“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” So begins Alfred Hitchcock’s first masterpiece. Manderley is a place of memories, memories that haunt and threaten to take over the present and future of the story’s character. To go to Manderley for the narrator (who is also the main character of the story but is never named) is to be confronted with someone else’s past and possibly even to lose her own identity, perhaps the precise reason author Daphne du Maurier never gave her main character a name.
The main character (played by Joan Fontaine) is a “paid companion” for an obnoxious and nosy old woman who is more interested in controlling the main character than having the companion she paid for. When the main character meets Max de Winter (played by Lawrence Olivier), he is on vacation intentionally staying away from his home, Manderley. The two become ways of escape for each other. Max provides a way for the main character to escape from her present, controlled by her employer. The main character, although she is unaware of it for quite some time, helps Max escape from his past, especially from the haunting past involving his late wife Rebecca at Manderley, but only as long as they are not at Manderley, which isn’t very long.
Perhaps, I was wrong to say that the unnamed narrator and Max’s eventual second wife, is the main character of the story. Rebecca’s death occurred before the story begins, yet in many ways she is the main character. Just as the narrator’s “companion” controlled her at the beginning, after marrying Max and going to Manderley, the memories and perceptions of who Rebecca was control her and threaten to destroy their marriage and even her own identity.
Everybody at Manderley processes their memories of Rebecca differently. Some place her on the pedestal of exactly what a lady of the time was supposed to be. Others suspect she was unfaithful to Max, and questions abound to the characters and to the audience regarding who Rebecca really was. They abound, that is, to everyone except for Max’s second wife. From her “companion” to the people of Manderley, all she hears about is Rebecca’s perfection and Max’s devastation over her death. Because Max remains silent to her on the topic, she is left to believe the stories she hears.
These stories are always mixed with contempt against Max’s second wife. She is made to feel like she can never measure up to Rebecca, especially to her husband, even though he has never given her any indication that this is true, but obviously would be a natural thought to anyone marrying a widowed person. While Max may not be upfront about his relationship with Rebecca, he does give his second wife everything possible to indicate that he loves her and that he does not expect or want her to attempt to be like Rebecca. But the other voices are simply too loud for her to hear and believe the truth that her husband speaks about his feelings for her and the security of their marriage that doesn’t depend on the superficial things that most of the people at Manderley are concerned with.
Perhaps, I need to retract once again. Maybe Rebecca isn’t even the main character of Rebecca, despite having both the novel and this movie version named after her. Perhaps it is the house itself. Rebecca is in no way a ghost story, yet Manderley is haunted and possessed by the memory of the title character and the mysteries surrounding her life. The de Winters went from their honeymoon straight to Manderley without any warning of what that meant regarding all the baggage they brought into their marriage that poses great threat to their marriage as long as they stay in Manderley.
Rebecca is a profound story dealing with our perceptions of the past, of other people’s thoughts and beliefs that often are not as they appear, of ourselves, our capabilities, and our identities. Everybody has a Manderley; it may not be a house or a physical place, but it is a state where we are tempted to listen to false perceptions and conclusions about the world around us even when the truth is available. These states threaten to let those lies overtake and control our lives. Just as the de Winters cannot achieve any health in their marriage as long as they stay in Manderley, so we all need to escape the lies and confusion that prevent us from seeing life around us as it really is.
Watch Rebecca: The movie is currently available on Youtube in its entirety. Watch it here.
Other Alfred Hitchcock I’ve reviewed: Psycho (1960) Saboteur (1942) Shadow of a Doubt (1943)