What is Rebecca without the Gothic?

This is a guest post by Anastasia Klimchynskaya, a postdoctoral fellow at the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge at the University of Chicago.

“Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again,” the narrator muses in a voiceover at the beginning of the film Rebecca (Netflix, 2020), drawing its opening line from the novel. “But,” she adds – and this is an addition the film makes, “this morning I woke up and left the dead behind.” The ghosts, we are to believe, have been laid to rest.

But in this film adaptation, there are no ghosts. Literally (there aren’t any in the original either), but also metaphorically: the Gothic element is utterly absent from the film, and as that is the foundation upon which the tale should be built, it crumbles. It’s a problem that reviewers have been dancing around, pointing out (rightfully) that the story is rather bland, utterly lacking the weight and complexity of the original. But none of them have addressed the theoretical elephant in the room: the Gothic, which is the reason the original is so powerful, alluring, and haunting.

On a certain very basic level, Rebecca is technically a good adaptation: it follows the sequence of events described in the book with a relative amount of accuracy. But a text, as any literary critic will note, is much more than a plot or sequence of events. Vladimir Propp, famous for his work on fairy tales, delineated stories into fabula and sujet – the distinction between what happens in the story and how it’s told. Rebecca certainly gets what happens right, in a very basic sense of the world. But what it misses is how it’s told.

And in the Gothic, how the story is told is just as important as what happens, perhaps more. As colleague and Gothic expert Mary Going pointed out to me, the Gothic is both a set of conventions and a mode. One doesn’t quite function without the other: you can have ghosts and old manor castles, but a mode is like a lens or a filter that creates the atmosphere, the emotions, and consequently the effect. If that latter part is missing, then conventions become empty cardboard cutouts, a failed attempt at the fullness of a narrative. And so while the film Rebecca gestures at some of the conventions (there’s that old English manor on a windswept Cornish cost, lots of portraits of ancestors, and a heavy family legacy), it lacks the Gothic mode that renders du Maurier’s story so powerful.

Mrs. De Winter at the Manderley Ball (Photo: Rebecca, Netflix, 2020)

Daphne du Maurier’s novel is about a nameless narrator – referred to only as the second Mrs. De Winter who, after marrying Maxim de Winter following a summertime fling, comes to his estate of Manderley. Like any true Gothic story, this one has a ghost, but it’s not a literal one – rather, Manderley is haunted by the memory of Rebecca, the first Mrs. De Winter, whose presence is palpable and inescapable, threatening to negate and render blank the narrator from even beyond the grave, as is suggested by the fact that it is Rebecca’s name that is the title, while we never learn the narrator’s. The nameless narrator and the dead Rebecca are thus in a metaphorical tug of war over that very title, and everything it entails, even though Rebecca is dead.

The ghost of Rebecca that haunts Manderley is a typical Gothic trope because Gothic tales are often about those things which have been repressed, forgotten, rejected, denied, and about them returning unbidden. They are about horrors from the past (or the psyche) made manifest. This might be something as simple as a monster like Dracula, an atavistic throwback who terrified Victorians because he represented a fear of degeneration, of going back to the past. And it is also the fear of the Other – of all those atavistic, monstrous, violent hereditary impulses making a return, blurring that line of self and other.

Gustave Doré’s illustration for Poe’s “The Raven,” powerfully capturing the palpable presence of the memories of the past that drive its narrator mad

But there is a reason the Gothic has a strong tradition of women writers: Ann Radcliffe (who helped originate the genre), Mary Shelley, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, Daphne du Maurier, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman number among its most important contributors. Because, in that claustrophobic, oppressive atmosphere of the old mansion, the ancestral castle, the family manor house, what is hidden beneath the surface and threatening to return is a rot that lurks somewhere within the family itself, made manifest by the literal dilapidation of the structure they dwell within: think of the cracks spreading through the house of Usher upon the narrator’s first gaze of it in Poe’s tale. That fear of rot is naturally tied up with ideas about heredity and degeneration, the terror that the attempt to maintain the purity of the bloodline, for example, leads to madness, illness, and death, as familial intermarriage will. There is also the fear that the ugly thing that might no longer remain hidden is domestic and sexual violence, abuse, patriarchal oppression, and a particularly gendered madness – the structures upon which an illustrious family is built, but the ones that threaten to destroy it from within. The repressed violence of the Gothic novel is so often a gendered violence.

