- "The Deceptively Strategic Narrator of Rebecca"
Since 1982, a rich body of criticism has emerged on Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, often arguing against the perception of the novel as merely a popular vehicle of entertainment. Scholars have found value in its revision of the Cinderella or Bluebeard tale (with Jane Eyre as its signal predecessor), its re-analysis of the Oedipal drama, its treatment of the feminine masquerade, its queerness, its Gothicism, its critique of gender, nation, and class, and more.1 Most critics pay sharp attention to the transformation that the narrator describes herself undergoing as she wrestles with her identity at Manderley, first threatened by, and then desiring to become Rebecca, until Maxim opens the door to his past, which enables her to claim her new present: "I am Mrs. de Winter now" (295). There has been little discussion of the narrator's representation of her earlier, pre-Manderley self at Monte Carlo, or, more surprisingly, any narratological analysis of the older narrator's reliability in insistently characterizing herself, at the age of 21, as a powerless, innocent young woman. This essay views that characterization as a deliberately deceptive instance of dual focalization, or a situation in which "the perceptions of two agents are communicated simultaneously," the most relevant being when "character narration involves a narrator perceiving his former self's perceptions," as James Phelan proposes in Living to Tell about It (215).
Scholars tend to take the narrator's characterization of her younger self at face value, sometimes underscoring that credulity by calling her "the [End Page 223] girl" (Light, Harbord, Simons), the "girl-wife" (Nollen 145), "the newly wedded girl" (Ferreira 229), or "the innocent, girlish protagonist" (Chow 147). Most see her as a "timid childlike creature" (Meyers 34), a "naïve, orphaned heroine" (Ferreira 235), who is "frightened, unknowing, and powerless" (Jagose 358), "virtuous" (Auerbach 121), "timid" (Habermann), and "unwitting" (Horner and Zlosnik 117)—although Maurel is an exception in wondering "whether she plays the role of the child" (105). Nonetheless, given du Maurier's creation of a narrator who projects elaborate fantasies, frames multiple episodes as theatrical performances, frequently alludes to games, and persistently refrains from revealing her "lovely and unusual" first name (24), this character begs to be regarded as a classic unreliable narrator.2 While Nina Auerbach suggests that the narrator conceals her first name, and "blocks our reading of her because she spends most of her time trying vainly to read her still more inscrutable husband" (121), she more likely means to make herself inscrutable. Like all first-person or internally focalized narrators, she filters the details of her story; moreover, as she produces her confessional memoir, she engages in paralipsis, or omission, to exonerate her questionable actions in Monte Carlo, in Manderley, and in exile, generating what Phelan describes as a "bonding unreliability" through her underreporting or misreporting, which reduces the distance between herself and her readers ("Estranging Unreliability" 223). She also makes sure to represent characters who cast doubt on her reliability as so odious that crediting their contrasting perspectives becomes impossible: Mrs. Van Hopper, with her with "small pig's eyes" (10), Jack Favell, whose mouth is "too soft, too pink" (161), or Mrs. Danvers, with her "skull's face, parchment-white, set on a skeleton's frame" (67).
The few critics who query the narrator's trustworthiness point to her false consciousness, her belief in a cultural narrative that promotes bourgeois femininity—what Monika Fludernik terms "ideological unreliability" (76–77) and Dorrit Cohn terms "discordant narration" (307). Alison Light sees the narrator as "a kind of Ancient Mariner of her story of middle-class femininity, as much the victim as the producer of its fictionality" (18); Auba Llompart Pons states that the narrator is unreliable because "she attempts to trick the reader into believing her story is an ideal romance" (81); and Nicola Watson notes that while the text asks "readers to identify unproblematically with the heroine via first-person narration," the [End Page 224] narrator's willingness to cover up Rebecca's murder as part of "romance's investment in marriage . . . solicits the alert reader to stand slightly awry to the...