(Chapter 14 Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. )
This chapter intrigues students because it is Gothic and unsettling. The Gothic elements interface sexuality, secrecy and wealth. Here, the house-keeper Mrs Danvers, attempts to talk her young employer, the second ‘Mrs De Winter’, into committing suicide by jumping out of a high window. Ironically, the fog which veils the height of the window from the susceptible Mrs De Winter, ironically saves her too, by bringing a ship onto the rocks and therefore breaking up the scene.
I will examine the extract in sections.
This scene plays on the narrator’s primal fears (and the readers’ of course) of rejection. Its power emanates from the mounting recognition that Mrs Danvers is winning the battle for the narrator’s life and soul!
In this scene, the housekeeper Mrs Danvers, cannot resist her own predatory nature, as she feels omnipotent; inspired in her own head by her soulmate, the dead Rebecca. The steady, breathless excitement of Mrs Danvers in the scene builds momentum and uneasy eroticism: in Mrs Danvers’ mind, she will ‘slay’ the pathetic usrper (the narrator) and thus pay homage to her beloved, dead mistress Rebecca De Winter. The scene problematises the real identity of the ‘possessed’ and the ‘possessor’, as we remain unsure who the true ‘author’ of this scene might be. Can the dead , author the destruction of the living? Can Mrs Danvers ventriloquise Rebecca, or is Mrs Danvers so insanely attached to Rebecca, that her mourning becomes murder?
Mrs Danvers came close to me, she put her face near to mine. ‘It’s no
use, is it?’ she said. ‘You’ll never get the better of her. She’s still
mistress here, even if she is dead. She’s the real Mrs de Winter, not
you. It’s you that’s the shadow and the ghost. It’s you that’s forgotten
and not wanted and pushed aside. Well, why don’t you leave Manderley to
her? Why don’t you go?
Mrs Danvers deliberately violates the narrator’s personal space, creating a disturbing proximity from which to feed her listener verbal poison. Her closeness ironises care: A Judas kiss. ‘She’s the real Mrs De Winter.’ The first person narrator seems peculiarly susceptible to the undermining suggestions of Mrs Danvers. Mrs Danvers is physically and verbal intent upon destroying her dead employer’s usurper. Her attachment to the ‘real Mrs De Winter‘ appears unhealthily obsessive and voracious- like an insatiable need that can never be fed. It feels as if Mrs Danvers is some sort of vampire, feeding off her new mistresses insecurities in order to rescue her dead mistress from her grave. The house(Manderley) seems a tomb more than a home because Rebecca is gone; she is not a home. Du Maurier compresses space and physicality to conjure an ‘unhomely’ claustrophobia that can only be released through death.
Interestingly the servant has usurped her mistress in terms of authority and confidence. One student suggested that Mrs Danvers is possessed by her dead mistress, and this inspires her actions. Mrs Danvers feels all too potent. She is on fire with her mission. Therefore Mrs Danvers bombards her young listener with so many questions, that the first person narrator becomes overwhelmed and falls into a hypnotic trance. The questions hack away at the insecurities of the narrator. ‘They corrode: Why don’t you go?’ Who can withstand such pronouncements of rejection? ‘It’s you that’s the shadow.’ Such pointed declarations poison any equilibrium remaining to the narrator.
I backed away from her towards the window, my old fear and horror rising
up in me again. She took my arm and held it like a vice.
‘Why don’t you go?’ she said. ‘We none of us want you. He doesn’t want
you, he never did. He can’t forget her. He wants to be alone in the house
again, with her. It’s you that ought to be lying there in the church crypt,
not her. It’s you who ought to be dead, not Mrs de Winter.’
She pushed me towards the open window. I could see the terrace below me
grey and indistinct in the white wall of fog. ‘Look down there,’ she said.
‘It’s easy, isn’t it? Why don’t you jump? It wouldn’t hurt, not to break
your neck. It’s a quick, kind way. It’s not like drowning. Why don’t you
try it? Why don’t you go?’
The repetition of ‘why don’t you go?‘ is insidious in its effect upon the narrator. The monstruousness of Mrs Danvers is made palpable through the vulnerable first person narrator. The simile ‘like a vice’ emphasises the vampiric performance of Mrs Danvers and her cruel, desperate physicality as she is taken over by her diabolical idea to destroy the second Mrs De Winter. We feel this act is some sort of ‘gift’ dedicated to her beloved dead mistress, Rebecca. Maybe her malevolent eloquence emanates from Rebecca herself as the violating ghost, or Mrs Danvers feels as if she is speaking for Rebecca in Rebecca’s beloved voice.
It is a terrific scene, as it is intensely real and possible. The promise of a ‘quick, kind way’ to die shows the terrible logic of Mrs Danvers and is unnervingly persuasive to the beleaguered listener. Interestingly the psychology of this promise is convincing too, as the new Mrs De Winter will not suffer the slow death of ‘drowning’ like the original Mrs De Winter. Once again, the terrible love of Mrs Danvers is all too apparent. Murder by hypnotic suggestion gives Mrs Danvers cathartic expression for her adoration of the dead Rebecca. In true Gothic style, murder becomes a form of consummation’ Look down there…’ and this scene, like so many Gothic stories, manages to eroticise the act of murder too!
The fog filled the open window, damp and clammy, it stung my eyes, it
clung to my nostrils. I held on to the window-sill with my hands.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ said Mrs Danvers. ‘I won’t push you. I won’t stand
by you. You can jump of your own accord. What’s the use of your staying
here at Manderley? You’re not happy. Mr de Winter doesn’t love you. There’s
not much for you to live for, is there? Why don’t you jump now and have
done with it? Then you won’t be unhappy any more.’
