Open admission: I despise dream sequences in novels.
Especially when they start the story.
Worst of all, when the author goes right out and announces that this opening scene is a dream.
Yet here I am, telling you to please dust off Daphne du Marier’s 1938 bestselling novel Rebecca. It’s opening lines? “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
So begins what is arguably one of the greatest Gothic novels ever published by an author not named Brontё. Just like with the first lines she put down for this book, du Marier takes plenty of risks in Rebecca, slowly building up a disturbing and intriguing story that constantly hooks the reader in without resorting to melodrama or gimmicks (like the coincidences riddling, ahem, Charlotte Brontё’s Jane Eyre, but that’s for another post).
Du Marier’s novel starts out simple enough: a young woman visiting Europe falls in love with Maxim de Winter, an older man from Britain, and marries him. This young woman–who is anonymous throughout Rebecca–knows Maxim had an earlier marriage to a woman named Rebecca who died, but she doesn’t think much of this at first. The couple moves to England to settle down in de Winter’s gorgeous estate, Manderley.
In hindsight, knowing just how terrible events wind up being by the end of Rebecca, it’d be easy for me to call this moment in the book, where the unnamed protagonist starts her life at Manderley, as the point where the crap hits the fan, so to speak. But it’s not. Instead, du Marier continues the novel’s leisurely pace as the young woman gets to know her surroundings and some of the people, including the antagonistic Mrs. Danvers, she’ll be dealing with as a housewife.
As this book progresses, though, it becomes clear that the memory of Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife, clouds Manderley. Through manipulation on Mrs. Danvers’s part, and the feeling that Maxim is still in love with his first wife, the protagonist believes she can never compare to Rebecca and despair sets into her character. It only ends up getting worse (and more bothering) from there.
There’s a lot of appeal to readers today in du Marier’s book, both on the surface and deeper down. The lives of the rich and famous continue to fascinate us, and, well, Rebecca shows some of the most disturbing rich-and-famous lives to grace literature. Through her incredible descriptions and lingering pacing, du Marier creates what I’d call the definition of “mysterious and eerie atmosphere.” Most of all, there’s the psychology this novel presents. Far from using any pop psychology cliches, this novel lets its characters reveal their obsessions, destructive insecurities, and harboring hatreds in a way that’s totally realistic and also enthralling for the reader.
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