One of the key elements of a Gothic text is the use of characters who are discussed without being physically present. This blog will examine the role that absent women have played in controlling the plots of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. These texts have been chosen to demonstrate that the climaxes of the plots in these novels reveal how former lovers of a main character met their demise, and thus how these female characters have inextricably damaged the personality of these broken men.
Retrospect and Secrets
In the opening lines of Rebecca, the new Mrs de Winter notes that she believes ‘men and women emerge finer and stronger after suffering, and that to advance in this or any world we must endure ordeal by fire’ (du Maurier, p. 5). While this foreshadows the tale recalled in the text regarding the troubles faced by the de Winters, it draws the reader into the plot and the absent force Rebecca de Winter has on her former home, even after death. This can also be seen in Shadow of the Wind, as from the beginning of the novel Daniel is asked to keep secrets that he does not appear to fully understand the consequences of. The fact that he asks if ‘not even Mummy’ (Ruiz Zafon, p. 1) can know about the Cemetery of Forgotten Books highlights his innocence and youth, which contrasts the keeping of such an important secret, as well as stresses the fact that his mother is physically absent due to her death some years previously. Indeed, it has been noted by Daniel Olson that many of the families portrayed in The Shadow of the Wind have ‘either a dead or an ineffectual mother, and the hero’s journey of maturation is also a recovery of the mother figure’ (Olson, p. 533). The fact that even Penelope, the enigma in the mystery that Daniel tries to solve over the course of the novel, is a mother to a child that is a product of her incestuous relationship with Julian Carax suggests that absent mothers are fundamental to the Gothic genre, as they are unable to guide their children as they would have in life.
A still from the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock adaptation of Rebecca. Mrs de Winter is portrayed by Joan Fontaine, while the evil Mrs Danvers is depicted by Judith Anderson.
Messages from Beyond the Grave
The absent Rebecca, who is the namesake of du Maurier’s novel, is introduced through gossip relating to her suspicious death. Mrs Van Hopper notes that her death was ‘an appalling tragedy’ that garnered a lot of media attention (du Maurier, p. 36). The fact that she states that her widower, Maxim, ‘never talks about it’ before discussing that ‘she was drowned you know, in the bay near Manderley…’ (du Maurier, p. 36) suggests that Mr de Winter is heartbroken by the loss of his wife, which immediately makes the new Mrs de Winter become paranoid with the belief that she will never fill the void left by his first wife. The climax reveals that Maxim does not speak of Rebecca’s death because he played a part in it, which provides a sense of relief for the new Mrs de Winter.
This is similar to the revelation of the relationship between Julian and Penelope by Sophie; she repeatedly states that ‘she knows’ (Ruiz Zafon, p. 392), which helps to build the suspense as the reader joins Daniel in trying to piece together the information subtly mentioned over the previous pages, before confirming that Julian and Penelope were, in fact, brother and sister as well as lovers. As seen in Crimson Peak in the previous blog, incest is an incredibly taboo topic that is discussed in only a handful of Gothic texts. However, it soon becomes clear that Julian and Penelope were not aware of their sibling status when they originally consummated their relationship. Nonetheless, the announcement is still shocking for both the reader and Daniel. It has been argued by Daniel Olson that the relationship Julian once had with Penelope bears a close resemblance to Daniel and Bea’s bond as both couples have a connection that is overshadowed by the ‘tyranny of a father’ (Olson, p. 535). This doubling is important in explaining why the truth of Penelope and Julian’s association must be uncovered by Daniel before he can be truly happy with Bea, as it is imperative that he does not allow Bea to face the same fate as Penelope.
The new Mrs de Winter becomes increasingly obsessed with the legacy of Rebecca, as she feels haunted by the first Mrs de Winter’s presence. She describes this feeling, stating that:
‘I was following a phantom in my mind, whose shadowy form had taken shape at last. Her features were blurred, her colouring indistinct, the setting of her eyes and the texture of her hair was still uncertain, still to be revealed’ (du Maurier, p. 47).
The fact that the new Mrs de Winter feels as if Rebecca is constantly present despite being deceased suggests that Rebecca’s spirit remains manifested in the house, and until her apparition is removed from Manderley the newlyweds cannot truly be happy. The fact that Rebecca’s features are intentionally left ambiguous by du Maurier is important, as it allows the reader to identify their own version of Rebecca using their imagination. In adaptations of the novel, this has generally been followed by the director in order to add to the suspense and uncertainty surrounding Rebecca.
As shown in adaptations, the new Mrs de Winter feels clumsy and claustrophobic in her new home: she is nothing more than a tourist who does not belong in this ancient, aristocratic abode.
Indeed, it appears that the new Mrs de Winter feels as if she is nothing more than a visitor to Manderley rather than its new mistress. She notes that the study dedicated to the lady of the house does not contain anything personal and she feels claustrophobic ‘sitting in Rebecca’s chair’ and ‘leaning against Rebecca’s cushion’ (du Maurier, p. 87). Compared to the apparently-perfect Rebecca, Mrs de Winter appears inexperienced and clumsy; after her first interaction with Maxim, she notes that ‘I wished he were less remote; and I anything but the creature that I was in my shabby coat and skirt, my broad-brimmed school-girl hat’ (du Maurier, p. 35). This implies her anxieties are caused by her own insecurities about Rebecca, thus emphasising the importance of absent women in the Gothic genre. According to Gina Wisker, the imagery and characteristics displayed by the young Mrs de Winter are ‘vampiric’ as she ‘feeds off Rebecca’s memory’ (Wisker, p. 91). This is an interesting argument, as it reinforces the view that Mrs de Winter has become obsessed with her predecessor.
