Rebecca Maxim and Rebecca: Justifying Murder

In Daphne Du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, the narrator is constantly pitted against the memory of Maxim de Winter’s dead first wife. Over the course of the narrative, she becomes increasingly insecure and preoccupied with Rebecca, ultimately even concluding that Maxim is still in love with her. The narrator’s obsession becomes so pronounced that she nearly commits suicide at Mrs. Danvers’ urging. At the end of the novel, Maxim reveals that he never loved Rebecca and actually even killed her himself. With this revelation, the narrator’s insecurities vanish, and, now confident in Maxim’s love, she can finally assume her position as the true Mrs. De Winter. After a few more twists and turns, the novel ends with all the major conflicts resolved and the narrator and Maxim finally able to move forward from the past.

With Maxim’s revelation about Rebecca, the readers have the sense that the major issue of the novel has been resolved. There is no longer any competition between the narrator and Rebecca: the narrator wins Maxim’s love and ensures a long and loving marriage. Significantly, she never questions whether Maxim was actually justified in killing Rebecca. She readily accepts his explanation of what happened and, after a few moments of shocked silence, is prepared to support Maxim in any way she can. Even her shock seems to be more due to the realization that Maxim never loved Rebecca than the fact that he murdered her.

The narrator is able to accept Maxim’s explanation for murder almost immediately, but it is more difficult for the reader to justify Maxim’s actions as quickly. For one thing, Maxim’s explanation of Rebecca’s “crimes” is disturbingly limited. From the start of his explanation, Maxim emphasizes Rebecca’s negative qualities, describing her as “vicious, damnable, rotten through and through” and “incapable of love, of tenderness, of decency.” He also refers to her frequent indiscretions and love affairs in London. Yet, while these qualities certainly contributed to make Rebecca an immodest, immoral, and unpleasant person, they were hardly justification for murder.

Maxim also refers to their trip to Monte Carlo when he learned the truth about Rebecca’s nature only five days after their wedding. He remembers: “She sat there, laughing, her black hair blowing in the wind; she told me about herself, told me things I shall never repeat to a living soul. I knew then what I had done, what I had married.” These secrets about Rebecca’s life are never revealed; both the reader and the narrator are left to imagine the worst possible crimes for Rebecca to commit. Yet, even after hearing these unspeakable things about his bride, Maxim agrees to stay married to Rebecca in exchange for her making Manderley the “most famous show-place in all the country.” Maxim tells the narrator that he was too proud to divorce Rebecca after only five days of marriage. However, if Rebecca’s past was truly so unspeakable, it is hard to believe that Maxim could have stayed married to her just for the sake of his pride.

Ultimately, Maxim focuses his justification on Rebecca’s immorality and licentiousness. She engaged in constant flings and orgies in the beach cottage and even became pregnant, or so she claimed, with Jack Favell’s child. It is this final evidence of Rebecca’s immodesty -- tangible proof of her extramarital affairs -- that causes Maxim to pull the trigger and kill her in the cottage. Unfortunately, the evidence of Rebecca’s adultery still does not seem to justify Maxim’s decision to shoot her. If brought to a court of law, the marriage would have been dissolved based on adultery, and Rebecca would be no longer welcome in legitimate society.

Du Maurier does not linger on the question of whether or not Maxim was justified in murdering Rebecca. In the end, his actions are nullified by Dr. Baker’s evidence that Rebecca was already dying of cancer. Rebecca merely manipulated Maxim into shooting her, and Maxim is cleared of any wrongdoing. Yet, there is still an uneasy feeling about Maxim’s actions toward Rebecca. While Rebecca was admittedly immoral and insincere during her life, she seemed to engage in no crime other than being sexually liberal and independent. Maxim assumed the role of a judge and, after judging Rebecca, found her to be worthy of death. The reader can only hope that Maxim never feels the need to judge the narrator in the same way.