What I Read This Week: June 30th to July 7th
Hello. There are spoilers on this page. I know it was published in 1938 but I managed to read it without knowing what was going to happen, so that might be the case for you as well. Look away now if you don’t want to know what happens.
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I didn’t read every single book I was supposed to when I was at university. I know it’s not realistic to expect everyone to read every single book on a reading list, but when there’s a seminar scheduled on it, you really should read the book. I still feel bad about the books I didn’t read, so every now and again I pick one up and give it a fair shake. Eventually I’ll not feel as bad. This week, I decided to read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and damn, do I regret not reading it when I was supposed to.
I should point out that I don’t remember a damn thing we talked about in that seminar. I knew the plot was somewhat similar to Jane Eyre (which I did read when I was supposed to, and loved), but that’s it. I knew none of the twists. It worked on me as it would have worked on someone in 1938.
And boy, did it work on me. The slow start put me off a bit, but I know that was meant to emphasise just how humdrum the narrator’s life is, and how narrow her prospects. It highlights that she has no choice but to accept Maxim’s proposal.
You know, as the narrator does, that Maxim has some dark and mysterious things in his past. You expect that some of this might become illuminated as the narrator integrates herself into life at Manderley. Not fully, of course. If you know it’s like Jane Eyre, you know there must be some apocalyptic reveals towards the end. But you expect some kind of idea. Something you can guess at.
But the narrator can’t integrate. And for the first two thirds of the book, Maxim barely speaks.
This negative space, where the reader has as little to go on as the narrator inside the text, and only a little more outside of it (shut up Derrida), leaves the reader grasping for meaning as desperately as the narrator does.
And du Maurier knows you are thinking about Jane Eyre.
The way she makes you lead yourself into thinking it’s a story about a man tormented by the loss of his life’s love is nothing short of masterful. When du Maurier floods the story with oxygen and lets the fire burn as bright as it wants, you’re just as devastated as the narrator is to find out that those people saying she was nothing like Rebecca were paying her a compliment all along. And how terrifying it becomes when you realise that it’s not some writerly trick that drew you along, it was Rebecca herself, getting revenge on the behalf of the mad woman in the attic, refusing to be reduced to a deus ex machina.
Think about it in relation to Jane Eyre, which is a novel that is about the titular character, who is allowed to have her own name at the expense of the woman who is locked away. In du Maurier’s inversion, the narrator is refused a name and the title lets us know just who the most important actor in the story is. Rebecca.
It’s just a perfect example of what leaving a void in the story and letting the reader fill it themselves (with the odd nudge) can do.
These are just some quick thoughts. It has been a while since a novel has held me in its spell like Rebecca did, and I wanted to go over some of the ways I think it did it. I’ve just started reading Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. (Am I on some pre-adaptation Hitchcock bender? I’ve only seen Psycho and Rear Window.) I’m in the middle of like ten other books as well. I am a serial starter.