Although not set within the traditional trappings of gothic fiction as conventionally delineated, and despite the fact that it offers little in the way of the supernatural element that is axiomatic of the gothic, Daphne Du Maurier’s novel Rebecca generally tends to be labeled an example of gothic British literature. Regardless of whether a reader accepts this generic description of the novel as a whole, little argument can reasonably exist that the novel’s male protagonist Maxim de Winter does not clearly trace his literary lineage back to such stereotypical representations of the gothic male as Rochester and Heathcliff.
One of foundational character traits that defines a gothic hero is a psychological alienation from not only others, but even himself. Much of the draw of both readers and the heroines of the fiction they are reading toward these men is located in the sense of mystery that surrounds them like an unseen aura. This sense of mystery is engendered by the almost obsessive reluctance to speak candidly about certain aspects of their history, and is further cemented by the prospect of fantastic or even dreadful details that may spur that reluctance. In the case of Maxim de Winter, this disinclination to be open about his past life with his new wife appears to tip over into the arena of repression. Maxim’s stubborn resistance to discussing anything about his life with Rebecca seems to have evolved into a repression of his own memories; it sometimes seems less as if Maxim simply refuses to reveal anything about his past life and more like he truly cannot remember anything about it. In a sense, Maxim breaks free from gothic conventions of the past and speaks toward characters from the latter half of the 20th century who genuinely cannot plumb the depths of memories forced into the subconscious as a result of extraordinary emotional trauma. Even so, Maxim is clearly intended as an ancestor of the gothic past.
Not only are manner and character enough to invest Maxim with a sense of the gothic, but at one point the narration of his own new wife explicitly thrusts him backward to a literary past not of his own time. She muses over the possibility that if one could just “rob him of him out of his English tweeds, and put him in black, with lace at his throat and wrists, he would stare down at us in our new world from a long-distant past-a past where men walked cloaked at night, and stood in the shadow of old doorways, a past of narrow stair-ways and dim dungeons, a past of whispers in the dark, of shimmering rapier blades, of silent exquisite courtesy” (15). It is a description that could be found in almost any gothic novel ever written, from Jane Eyre to Dracula. It is also quite effective in constructing another level of mystery that is absolutely essential to the definition of the gothic male hero, creating the potential for violence and danger to exist within his personality. Of course, the gothic protagonist’s capacity for violence is never predictable.
Maxim De Winter’s lineage to Rochester in Jane Eyre is particularly keen, in large part because both Jane and the new Mrs. de Winter share such a solid correlation. Part of Rochester’s appeal to young Jane, as well as his other would-be suitors, is his masculine dominance that often threatens turn his relationships into the more deviant side of sexual politics. Maxim is, like Rochester, a very controlling figure and as a result his new bride, who has already described herself, and has this self-identification confirmed by her revelation of the perspective of others toward her, in such terms as diffident, timid and shy. The key revelation of sexual dominance in the novel that ties Maxim to Rochester especially, however, occurs only when all the true horrific secrets of Maxim’s past are finally revealed. Just as Rochester’s future relationship with a second wife was driven by the dominance of the presence and madness of his first wife, so it is finally revealed that Maxim was at one time forced to play the submissive role toward Rebecca. Such was the upending of traditional gender roles in their marriage that it is Rebecca’s monogram that is displayed on all their possessions and not the M of Maxim. This emasculation of his masculinity cannot be doubted but to have played a strategic role in his surprise choice for a new wife who appears to everyone to be the utter antithesis of Rebecca. Maxim’s regaining of the dominant male role in a relationship is pointedly marked by a chasm. While away from Manderley and in the throes of honeymoon bliss, Maxim sheds almost all of gothic complexity. With the exception of his refusal to speak of Rebecca, his domineering manner is light enough to be almost playful. Only during this section of the novel is Maxim ever completely dominant. It is, of course, Manderley and the shadow of Rebecca that grips him and turns him into an unquestioned example of the gothic hero.
The easy and untroubled masculinity exhibited by Maxim prior to arriving home is almost immediately shattered in yet another link to Rochester. Once within not just the confines of his extravagant mansion, but outside and accompanied by the unpleasant acquaintances who knew both him and Rebecca, Maxim becomes a bifurcated man. He is dominant with the new Mrs. De Winter, but tortured by the castrating memories of the woman who even after death enacts a hold over him. Rebecca is herself a vital element in the construction of Maxim De Winter as a gothic figure. Another elemental aspect of the gothic novel is the uncanny, most often represented at first as some supernatural entity. This uncanny figure most often is feared to be something more (or less) than human in the minds of the others only to be revealed as unrepentantly human by the story’s climax. At no point it is ever suggested by the narrator that Rebecca’s influence at Mannerly has a supernatural component, although there certainly exists the possibility that Mrs. Danvers may at least believe that she maintains some sort of strange otherworldly connection with her former employer and probable lover. Because Maxim De Winter is so mysterious about Rebecca, and because the others who might have information to fill in the blanks were mostly unaware of the truth of the marriage, the figure of the dead wife for most of the novel appears to have some inexplicable guiding role in the future of the characters. That gothic torture that defines Maxim is never fully understood or explained until the end and imbues him with even greater mystery. As with Rochester, only the acknowledgement of his Maxim’s only failure as a human being can finally free him from his prison, confirming the final necessary character trait of a gothic hero: the tragic flaw of indulging in solipsism that blinds him to the realization that forgiveness is possible from those who love.