Narrative Structure and the Narrative Manipulation in ‘Rebecca’
A narrative is a spoken or written account of events and the structure is the order that the author organizes events; though these definitions may seem simple, much of the interest in a narrative can arise from the distortion or manipulation of key information. The narrative of the novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is first-person, and the structure is a flashback after introducing the story in the present as if she is recalling what happened to her at Manderley. As readers, we trust that her version of the story is precisely what occurred because there is nothing that suggests otherwise. However, the narrator’s memory is subjective; for example, in her eyes, Rebecca is the villain and Maxim is the victim – even after he admitted to the murder of his former wife.
Rebecca can be characterized as bildungsroman – this means that throughout the novel, the narrator matures. At the beginning of her story she recalls what she was like when she was a companion to Mrs van Hopper, ‘I remember well that plate of ham and tongue. It was dry, unappetizing, cut in a wedge from the outside, but I had not the courage to refuse it.’ and says ‘how young and inexperienced I must have seemed’. However, by the end of the novel, she has matured and become more confident in herself:
‘I have lost my diffidence, my timidity, my shyness with strangers. I am very different from that self who drove to Manderley for the first time, hopeful and eager, handicapped by a rather desperate gaucherie and filled with an intense desire to please.’
By writing in first person, it means that we don’t learn the name of the narrator. The absence of a name means that it doesn’t give the narrator her own identity especially at the beginning of the story when she is a companion to Mrs van Hopper. When she marries Maxim, her name becomes Mrs de Winter but she isn’t comfortable with this name because she doesn’t like the idea of following Rebecca. It gives a sense of competition between the narrator and Rebecca, for the right to bear the name.
An advantage of writing in first person is that we know what the narrator thinks and feels; the reader feels a connection to the narrator, creating a sense of reality. It also allows the narrator’s view to come through more clearly, as it is expressed directly and portraying her personality and views more easily. A good example of this is when she is recalling her time with Mrs van Hopper and the embarrassment she feels: ‘I would feel like a whipping boy who must bear his master’s pains when I watched people laugh behind her back’. This is an asset to the novel because it gives a sense of intimacy, allowing the reader to empathize with the narrator.
However, a disadvantage of first person narrative is that all the information we get is biased because it’s only from her point of view. All the information we know about Rebecca is either what the narrator imagines her to be like or second hand (what she hears from other people) and what other people think about Rebecca is also filtered by their own opinions and motives. For example, in chapter 11 she asks Frank ‘was Rebecca was very beautiful?’ to which he replies ‘yes, I suppose she was the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life’ and in chapter 13 when the narrator meets Ben, he says of Rebecca, ‘Tall and dark she was. She gave you the feeling of a snake. I seen her here with me own eyes. By night she’d come’. Therefore, we get an unfair representation of Rebecca because she doesn’t get to speak for herself, and the image of her that we build up in our minds is purely brought together from bits of information from other people. This allows the reader to understand the events that occurred with Rebecca at Manderley, but not get a true representation of what she was like only the narrators interpretation of what people tell her.
Throughout the story, there are also a series of imaginings, where the narrator pictures an idyllic future at Manderley. For example, after Maxim proposes to her, she says:
‘I would be his wife, we would walk in the garden together, we would stroll down the path in the valley to the shingle beach. I knew how I would stand on the steps after breakfast, looking at the day, throwing crumbs to the birds, and later wander out in a shady hat with long scissors in my hand, and cut flowers for the house’.
She also imagines what people must think about her or say about her behind her back, particularly the servants of the house ‘I wondered why I minded that, and why the thought of the servants talking about it in the kitchen should cause me such distress.’ Linked to this focus on imagination is another key aspect of the structure, the passage of time. The novel begins with the narrator in a hotel room with Maxim, living nomadically; the narrator is aware that Maxim killed Rebecca, and Manderley has burnt down. Time has passed between the events that occurred at Manderley and when she recalls them and even though we don’t actually know how long ago it happened, it still makes the story less reliable. This is because the narrator may have filtered the events in her mind over time and therefore slightly changed the overall story.
The narrative and structure of Rebecca thus limit the viewpoint of the reader. After all, readers only experience one character’s point of view; therefore, this selectivity impacts on what the reader will feel about a character. Although the narrator speaks to others in the story to find out about Rebecca, so that we get other points of view on her, we are still only receiving her interpretation of what they tell her. Throughout, the novel uses structure to deliver a strongly biased opinion.
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