Jane Eyre, for example, has given us the famous trope of the madwoman in the attic – Rochester’s first wife, locked away because she is mad – but why is she mad? In a century when women were termed hysterical for feeling too deeply and moralists clutched their pearls at them reading novels, when the Brontes were forced to publish under pen names, it is easy to read patriarchal violence onto Bertha Mason. And many critics have, most famously Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in their now canonical The Madwoman in the Attic that made the phrase such a commonplace. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” too, has a “madwoman” locked away in a room – except, of course, she isn’t mad at all; she becomes mad from the isolation foisted upon her by a controlling husband. Wuthering Heights is full of sublime emotion, but it also has plenty of domestic violence. Nancy Armstrong has argued, in Desire and Domestic Fiction, that the nineteenth century “domestic” novel helped to construct middle-class womanhood, but the Brontes challenged this tradition: Donna Heiland has suggested that their novels are interested in the “uncanny” – that is, unheimlich, or, literally, “unhomely,” as, in their novels, the home, the domestic space, becomes the site of the uncanny, manifesting itself as violence.

This is why the Gothic is so often hallucinatory, claustrophobic, with the sense of the walls closing in and one’s mind beating against the insides of one’s skull, as protagonists go mad and cease to be able to tell reality from imagination: that, after all, is what violence, abuse, isolation, and hereditary degeneration can do to a person. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts: in attempting to repress the past by any means possible, one creates the madness one is attempting to hide away.

It is in this lineage that Rebecca exists, though its gender politics are decidedly confused. As we learn from Maxim at the climax of the novel (and it must be noted that the Gothic is full of unreliable narrators, him included), Rebecca was a cruel and vicious wife, a manipulative woman who gloated that she was pregnant with another man’s child that he would be forced to raise as his own. (As it turns out, this was another manipulation, one used by the terminally ill Rebecca to manipulate Maxim into killing her). So it is the spectre of both Rebecca and of a complex set of gendered power relations, and of violence, that hide behind the walls of Manderley, hanging over the illustrious de Winter name.

In the recent film, however, Rebecca is in no way a ghost haunting Manderley or its present inhabitants. Sure, there are a couple evocative scenes – one in which Maxim sleepwalks, and the hallucinatory, carnivalesque scene of the Manderley Ball – but in no other sense do we get the impression that Manderley is haunted, even metaphorically, by the memory of Rebecca. The second Mrs. De Winter finds Rebecca’s pristine rooms, her figurines and datebook, the notecards written in her hand – but all these, shown in a kind of sober, realist mode, give us the plain facts that she has married a man who lost his first wife. Of course the protagonist worries that she can’t quite measure up to the role of being Mrs. De Winter, but Rebecca is not a heavy, shadowy presence looming over every step.

This is emphasized by the cinematography. Critics have – perhaps tellingly – compared the film to the recent Netflix romp Emily in Paris, because it is full of stunning costumes and lush scenery, but that means that the palette of the film is relatively bright, with very fancy British people in very nice outfits doing British things like having tea, just like Emily ate some pain au chocolat against stunning backdrops in Paris. There is none of that heavy, oppressive atmosphere that must lurk over the story for it to be a Gothic story.

