Go here for an introduction to the Wheelhouse Project. This post contains spoilers for Daphne de Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca and minor spoilers for Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers (2019).
Character may be the widest story doorway for me. We’ve already clarified that Story/Plot moves me less than the others. And while I often enjoy books heavy on Setting or filled with stunning Language, I will be more drawn-in by any of these other Doorways if they appear in service to dynamic characters.
Daphne de Maurier’s Rebecca makes for an interesting case study as one of its most vital characters is dead throughout, her presence lingering despite her absence. In Rebecca the unnamed narrator—a sensitive young woman without money or prospects—chances to meet the wealthy and recently widowed Maxim de Winter. They woo and marry, and he takes her home to his family estate, Manderley. There she feels subsumed by de Winter’s tragically dead wife, Rebecca, in everything from the furnishings to the social schedule to the spooky housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers.
As no one but Mrs. Danvers will speak of Rebecca, the narrator finds herself filling in her own mental portrait of her predecessor: beautiful, vivacious, fashionable, socially skilled, beloved, brave, sophisticated. In short, Rebecca appears to be everything the narrator is not, and she begins to question whether Maxim, or anyone else on the estate, can really love her when compared to Rebecca.
When considering what to write about Rebecca, I contemplated something about the literary history of trusted, perhaps untrustworthy housekeepers and other female caretakers, particularly those with ties to a former wife. Think Grace Poole of Jane Eyre or Nelly Dean of Wuthering Heights. These figures know where the bodies are (or are not) buried, figuratively and literally, and the text often views them with suspicion for the power they wield even from a subservient position. Mrs. Danvers similarly tries to protect the past from the present, obsessively sustaining her memories of Rebecca and being one of the only people who does not see Rebecca’s purported monstrousness.
From another perspective, the novel evinces a cultural dismay over the inevitable decline of the landed gentry. But rather than situate that dismay on the white, straight men who ran that world, it locates its anxiety on the corrupted and corrupting dead-wife. Rebecca functions as a symbol for the evils of the modern world, what with her lovers and solo sailing and jazz and what-not. The unnamed narrator comes from outside but with her innocence and simplicity she suggests a revitalizing source that does not get the chance to return Manderley to its glory due to Mrs. Danvers’ pyromaniacal response to Rebecca’s murder.
And so I realized that Rebecca contains two “round” and two “flat” central characters, to use the E. M. Forster designations. Mrs. Danvers fascinates but she’s too simplistically attached to the memory of Rebecca to have much depth. And Maxim mostly functions to move plot and act as a cypher for the narrator to misinterpret.
The ways that the narrator misinterprets her husband, however, provide deep insight into her, and into the chasms that arise between people when guesswork overtakes honesty and connection. Indeed, the whole novel is full of these interpersonal misunderstandings, like people looking at a map or a roadsign and selecting the exact wrong interpretation of the available information. Despite their detours, the narrator and de Winter ultimately get back on the same road. They do not get there in time, however, to save Manderley.
And of course it is Rebecca who appears as the other fully-developed character. Yes, Rebecca is slippery and difficult the pin down. She veers from tragic to haunting to vile to tragic throughout the course of the novel. But I would argue that this very dynamism makes Rebecca a complex and vital character. The most fleshed out characters are rarely easy to define or understand. Their complexity makes them mirrors of the complexity of the human experience, the variability and indefinability that exits within us all, and of the impossibility of ever fully understanding another human being.
If you will allow me a brief digression, I also want to discuss Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers (2019). This beautiful, thought-provoking novel tells of a mysterious illness of unshakeable sleep that overtakes a small college town in California. It begins in a dorm but does not stay there, spreading through the student body and into the residents of this small community. The red-flags of global warming—drought, bark beetles, wildfire—hang in the background, reminders that we respond better to fast crises than slow ones.
This is a novel of many characters, a slow burn of vignettes revealing more and more about each person, their families, and their circumstances before the flame reaches the end and first one, then another, and then another succumbs to the sleeping sickness. This stone-skip approach provides a different sort of entry point into characters than does the more traditional, sparsely cast Rebecca. Walker plays with our expectations for the primacy or longevity of central characters, giving us an array of persons, many of whom will fall into the illness. As with Rebecca, characters propel the narrative of The Dreamers but they do so as an ensemble, painting a different kind of picture of the human condition.