Culture

The Death of Gothic Feminism on Screen: A Commentary on Rebecca (2020)

Content warning: this article includes reference to abuse and suicide.

The iconic Rebecca has been remade. The 1938 classic Gothic Romance novel became familiar to me in my final year of studying as I was trudging through my dissertation on Daphne du Maurier. In other words, Rebecca haunted my last year of university and upon the release of Ben Wheatley’s 2020 adaptation, the text was resurrected once more. Like the dead Mrs de Winter in the novel, Rebecca has returned from the past – this time, via Netflix.

Screenshot from Daphne du Maurier interview (1971) from BBC iPlayer

Like the heroine, I am tormented. Not by a cold and distant husband, but by an illusive story that makes me doubt my capabilities as a reader and as a feminist. This is because Rebecca is a deceptively complicated text, which beguiles those who lay their hands on it; its complex plot has me running in circles, asking is this a feminist story?

The short answer, from my gut, is yes, because it’s about female conformity under the pressures of an aristocratic and patriarchal society. The novel’s nameless protagonist meets her husband Maxim de Winter whilst working in Monte Carlo as a servant for a wealthy spinster. Maxim sweeps her from working life to marry him and live together at Manderley. The heroine jumps from one oppressive situation to another, confronted with, at Maxim’s home, the unfamiliar demands of an upper class society, instilling an oppressive atmosphere central to the plot to come.

Screenshot from Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940)

At Manderley, the protagonist experiences psychological abuse: she is gaslighted, patronised and humiliated by her husband. And in the climax, despite their unhappy marriage, she helps him cover up the murder of his previous wife. 

However, given the disempowered female lead and her questionable action in support of her husband’s crime, the plot appears to be antithetical to feminist ideals – so should the Netflix version be avoided by young women everywhere? 

Upon the 2020 release I felt I had to defend the original story as, although the remake’s plot points are essentially the same, its retelling distorts du Maurier’s original concept. For me, the 1938 novel and Hitchcock’s film resonate with feminist perspectives, and this is sadly diluted in Wheatley’s film.

The heroine’s main anxiety surrounds her role as a wife; as the new Mrs de Winter she replaces the late and evidently dearly beloved Rebecca. The heroine only hears good things about Maxim’s ex-wife; she was more beautiful, more confident and more suited to the aristocratic world of Manderley. Struggling to live in her shadow, the heroine is characterised as plain, shy and lacking in confidence.

As such, the story isn’t very romantic at all; it is full of Gothic motifs that contribute to the heroine’s feelings of oppression and distress. A prominent example of this is the intimidatingly large and grandiose mansion, Manderley. Its castle-like features are reminiscent of Gothic narratives from the eighteenth-century, which used castles as symbols of a feudal past. Such Gothic tropes evoke oppressive structures, in which women are unable to escape the clutches of the patriarchy.

Screenshot from Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940)

The characters around the heroine are also extremely unpleasant: Maxim is cold, withdrawn [see above] and patronises his wife as though she were a child. Mrs Danvers (the housekeeper of Manderley and handmaid to Rebecca) constantly compares the heroine to Rebecca and even encourages the heroine to commit suicide. These unsupportive and oppressive relationships heighten the heroine’s psychological distress, and the narrative’s emotional quality captures a harrowed female perspective of marriage and feminine identity.

Acknowledging the story’s evocation of numerous Gothic tropes is critical to understanding it as a feminist work. The Gothic genre has been defined as literature which displays ‘counter-narratives’, exploring the underside of moral and humanist values. This is why Gothic texts often include transgressive content such as violence, incest, crime and oppression. In that vein, explorations of feminist perspectives in this genre centre on sombre and distressing aspects of the female experience, such as women’s marginalisation and confinement to the domestic realm. By displaying the fearful and disturbed realities that women experience in Gothic texts can expose the oppressive force of patriarchal norms

In du Maurier’s novel, for example,  Maxim never opens up about his relationship with Rebecca, leaving the heroine in the dark. His reluctance to communicate isolates her, leaving her to silently watch him as he  withdraws into his thoughts. Without any openness from him, she concludes that he must have loved Rebecca so much and that she is merely an inferior replacement

