HITCHCOCK’S WOMEN: Fighting the Waves of the Past – Mrs de Winter in REBECCA (1940) – PART II

Rebecca McCallum concludes her analysis of the Second Mrs de Winter. Read Part I of this piece here.

An Imposter in Her Own Home

The power of Rebecca lies not just in the memory of those who knew her and metaphysically in the corridors and rooms of Manderley, but in the literal reminders which surround the heroine. Whether it be on the stationary in the morning room, or on the napkin which Maxim offers her, the attention-seeking ‘R’ seems to punctuate every possible blissful moment with its appearance. Such an experience leads Mrs de Winter to feel like an imposter in her new home.

To add to this, she is shown moving through the labyrinth-like space tentatively and lifting up the numerous hot plates laid out during breakfast; in short, she looks completely out of place. Even outside of Manderley, the infamous ‘R’ refuses to be ignored as the bride finds it etched onto the blanket in the beachside cottage. Rebecca is, like the sea and air which Hitchcock links her so intrinsically with, ethereal and all-encompassing. The figurine of the cupid (described by Maxim as ‘one of our treasures’) which sits on Rebecca’s desk is accidentally smashed into pieces by the heroine, speaks to the dynamic of their ghostly relationship. The ornament itself represents how Rebecca belongs to a higher world and carries notions of romance, sexuality and power. The act of breaking the object (and in hiding the pieces in the back of a drawer) symbolizes the heroines’ desire to destroy her rival. However, it is not long after this that Mrs Danvers uncovers the accident through her complaint to Maxim – signifying that despite trying in a range of methods, there simply is no getting rid of Rebecca.

There are also signs that the new mistress of Manderley is not able to accept or acknowledge herself in the role of Mrs de Winter as she answers the phone declaring her to be dead, not realising that it is she herself who is being addressed by the house staff. When she makes an introduction to Giles and Beatrice, she refers to herself, not as Mrs de Winter, but as ‘Maxim’s wife’. This rejection of filling Rebecca’s shoes extends to others, as when Beatrice cannot bring herself to finish her sentence to Maxim: ‘but everyone’s dying to see you and….’ when discussing a revival of the Manderley ball.  The notion of Mrs de Winter as an imposter is exploited further through the lack of insider knowledge she has. When Beatrice bids her farewell after their first meeting, she remarks: ‘we were very worried about him last year, but of course you know the full story’. It is evident from the drained colour and expression of her face that this information has not been shared. In addition, she learns from Crawley details she was not privy to with regards to the house staff wage increases. By being uninformed and out of the loop, this increases her sense of smallness and insignificance.

I Am Mrs de Winter Now

For much of the film, the heroine struggles to find her identity, assume authority and have her voice heard. However, a turning point arrives when she comes across the cottage next to the beach where she encounters fisherman, Ben. When he asks rhetorically (as though he knows the answer) ‘She’s gone in the sea ain’t she, she’ll never coming back no more?’, the heroine replies: ‘No, she wont be back’ with a confidence that has hitherto been absent. It is again notable that she demonstrates this assertiveness with an outsider and not Maxim or a member of the house staff. Upon returning to Manderley after making this statement, she begins to dress more powerfully and asks Crowley to ‘show me the run of things’. The second Mrs de Winter, it seems, has finally arrived.

It is around this time too, that we see her perusing the pages of a beauty magazine, as though aware she needs to make an identity change to become mistress of Manderley. One evening, she enters the library wearing a sophisticated floor length gown with a flower corsage to find Maxim setting up reels of film from their honeymoon. Clearly purposely dressed up and awaiting a romantic response from her husband, Maxim dashes her hopes by remarking that it is not her: ‘sort of thing’ before laughing cruelly. In her attempt to present herself as a mature woman she has unwittingly transformed, recreating herself into the woman of: ’36 with a string of pearls’ that he warned her never to become. For Maxim, the appeal of his wife lies in her resembling a child and in this scene any sense of that is hidden. As the images of their honeymoon flicker in the background, (a bittersweet reminder of how close they once were and how much distance there is between them now), the reel becomes stuck and the footage cuts out. Stopping on a shot of the heroine alone-a clear meditation of how detached she feels-Maxim declares angrily how he: ‘threaded it up wrong’, a statement that could as readily be applied to their relationship as to the film reel.

