Monday, March 21, 2011

Book Club Discussion: "Rebecca"

Regrettably, two of our members could not attend our session last week and I was a little late, but we managed to have a good discussion about a book that turned out to be a favorite. Two of us had read Rebecca decades ago, and one of our members was still in the middle of the novel, but there was much to admire about the Du Maurier work.

We considered Rebecca to be an intriguing and unusual book. The title character is deceased and never appears in the novel. The narrator remains unnamed. And Manderley, the de Winter family manse, is a major character in the story.

We agreed that it was based on the tradition of gothic novels -- that is, a naive young woman lacking family connections finds herself in an isolated and darkly mysterious location with a handsome, worldly, tormented man.

We also saw elements of a coming-of-age novel. The narrator, the young and inexperienced second Mrs. de Winter, is very much a girl when she first meets Maxim but the events of the book age her quickly. We found her fanciful thoughts and imagined conversations to be realistic for a young woman of 20. She, like most young people entering adulthood, was desperately trying to find her place in the world and defining herself by her surroundings. She believed she needed to meet the standards established by the sophisticated first Mrs. de Winter and found herself failing miserably.

Although we readily identified with the young narrator via our younger selves (two of us read it while in high school), from our more "seasoned" perspectives we were a bit impatient with the young Mrs. de Winter. "Com'on! Get some backbone!" I have already expressed my irritation with Maxim for leaving his bride to sink or swim on her own as mistress of Manderley. Other members of the club found him disrespectful, treating his wife like a child.

Which brought us to the issue of "unreliable narrator." The second Mrs. de Winter's lack of self-confidence and esteem colored her view of events. All that the reader knows of the other characters and settings is filtered through the young bride. She calls herself plain, yet other characters call her pretty. She is intimidated by the servants and household routines established by Rebecca. Did Maxim really stroke her head like he petted their dog, Jasper?

We pretty much agreed that this was the best written novel we've read thus far. The descriptive passages evoked all five senses. Du Maurier was masterful in her use of the weather to foreshadow events. Likewise, her descriptions of Manderley created lovely images of its exterior and the estate while the interior was portrayed with more ominous and unsettled terms. Du Maurier creates a full-fledged character arc where the narrator is little more than a child when she first meets Maxim but matures to support him later in the novel when the situation turns grim.

Still, there was room for the reader to apply his or her imagination. Just what exactly did Rebecca say and do that made Maxim despise her? Dialogue by Mrs. Danvers and Jack Favell gives us an idea of Rebecca's personality. Maxim wasn't angered so much by Rebecca's infidelities as he was the manner with which she hurt others for her own amusement. Du Maurier leaves it to the reader to fill in the blanks regarding Rebecca's true personality. And what exactly happened to Mrs. Danvers? We know she packed her things and had her bags picked up -- but then what? Was she destroyed with Manderley, as Hitchcock chose to portray? Or...?

We concluded our discussion with the passage in which Maxim de Winter discussed his love for Manderley: "I thought about Manderley too much. I put Manderley first, before anything else. And it does not prosper, that sort of love. They don't preach about it in the churches. Christ said nothing about stones, and bricks, and walls, the love that a man can bear for his plot of earth, his soil, his little kingdom. It does not come into the Christian creed." Maxim had been willing to suffer a loveless marriage and put on a pretext of the perfect relationship for the benefit of Manderley. It was Rebecca's impeccable taste that turned Manderley into a showplace. It was Rebecca's parties at Manderley that people spoke of for years afterward. Maxim's sacrifices for the estate reminded us of Scarlet O'Hara's love for Tara. Both books were published about the same time (1938) as were the movies. We wondered if the Depression highlighted a reverence for land? Holding on to it for all one was worth.

* * *

Our next book for discussion will be Lawrence Hill's Someone Knows My Name. Fortunately, March is a long month which gives us an extra week to read this longer novel.

I've been tapped to select a science fiction novel for our May meeting. This is tricky, since none of our members (to my knowledge) have ever read SF/F. So -- nothing too geeky. I've narrowed it down to Ender's Game, Dragonflight (first book of Dragronriders of Pern), To Say Nothing of the Dog, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and Darwin's Radio. I may change my mind before our April meeting when we select the next read for our May discussion.


wilsonc said...

I don't often read science fiction/fantasy but I did read the Dragon Riders series and loved them. I haven't read Rebecca either, but I think I will. Thanks for sharing your book reviews.

Rising Rainbow said...

If I read Rebecca I don't recall it but then I couldn't tell you what of hers I read, just most everything I could find. Don't remember much about any of them only that I loved them at the time. It's been a long time.

I used to read a lot of SF/F in my youth. Now, I've moved on. Funny how that happens. The only book you mentioned I know of is the Dragon Rider series. I have them sitting hear but have not cracked one. I probably should be joining a book club so I'd quit wishing I had time to read and actually do it.

Anonymous said...

Love Ann MacCafrey! I read all the Dragonrider's of Pern books over 25yrs ago!! I loved her dragon series and Harpers Hall books the best. I was so engrossed with them I even had some dragon jewerly made!!

Judi said...

What a surprise to find this when I am reading Rebecca right now--and not for the first time. I read it as a teen, too. I definitely see it differently through older eyes! She acts so young and naive. It frustrates me.

Still, I love the book as much as I did the first time. It shows masterly writing as the narrator truly sounds like a young and insecure woman--and in the beginning chapter, she sounds like an old woman.