This sense of inferiority is coupled with the female-vs-female competition with Rebecca. The book exposes a type of nagging anxiety familiar to women who experience the burden of comparison to an unrealistic beauty standard in their daily lives. The heroine is subject to the heavy constraints of patriarchal demands, which force women to compete rather than support each other. Du Maurier’s take on this feeling displays itself an uncanny double: the two women embody opposing female stereotypes, yet are both Mrs de Winter

In the heroine’s heightened emotional narration, it seems that Rebecca is as real and vivid as if she were alive. In this way, du Maurier presents readers with an unnerving ghostly presence, resurrected by the heroine’s imagination. Whilst there is a doubling of the name ‘Mrs de Winter’, the heroine’s first name is never given, which assists her disempowered characterisation

Gothic narratives are rarely empowering or triumphant for female characters, as is the case for Rebecca‘s heroine.

As well as being unnamed, du Maurier’s heroine leaves her job for a marriage, and when it is revealed Maxim killed Rebecca, she stays loyal to him even though he’s been a terrible husband. Some lines of feminist thought will disapprove of these plot points, as the heroine sets a lacklustre example for women in relationships

Although the heroine takes no empowering action against her gender-based plight, the book must not be expected to read as an exemplary blueprint for women in unhappy marriages. Instead, if we view Rebecca as a testimony, we can begin to understand its validity as a feminist text.

This raises the question – must a female character be empowered for her story to be considered a feminist piece? 

The Gothic qualities of Rebecca differentiate it from a typical romance. Instead of shaming the heroine for not taking action, we must look at the perpetrators that cause her plight. Gothic texts make this distinction very clear, as the genre is predisposed to showing where power lies. By condemning Maxim as the novel’s villain, as well as his stiff aristocratic world, the female who enters this world is sure to be the victim. With the heroine’s afflicted emotions spilling from each page, the story sheds light on a scenario where a woman suffers internally against a repressive system. 

The prevalence of transgressive content in the genre has given rise to concerns that the Gothic celebrates criminality and vice, or even advocates it. The latter is my particular concern for Wheatley’s film, as I felt it lacked key Gothic motifs in favour of glamourising an abusive relationship. By removing these darker motifs, that I will deliberate on below, and adding a rose-tint to the story, the film failed to condemn patriarchy the way that du Maurier’s original did. 

Screenshot from Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940)

In the film’s first act, where the couple meet in Monte Carlo, the screen-time was eaten up by scenic shots of countryside and raunchy scenes of the couple making out. These aspects produced a glamourised  summer romance, and the film failed to introduce the dark side of the couple’s power dynamic

In Hitchcock’s version [see above] we see Joan Fontaine delivering an anxious performance as the heroine. This scene presents a crucial line that signifies her characterisation from the beginning: ‘I wish I was a woman of about thirty-six dressed in black satin with a string of pearls’. Her youthfulness and lack of confidence is key to the power dynamic between her and Maxim. And like a father, he harshly instructs her: ‘stop biting your nails.’

Screenshot from Wheatley’s Rebecca (2020, Netflix)

Wheatley’s film fails to showcase this power dynamic, as in his version of the same scene, Lily James’ character (the heroine) takes a turn at driving the car herself [see above]. Her confident smile and actions are completely divergent to those of the original heroine.

Screenshot from Wheatley’s Rebecca (2020, Netflix)

This is not the only time James deviates from the expectations of her character as set out by du Maurier and Hitchcock.  When tensions between her and Danvers are high, she enters the servants’ quarters to confront the cruel housekeeper in front of the whole staff [see left/above]. Given that Manderley is meant to be a symbol of institutional order and conformity, the shy heroine of du Maurier’s conception would never pluck up the courage to speak out of line.

A major stray from the original plot took place in the finale. James’ character ventures alone to the doctor’s office, seeking information about Rebecca’s alleged pregnancy, where she would have been accompanied in the original. The Independent suggested that the screenwriters were trying to appeal to a feminist audience by giving James a ‘semi-detective’ role. This ‘appeal’ seems to be the motivation behind a lot of the heroine’s divergent actions, yet it never amounts to anything of substance.

Although these defiant actions somewhat appeal to a feminist ideal, her actions in the finale ultimately serve the purpose of freeing Maxim from a conviction so that she can stay with him. Therefore the screenwriters’ attempt at a feminist moment ironically fails, as they gave the character a level of independence, only to take it away right after. 