I could see the flower tubs on the terrace and the blue of the hydrangeas
clumped and solid. The paved stones were smooth and grey. They were not
jagged and uneven. It was the fog that made them look so far away. They
were not far really, the window was not so very high.
After the deluge of questions that are really diabolical imperatives, it is hardly surprising that the ‘flower tubs’ and ‘smooth and grey’ stones look relatively innocent and non-threatening to the young narrator. The ‘solid’ quality of the flowers is striking. They are known and therefore not like the ‘jagged and uneven’ thoughts of the narrator’s mind perhaps. The known soothes her agitation. Secrets threaten to destroy, allied as they are, to self -doubt.
The fog seems a trickster, trying to complicate the narrator’s perception of the ground. Suicide does appear easy to the narrator. And Mrs Danvers cruelly and highly manipulatively suggests that jumping from the window ‘ of your own accord’ would solve the unhappiness that afflicts the narrator. Mrs Danver is manipulating a lexis of choice (and even autonomy and courage) when the reality is that she is attempting to kill the young mistress. Look at the confusion and pathos instilled by the qualifications ‘really’ and not so very’. Mrs Danvers is Du Maurier’s Iago figure(See Othello) feeding contamination through a whisper!
But do we sympathy wholeheartedly with the narrator, or is her vulnerability sometimes irritating? Is her naivety a weakness that allows monstrousness to flourish? Mrs Danvers is a predator, yet her power is largely given her by the narrator. Mrs Danvers’ malignancy is fed by the impotency and persistent naivety of the narrator. Mrs Danvers is love obsessed, the narrator crazed too, but by jealousy or something profoundly unspoken?
As several students suggested, if Mrs Danvers is under the ‘spell’ of the dead Rebecca, then aren’t both protagonists in this scene acting under the thrall of the absent temptress, so that ironically they are both victims of Rebecca too?
‘Why don’t you jump?’ whispered Mrs Danvers. ‘Why don’t you try?’
The fog came thicker than before and the terrace was hidden from me. I
could not see the flower tubs any more, nor the smooth paved stones. There
was nothing but the white mist about me, smelling of seaweed dank and
chill. The only reality was the window-sill beneath my hands and the grip
of Mrs Danvers on my left arm. If I jumped I should not see the stones
rise up to meet me, the fog would hide them from me. The pain would be
sharp and sudden as she said. The fall would break my neck. It would not
be slow, like drowning. It would soon be over. And Maxim did not love
me. Maxim wanted to be alone again, with Rebecca.
‘Go on,’ whispered Mrs Danvers. ‘Go on, don’t be afraid.’
I shut my eyes. I was giddy from staring down at the terrace, and my fingers
ached from holding to the ledge. The mist entered my nostrils and lay
upon my lips rank and sour. It was stifling, like a blanket, like an
anaesthetic. I was beginning to forget about being unhappy, and about
loving Maxim. I was beginning to forget Rebecca. Soon I would not have
to think about Rebecca any more ..
Look at the use of specific detail in the extract. The tangibility and sheer proximity of the window sill and Mrs Danvers’ ‘grip on my left arm’ engender a powerful tension and dramatic immediacy. The narrator is clinical and detached about the effects of her jump. ‘The pain would be sharp and sudden as she said.’ How ironic is it that even when she is contemplating yielding to Mrs Danvers’ imperatives to jump, the narrator acknowledges the truthfulness of her killer?
The imperative and challenge ‘don’t be afraid’ hijack the language of affirmation and courage. The rhythm of the words that follow and the repetition of ‘forget’ are very seductive. The narrator is about to jump and yet who preoccupies her final thoughts, whose name is on her lips?
Rebecca’s name haunts the narrator. She is almost her last word. How truly Gothic and suggestive of an obsession shared with Mrs Danvers.
Yet, if we read the tale from a supernatural perpsective, does Rebecca almost make Mrs Danvers kill her rival?
Or, perhaps the narrator is actually going to join her rival. Will she join Rebecca in a deadly embrace?
As I relaxed my hands and sighed, the white mist and the silence that
was part of it was shattered suddenly, was rent in two by an explosion
that shook the window where we stood. The glass shivered in its frame.
I opened my eyes. I stared atMrs Danvers. The burst was followed by another, and yet a third and fourth. The sound of the explosions stung the air and
the birds rose unseen from the woods around the house and
made an echo with their clamour.
‘What is it?’ I said stupidly. ‘What has happened?’
Mrs Danvers relaxed her grip upon my arm. She stared out of
the window into the fog. ‘It’s the rockets,’ she said; ‘there must
be a ship gone ashore there in the bay.’ We listened, staring into the
white fog together. And then we heard the sound of footsteps running on the terrace beneath us.
The fog saves the narrator. As it lures a ship onto the rocks, the rockets break the hypnotic trance and the scene dissolves, becoming now practical and concerned with information: ‘What is it? ‘ . The narrator speaks again, reclaims her voice, even if ‘stupidly’ suggests that she is waking out of a spell. Mrs Danvers also seems to alter: ‘relaxed her grip on my arm.’ The nightmarish scene involving the window is gone. Mistress asks for information of the house- keeper. How perfectly normal. ‘Something’ all too real has usurped their terrible intimacy. There is a new puzzle, and we suspect something even more strange is about to happen. Needless to say, this strangeness involves Rebecca, again suggesting that the dead mistress possesses a Svengali-like power.
Wonderfully written. Psychologically brilliant: Who’s possessing whom?
In the end, I could not help sympathising with the beautiful, elusive figure of Rebecca herself: vilified, adored and probably misunderstood!
Carol Ann Duffy 15 ideas!
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