1938 Rebecca

15 June 2011

This book, by Daphne du Maurier, has been recommended to me several times over the past few years.  I finally got to read it during my 'summer reading' this year.  From start to finish it was nothing like I expected.  Only one thing happened that I can honestly say, 'Well, I saw that coming...'  While it dragged a tiny bit once in a while, I was never tempted to put it down.  (I did skim the descriptions of the rhododendrons, though...) 

This book is called "the classic tale of romantic suspense".  It is not really very romantic in the lovey-dovey sense, but romantic as in improbable and unrealistic; sure.  And suspenseful it certainly is.  But a classic?  Well...

Now please don't get me wrong.  This book is very well-written, very original, very interesting.  It is full of twists and turns, and everything happening is conveyed in such a way as to pull the reader into the world of the main character.  Du Maurier's writing style is perfect for her story, and she uses many writer's effects to great advantage.  But a classic must be more than just technique.  It must have a moral, a principle.  It must widen your point-of-view, deepen your understanding, encourage your purpose, touch your soul, enlighten your mind.  It must give the reader the opportunity to be a better person for having read it.  I don't want much, do I?  But in all seriousness, many of the classics I have read have been just this sort of book, so in that sense, Rebecca was a disappointment.  Terry made the point that different books touch different people.  I agree, but I still fail to understand the popularity of this book as more than just a fun story. 

Rebecca has also been called "one of the greatest shapers of popular culture and the modern imagination".  That may well be true.  Is this why, in our world today, good and evil are taboo?  There's no right and wrong anymore, it's all about finding myself, just being me, being true to myself.  Me, me, me, and there's really not much more to my life than that.  No higher purpose, no cause to serve, no side to fight on.  I don't mean to blame this general outlook on this one book (that would be ridiculous) but if this book has been set upon a pedestal as a symbol of modern thought, then to a certain extent it will have to shoulder some of the responsibility, at least in terms of having something to praise or throw tomatoes at once in a while.  And these ideas and attitudes I've mentioned are very prevalent in this novel.  That doesn't make all of the characters evil; in fact many of them are quite sympathetic despite some substantial character flaws.  

If you look at a Jane Austen novel, even the bad characters are sympathetic and understandable.  Some of them are even quite likable.  People are varying degrees of good in Austen's world.  The 'bad guys' are only such because they are unprincipled; they have had bad training.  Had they a better understanding, then they might have been very good and happy.  In general she presents an optimistic view of mankind.  Rebecca, on the other hand, is full of characters that are differing degrees of selfishness or vice.  It is a fairly dark outlook on human nature.  Even the characters that the reader really likes cannot be excused or even sympathized with in some major aspects of their behavior.  (I'm trying to avoid spoilers, here.)  So is this the point of the book?  Like Lord of the Flies, to teach us that people are by nature evil?  I don't think so...it's not quite that dark.  But the whole story just seems very narrow-minded.  There is never anything of worth to serve higher than the self.  No just cause, no moral good, no big picture.  I'm not saying that a classic novel has to encompass only feel-good ideas.  The Mayor of Casterbridge for example, is a fairly depressing book.  All Quiet on the Western Front is even more so.  No happy endings here.  But aside from their wonderful writing technique, these books are exquisite in their messages, and that is what makes them classics.   

I read a quote in an article recently that made me smile, and I thought it was pretty applicable here:

“Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour ... but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain.”  -Henry David Thoreau (1854)

I've read several reviews in which people compare Rebecca with Jane Eyre.  I will only say that Jane Eyre is what Rebecca could have been had it encompassed some kind of message applicable to mankind and the situations and choices we all face.  As it is, it falls tremendously short.   I know my opinion is quite in the minority here, so please, if you happen to love this book, give me an education and tell me what I've missed.