Manderley is a crucial element of the plot as it harbours the ghost of Rebecca as well as the malevolent Mrs Danvers, a former ally and maidservant of Rebecca, who has a vendetta against the new Mrs de Winter. According to Maria Perez Cuervo, Gothic manors, no matter how aesthetically pleasing they may seem to their new inhabitants, are ‘never safe havens’; on the contrary, they are prisons designed to ‘oppress their inhabitants until they lose their sanity and commit atrocities’ (Perez Cuervo, Online). The mysterious settings of the novels are key to the plots as they harbour the secrets of the former inhabitants and provide clues to the reader to foreshadow the climaxes of the novels.
Mrs Danvers herself is an equally important character, as she attempts to preserve the legacy of Rebecca de Winter while simultaneously portraying the role of the antagonist for the new Mrs de Winter. The exact details of Mrs Danvers’ relationship with Rebecca are left intentionally ambiguous, although it is quite apparent that Mrs Danvers had a ‘necrophilic, grotesque and sexually ambiguous’ (Morden, p. 24) association with her now-deceased employer. Her fixation on Rebecca, much like the manic accomplices housed in earlier Gothic novels, is cumulated by her decision to persuade the new Mrs de Winter to dress the same as Rebecca had to a costume ball. It appears Mrs Danvers is utilising her mania to emphasise that the new Mrs de Winter is not worthy of the title as she will never be able to replace the seemingly perfect Rebecca.
A still from the 1997 adaptation of Rebecca. This version emphasises the youth and inexperience of Emilia Fox’s Mrs de Winter by contrasting her clothing with that of the ghost of Rebecca.
The Impact of their Absence and Aftermath
The relief portrayed by the voice of Mrs de Winter when retrospectively writing about her ordeal is apparent in her statement that ‘the devil does not ride us any more’ (du Maurier, p. 5). It appears that, by the end of the novel the de Winters are finally at peace with what has occurred and Rebecca’s ‘damned shadow’ (du Maurier, p. 297) can no longer keep the de Winters from one another. According to Auba Llompart Pons, Rebecca embodies the qualities of ‘the other’ for Maxim, as ‘she was promiscuous, rebellious, adulterous and possibly lesbian or bisexual’ (Llompart Pons, p. 73). This emphasises why she is key to the plot of the novel: her differences are what results in her demise as well as what torments her replacement.
An alternative view is that gothic narratives ‘deal with the dangers women suffer under the patriarchal control of their husbands’ (Llompart Pons, p. 69). It has also been argued that, in summary, Rebecca is a story that follows a ‘man’s struggle to preserve patriarchal order at all costs, even if this means committing murder’ (Llompart Pons, p. 81) rather than a novel focusing on the paranoia and anxiety felt by a woman who is overshadowed by her own preconceived image of the ‘perfect’ spouse that her precursor is viewed as being. This viewpoint continues to highlight the importance of the absent female figure in the novel while simultaneously exploring deep-rooted issues surrounding patriarchal concerns regarding cosmopolitan women.
This can also be seen in The Shadow of the Wind, as Daniel is also haunted by ghostly, absent female figures. He states that:
‘In my dreams the hooded figure of Death rode over Barcelona, a ghostly apparition that hovered above the towers and roofs, trailing black ropes that held hundreds of small white coffins. The coffins left behind them their trail of black flowers, on whose petals, written in blood, was the name Nuria Montfort’ – (Ruiz Zafon, p. 361).
The fact that he is being haunted by Death prior to his discovery of Penelope and Julian’s relationship foreshadows the realisation that Penelope died as a result of her actions with Julian as well as emphasising the darkness that has enveloped Daniel’s life as a result of the many secrets he is forced to keep. It has been argued by Daniel Olson that the ‘sins of the males’ are dramatized in the novel by the sexual exploitation and domination of the women discussed. Olson further contends that ‘a woman who indulges in a sexual relationship outside of marriage must face rejection, isolation, violence or any combination of these’ (Olson, p. 533), as displayed by the destruction of Penelope. It appears that both of the novels explore the demise of absent women in order to round the plot, while at the same time exploring the sexual exploitation of women and the double standards of the sexes.
To conclude, absent women are vital to the plot of many Gothic novels as they add mystery, terror and suspense to the novel. Despite no longer being alive, they are important in revealing the secrets of the past as well as providing high levels of suspense for the reader. It is interesting that women are generally chosen for this task by their authors; perhaps the variety of different roles held by women in society enable a number of areas and subplots to be explored.
du Maurier, Daphne, Rebecca, London: Virago, 2003.
Hitchcock, Alfred, Rebecca, Selznick International Pictures, 1940.
Llompart Pons, Auba, ‘Patriarchal Hauntings: Re-Reading Villainy and Gender in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca’, Atlantis, Vol. 35, (2013), pp. 69-83.
Morden, Barbara, ‘The Gothick Experience’, English Review, Vol. 26, (2015), pp. 22- 25.
O’Brien, Jim, Rebecca, ITV/PBS, 1997.
Olson, Daniel, 21st Century Gothic, Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2011.
Ruiz Zafon, Carlos, The Shadow of the Wind, London: Orion, 2005.
Wisker, Gina, ‘Dangerous Borders: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca: Shaking the Foundations of the Romance of Privilege, Partying and Place’, Journal of Gender Studies, Vol. 12, (2003), pp. 83-97.
Perez Cuervo, Maria 2016. ‘The Return of Gothic Romance’, MJP Cuervo, at: https://mjpcuervo.com/2016/03/26/the-return-of-gothic-romance/ (Accessed 7th April 2017).