Following a traumatic experience in the West Wing with Mrs Danvers, the second Mrs de Winter grows in strength again. In a pivotal moment, when she calls for Mrs Danvers to dispose of all Rebecca’s letters, she declares boldly for the first time: ‘I am Mrs de Winter now’. However, the sinister question which lingers is whether she has become her own version of Mrs de Winter or if she is simply becoming more like Rebecca? She also makes an uncharacteristically bold and strategic move by bargaining with Mrs Danvers that she will not disclose of Mr Flavell’s visit to Maxim if the housekeeper keeps their interaction in the West Wing a secret.  Crucially, this newfound assertiveness comes with a wish to claim her place both within the private setting of Manderley and the wider public sphere (both of which were once occupied by Rebecca), through her suggestion of organizing the masquerade ball.

The Return of Rebecca: the Inescapability of Possession

In a bid to own her new status and initiate a rebirth, the unnamed heroine sketches ideas for the costume ball. At first, she considers Joan of Arc, a choice that reflects strength (through the outer suit of armour), masculinity and power. Assuming that Mrs Danvers is being helpful when she suggests dressing as Caroline de Winter-an ancestor from the de Winter portrait gallery and a particular favourite of Maxims’-she readily agrees. However, unbeknown to the new mistress of Manderley, Mrs Danvers is facilitating an exhibition of shame through the resurrection of not one, but two alternative women.

When Beatrice arrives at the party, she asks immediately: ‘where is the child?’ an echo of Maxim’s view of his wife. Guarded in her room from company to maintain her forthcoming surprise, the heroine is brimming with excitement and anticipation-this is her opportunity to make an impression. As she descends the staircase we see her amend an awkward gait for a demure walk while she occupies her dream moment-despite the disheartening fact that everyone is facing away from her. She cannot, (as Rebecca could) make an entrance and instantly change the dynamic in a room. Eventually, after an agonizing few seconds, she resorts to calling out to the party to attract their attention: ‘good evening Mr de Winter’ she offers hopefully. When the guests turn to look at her and realise she is dressed in the costume that Rebecca once wore, this produces a horrifying effect with Beatrice even whispering: ‘Rebecca’ before checking herself. In this moment, despite having the intention to shake off the oppressive shackles of Rebecca with the view of transcending her, Mrs de Winter has in fact regressed deeper, inhabiting her more acutely than ever. Any notion of keeping the past at bay is obliterated through this evocation of Rebecca.

After her humiliation at the ball, the heroine confronts Mrs Danvers in the West Wing as she collapses onto the bed in tears. The housekeeper seizes an opportunity to exploit this moment of vulnerability and pushes the fragile heroine towards suicide, whispering snake-like in her ear: ‘you’ve nothing to live for really, have you?’ However, this is interrupted by the news of Rebecca’s sailboat being found, reflective of how she rises continually from beyond the grave to assume control. Mrs de Winter despairs as the narrative is reset again when a guest remarks how for Maxim: ‘it will bring it all back again worse than before’

Rebecca Always Wins

Finding Maxim at the fishing cottage after the discovery of Rebecca’s boat, Mrs de Winter realises the walls have caved in and their marriage is destined for eternal doom. In a last bid to maintain some semblance of a relationship, she asks if she can be Maxim’s friend or companion, her willingness to settle for a platonic relationship is both touching and deeply sad in equal measure. When he tells her how: ‘Rebecca has won, her shadow has been between us’ it seems that there is no way back for the couple. However, Maxim reveals that he in fact: ‘hated’ Rebecca, a revelation that produces a look first of surprise and then of an almost orgasmic happiness from Mrs de Winter as she repeats over and over: ‘you didn’t love her, you didn’t love her’. For the new bride, the Rebecca she has felt to be an intruder was not beloved and adored after all.

As Maxim now faces a trial, a role reversal take place between husband and wife as he slowly crumbles while she holds everything together-even managing his anger when it gets out of control. This renewed strength comes specifically at the time when she realises that Rebecca is no longer a threat as she was never loved by Maxim. It emerges that Rebecca was suffering from terminal cancer and provoked Maxim into deliberately murdering her through faking a pregnancy. As a result of this discovery, Maxim is (quite disturbingly) acquitted of all charges and released, free to enjoy married life. Now that the truth is out and there are no more secrets-this should pave the way for a happy ending. However, Hitchcock chooses not to give the final shot to the couple or even to the heroine (if indeed, she really is the film’s true heroine), but to Rebecca whose ubiquitous ‘R’ occupies the frame. The ghost of Rebecca lives resolutely on and it is impossible not to imagine that she will continue to haunt Mrs de Winter long after the last parts of Manderley have burnt to the ground.

Rebecca McCallum

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