Very British. Much tea. So very authentic. (Photo: Rebecca, Netflix, 2020)

The result is a relatively bland story about two relatively bland people in, to borrow some contemporary parlance, a problematic relationship. Maxim is noted as having a famous “temper,” frequently going quite mad with unfounded assumptions about what his wife has spent her afternoon doing and who she bought new expensive lingerie for and ordering her, in public, to change what she’s wearing. In the Gothic, as I’ve mentioned, the atmosphere, the sense of haunting, is often a metaphor for sexual and patriarchal (and colonial) violence, and so such behavior can be read as the product of a complex web of gender relations, social and class pressures, and systems of oppression. The ghost of Rebecca, the trauma of Maxim’s past with her, conflicting with the pressures of keeping up appearances for the sake of his family name drive him a little mad – and madness manifests as violence. The Gothic has a way of aptly interrogating this – the way traumas and horrors that are repressed and unaddressed rear up, destroying what might otherwise be healthy familial and romantic relationships, the past ruining the future because it is not dealt with.
Without the Gothic, though, all that’s left is, frankly, two people in an unhealthy relationship built upon an unstable foundation, which cannot be rescued by any amount of soft-focus sex scenes (of which there are plenty) or declarations of love. I don’t write this to clutch my pearls and lament that Rebecca romanticizes something bad, like Fifty Shades of Grey romanticized abuse and bad BDSM, and therefore it shouldn’t exist. It simply seems deeply disingenuous, and cognitively dissonant, and just outright strange for Rebecca to present a relationship that is made up of cracks and traumas as straightforwardly romantic, when its centuries-old lineage is built upon letting us live in those cracks and trace them as they start to appear and destroy an entire foundation.

In the Gothic, with its metaphors of rot and decadence, such relationships are weighted with the systems of violence that have created them, and thus powerfully interrogated. But taking away the Gothic leaves nothing but a “love” story without a single spark to it, in which it’s like the director thinks that if his actors read from a script that contains all the things people in a romantic relationship say, then it’ll become a romance. But though Maxim might apologize, and the two might end the film making love in the sunlight of a Cairo bedroom, and Mrs. De Winter might celebrate the ghosts having been laid to rest, the viewer hasn’t forgotten the eggshells she’s been walking on around Maxim.

In the Gothic, the ghosts are, in fact, often laid to rest at the end: if the haunted mansions and ancient castles of the genre symbolize the past, with all its madness and monstrosity, then when they are razed to the ground by the end of the story, it is so that something new and healthier can be built in their place. In Jane Eyre, Thornfield burns down along with Bertha Mason, and it’s also what renders Jane and Rochester equals (as he is no longer self-sufficient and needs her care); despite their class divide, it allows them to move forward. In the original ending for Dracula, Stoker intended for Castle Dracula to be blown up, signifying an end to the monstrosity our British heroes have faced and allowing them to build lives and families. And in the du Maurier’s novel, Manderley also burns down, suggesting the possibility of a future for Maxim and Mrs. De Winter away from the oppressive influence of Rebecca. But in the film, the viewer is left wondering what kind of future their romance could possibly have, because if no ghosts exist, then by definition no ghosts can be laid to rest, and the crucial lesson the Gothic teaches us is that a future cannot be built without acknowledging the past.

Further Reading

Armstrong, Nancy. Desire and Domestic Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights, ed. Richard J Dunn. New York: Norton, 2003.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Gubar, Susan. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Boston: Small, Maynard, & Company, 1901.

Heiland, Donna. “Confronting the Uncanny in the Brontes.” In Gothic & Gender: An Introduction. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Moreno-Garcia, Silvia. Mexican Gothic. New York: Del Rey, 2020.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Complete Stories. London: Everyman’s Library, 1993.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Anastasia Klimchynskaya is a postdoctoral fellow at the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge at the University of Chicago. Her current book project focuses on the emergence of science fiction in the nineteenth century, investigating it as the formal expression of new post-industrial paradigms and tracing its roots in Gothic fiction. She is also the deputy programming head for the Philadelphia Science Fiction Conference (Philcon) and is thrilled to be a co-host at the Rosenbach Library’s upcoming Sundays with Frankenstein program.