I felt that these were unnecessary changes to a plot that was already a feminist one. As the Independent points out, du Maurier’s story exposes ‘gaslighting and romantic insecurity’. All the film needed to do was to convey this insecurity by preserving the original’s darkness. This could have been implemented simply by means of Gothic motifs such as a darker colour palette, intense displays of psychological torment, and more blatant tyrannical male behaviour. These tools would have easily distinguished the heroine’s plight as one of a victim of patriarchy, and we could sit comfortably knowing it’s been condemned.

Screenshot from Wheatley’s Rebecca (2020, Netflix)

I would have liked to see a deeper insight into James’ character’s mind, perhaps with a voice-over that would replicate the book’s first-person narration. What was so effective in Hitchcock’s film was the use of expressionist-style close-up shots of characters’ faces. Wheatley’s remake didn’t take this opportunity to showcase a story that is, at its heart, a psychological thriller

The actors’ performances let the genre down with their muddled portrayal of the leading couple. Armie Hammer, as Maxim, was a rather confused villain. In this breakfast scene [see above] he smiles at the heroine, welcoming her to her first morning at Manderley. Hammer’s performance is too cheerful in this scene, as is the bright colour palette of the majority of the film.

Screenshot from Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940)

Hammer’s performance differs from Laurence Olivier’s Maxim (1940) in the same breakfast scene. Olivier’s Maxim doesn’t even give the heroine eye-contact, [see above] as he is more concerned with catching up with his business affairs. Whilst Fontaine looks on full of hope and naivety, the shot captures the power dynamic between the couple. It demonstrates how the heroine is excluded from a man’s world of work, and how her hopes of romance are hers alone.

Whilst the film failed to show the darker side of their romance, it favoured cosy shots of the couple sharing intimate moments [see below]. Arguably it’s fine for Rebecca to have these intimate scenes, as of course ‘bad’ relationships can contain these moments. However, to include these, but not the story’s intense displays of inner drama and torment, is to romanticise a dysfunctional relationship.

Screenshot from Wheatley’s Rebecca (2020, Netflix)

To me, the story remains far from romantic, and at times even decidedly anti-romantic. The most poignant example of this is in the finale, when the heroine finds out that Maxim killed Rebecca, and that they hated each other. The new information is contrary to everything the heroine felt throughout the story, so she happily concludes that Maxim must love her deeply.

The news of her murder brings her happiness and peace of mind; du Maurier gives us a unique plot twist that parodies all conventional romance plots that have come before or after. The heroine’s only concern is with being loved by Maxim, to the extent of overlooking his murderous actions. In this way she is not an inspiring female figure; her preoccupation with romance surpasses her maltreatment present throughout the story. By exaggerating this preoccupation to such a dark end, du Maurier conveys a skeptical stance on marriage as an institution and of romantic expectations in classic literature

For these reasons I feel supported that Rebecca is a feminist text, although the central female is a disempowered pawn in du Maurier’s wider picture. The gloom and intensity of Gothic tools help to pinpoint where power, and therefore where fear, lies

By villainising those who perpetrate silence and violence against women, above all else, du Maurier’s Rebecca exposes a system which suppresses female truth, individuality and emotion. Crucially, with its rose-tinted romanticisation, the Netflix remake fails to do so. 

Further Reading & Viewing
– Dale Townshend, Gothic Antiquity: History, Romance and the Architectural Imagination 1760-1840 (OUP, 2019) pp. 140-142
– Fred Botting, ‘Introduction’, Gothic, (Routledge, 2005) Botting’s writing offers an informative overview of Gothic tropes and motifs in literature across historical periods, good for learning more about the Gothic. 
– Nicholas Royle, The Uncanny, (MUP, 2003) A whole piece could easily be written on the Uncanny in Rebecca, but broadly it is understood as a ‘crisis of the proper’ and a disturbance of one’s understanding of self/own/the familiar.
Rebecca, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1940
– The Independent Armie Hammer and Lily James are like two planks of wood in this dreary, garish Rebecca – review

If you’d like to get in touch with Louise Hartnett, her email address is hartnettlouise@gmail.com. You can also follow her on Instagram @plum_crumbles.

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