I wanted to expunge that past, too. Pretend it had no power over us. I wanted to pretend we could have the kind of blank-slate love affair I was convinced lived at the top of the hierarchy of romance.
It’s only ever been you.
What a stupid thing to want.
God, I wanted it so much.
Most people read Rebecca for the suspense. Probably only a very troubled person would learn things of a personal or moral nature from du Maurier. But I did. Du Maurier showed me that promising a new partner that they will eclipse your past is an act of violence against the meaningful loves that existed before. It’s a fucking bloodbath, and we are the murderers, and we forgive ourselves for it, every time.
When we love more than once in this life, this kind of murder can feel necessary, even virtuous. That’s the idea The Second Mrs. de Winter embraces when Maxim confesses. She is all too happy to become complicit in Rebecca’s murder. Helping Maxim get away with it is what bonds them as a couple. It’s the whole last third of the book. But the thing is, once I got to that part, I wasn’t rooting for them. I didn’t want them to get away with it. I didn’t want to believe in this kind of murder anymore. I recognized myself in TSMdW’s relief, and it was horrible. I didn’t want to be anything like her. And the way to do that, I realized, wasn’t to insist on being first, on being Rebecca—it was to find a way to live alongside her.
My friend Emily’s essay, the one ranking gothic novels’ sexy secrets, turned out marvelously. And it taught me that the tension in so many gothic stories comes from the lingering of the past in a present space.
Do you know what thrills me in so many of those gothic novels? When a woman sets fire to a house. Sometimes a house feels too haunted, too complicated, to live in anymore. Imagine the cleansing relief of burning the whole thing down. I’ve been there. I get it.
Burning a house down is powerful on the page because in real life it’s almost never the answer. Eventually you need to find a new house to live in, and all houses have their ghosts. What I’m trying to say is that I have the arsonist urge, but I’m getting better at living in haunted houses. Letting the past hover next to the present without flicking its ears and getting a rise out of it. That’s my work these days. I’m not all the way good at it yet. Sometimes I still spin a lighter between my fingers all night, thumbing the wheel, sparking blue.
But then I remind myself that Rebecca had also kissed my boyfriend, had also irritated him with a love of Americana songs, had also loved him, and that was why, when I kept slipping into her postures, I got scared. Because she had also loved my boyfriend, and then she had stopped. Because I was there loving him, and I never wanted to stop.
I used to think I saw Rebecca’s ghost reflected everywhere, but of course it was only my own face, full of want. I’d been frightened by the Mirror Maze’s reflections, kept turning from what I saw in them and chasing Maxim’s voice instead. As if it were him who could show me a way out, and not the woman I kept turning from, in whose reflection, somewhere, was an opening.
In October, Maxim took me to a Jenny Lewis concert for my birthday. Jenny Lewis has sung to me in ways I needed in every era of my life. If I am lucky, she will keep singing me through the rest of it. This was a magical gift.
I should not have been surprised when it soon became clear Rebecca would also be at the concert. After all, our birthdays were a week apart. She also loved Jenny Lewis. Her mother had got her tickets.
“We probably won’t even see each other,” Maxim said.
We saw each other when we first arrived, in the merch line.
We saw each other again in the ladies’ room.
We saw each other again in the beer line.
And honestly, it was fine.
Maybe it was fine because I had by now finished reading Rebecca and resolved to never let myself become TSMdW. Maybe it was because the idea of the two of us circling each other on our birthdays in a concert hall was the sort of thing that would make for a good Jenny Lewis song. Maybe it was because we were in an amphitheater of people who all loved the same music, and I’d given up the teenage idea that other people loving the same band as me threatened my love of the band.
Or maybe it was because Rebecca’s mother came to say hello to me. She said she’d read an essay I’d written and related to it. So many of us had the same story, we agreed.
So many of us are just spinning the radio dials, hoping to fall in love with a new song, wishing for something remarkable to happen. And who’s to say the song you find can’t be just for you even if it’s also for absolutely everyone in the amphitheater? Why would the existence of other loves diminish our own? Diminish anything? Let them make us expansive.
I went back to my seat. I brought my boyfriend an overpriced beer. I whispered that I’d talked with Rebecca’s mother and it was nice. He squeezed me. Jenny Lewis, in a golden gown, her hair unbelievably high, picked up a neon pink telephone, and answered a call that had been a long time ringing.
CJ Hauser teaches creative writing at Colgate University. Her novel, Family of Origin, was published by Doubleday in 2019 and her first full-length work of non-fiction, The Crane Wife & Other Essays, will be published by Doubleday and Viking UK in Spring 2022.