There are evident intertextual links between Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’ and Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ particularly in their presentation of female oppression within patriarchal societies. Both authors use first-person narration to convey internal conflict, and couple this with the external conflict explored through the themes of class and gender. Whilst Du Maurier uses the first-person narrative to allow the reader a psychological insight into the character’s insecurities, Brontë uses it to describe her own development within the constraints placed upon the protagonist.
Both Brontë and Du Maurier use isolation to create a sense of vulnerability. Brontë creates repressive settings and authoritative characters to segregate Jane and highlight issues of both class and gender. The novel begins during Jane’s childhood, she is orphaned and living with her Aunt and cousins. It is obvious from the start that she is unwelcome and subordinate to those around her. When her cousin, John Reed, discovers Jane reading, he states that “you have no business to take our books, you are dependant, mama says; you have no money” and then “hit” Jane with the book. This immediately outlines the problems that Jane faces due to her class and lack of wealth which reoccurs throughout the novel. The use of the personal pronoun “our”, particularly in contrast with the repetition of “you” demonstrates the detachment between Jane and the other characters. It highlights how Jane is not accepted in their family, even though this is now her home. It also creates an accusatory tone, along with the listing of insults. “Mama says” reiterates the childhood naivety of the bullying yet suggests that even her Aunt treats her as an outsider due to her lack of money. Jane’s inferiority is further reinforced by John Reed demanding that she refers to him as “Master Reed”. Pell (1977) argues that “John Reed’s position as sole male heir gives him an absolute power to harass his dependent female cousin”, due to the patriarchal system of the Victorian society, John Reed’s behaviour could be considered a microcosm of the male domineered society that Jane proceeds to grow up in. In addition, Bronte creates the cold persona of Jane’s Aunt, as the matriarch of the family, whose harsh treatment of Jane is replicated by her son to reflect to top-down hierarchy of society. To evoke sympathy from the reader and demonstrate the harsh reality of the Victorian patriarchal aristocracy, Brontë segregates Jane, making her a vulnerable and isolated character.
Whilst class and gender are prominent issues in both novels, Du Maurier creates a narrator who suffers more due to her own oppressive internal conflicts. The narrator could be considered unreliable: often imagining scenarios and repeatedly guessing the thoughts of others, such as “[Maxim] is thinking about Rebecca”, even though there is very little evidence to prove this. Tormented by the comparison of herself and Rebecca, the unnamed protagonist is burdened by her own anxieties and is constantly criticising herself. Sort (2016) states that the narrator has an “overactive imagination, which consumes her with thoughts and daydreams about things that may have very little basis in reality”. The underlying gender and class issues that are apparent at the start of the novel could suggest, contrary to Sort, that the protagonist’s worries do have “basis in reality”. The novel begins in Monte Carlo, an affluent city in Monaco that attracts wealthy tourists. The narrator is an orphan who is both physically remote from her home in England and culturally out of place due to her low status. She is working as a paid companion for Mrs Van Hopper and describes her life as “hung like a thread upon the quality of [Mrs Van Hopper’s]”. This creates the undertone of class issues for the rest of the novel, in particular when she transcends the boundaries after marrying above her status. For this reason, it can be argued that the protagonist’s paranoia and tendency to hyperbolise situations is understandable. The protagonist’s “overactive imagination” isolates her, creating her own internal obstacles. After she borrows a “book of poems” from Maxim and inside reads the words “Max – from Rebecca. 17 May”, “written in a curious slanting hand”, she becomes haunted by the idea of Rebecca. She is absorbed within her own thoughts and convinces herself that she is inferior to Rebecca, and she feels like an unwelcome replacement. This becomes so overpowering that she struggles to even talk about Rebecca, and when she does there is a tone of relief, stating that the word “wife” had “hovered on [her] tongue for days”. Du Maurier’s use of a timid, young narrator could be seen as ironic. Her youth and innocence allow the reader to sympathise with her, as her self-conscious persona can be read as naivety. It is ironic that despite her inexperience, she is perhaps the most aware of the societal pressures placed upon her, of all the characters. Her insecurities and jealousy stem from the expectations placed upon women to conform to within the setting of the 1930’s patriarchy and changing aristocracy.
In both novels, patriarchy and nobility are symbolised by estates and grand houses. These serve to heighten the distinction in class of the protagonists and the characters around them. The five stages of Jane’s narrative are indicated by the edifices, “Gateshead Hall”; “The Lowood Institute”; “Thornfield Hall”; “Moor House” and “Ferndean Manor”, and the grandeur of these highlight her own insignificance. The name “Eyre” has ephemeral connotations of fleeting and drifting, but also suggests intangibility. Similarly, “Jane” has connotations of being plain and simple and can refer to a lack of status. The simplicity of her name highly contrasts with the stateliness of the titles of these establishments. ‘Jane Eyre’ begins at “Gateshead Hall”, which could be a metaphor for “Gates” of imprisonment. Brontë explores both physical and mental oppression of Jane whilst she resides in “Gateshead”. Jane is locked in the “Red Room” as well as being ostracised due to her class. “The Lowood Institute” and “Thornfield Hall” both have patriarchal connotations due to their impressive names, whereas “The Moor House” is much more remote and less ostentatious than the previous settings, which could reflect the peace and tranquillity that Jane is experiencing for the first time. “Ferndean Manor” is the last key location and it is where Jane and Mr Rochester are reunited, however, it can be argued that here they are more equal than before. Jane has now transcended the class boundaries, after her inheritance, and Mr Rochester is isolated in “Ferndean Manor”, since “Thornfield Hall” burned down. In addition, due to Mr Rochester’s blindness, he must depend on Jane and therefore not only are their positions in society altered, their role in relation to one another has changed. An impressive yet secluded estate, is often an archetypal motif of the Gothic genre, as the magnitude of the house contrasts with the isolated character, emphasising the sense of seclusion and entrapment. Once it is revealed that Bertha is physically trapped in the attic, “Thornfield Hall” becomes a symbol of oppression.
Similarly, Du Maurier uses the “Manderley estate” as a symbol of wealth, power and tradition and it represents the nobility that the protagonist is marrying into. In addition, it is a physical reminder of Rebecca, as she decorated the house and designed the gardens, further emphasising how incongruous the narrator feels. The servants, in particular Mrs Danvers, intensify the protagonist’s sense of being an unwelcome replacement of Rebecca. The protagonist is not only new to Manderley, but due to her lack of status prior to marrying Maxim, she is new to the world of nobility. This emphasises her own insignificance and enhances her own internal oppression. The protagonist had previously heard of Manderley: “as a child” she had bought “a picture postcard” of the estate. This highlights how Manderley represents title and has an identity of its own, which is ironic as we never discover the name of the protagonist.
From the start, there is an imbalance of power, not only is Rebecca the eponymous character, rather than the protagonist, but the protagonist is never even given a name. The protagonist is oppressed by the constant reminder of Rebecca, which Du Maurier reinforces to the reader by concealing the name of the protagonist in contrast. Du Maurier creates a constant overshadowing of the protagonist, as reminders of Rebecca are everywhere. Referring to ‘Rebecca’ as “A Study in Jealousy” (A. Horner, 1998), Du Maurier was inspired by her own life. After discovering love letters addressed to her husband, from Jeannette “Jan” Ricardo, who he was briefly engaged to, Du Maurier was made aware of her own shortcomings as a wife. Ricardo, like Rebecca, was associated with modernity and glamour, whilst Du Maurier struggled with her own identity, which could parallel the protagonist’s lack of one. The only name that becomes associated with the protagonist is Mrs de Winter, once she is married. However, as the late wife of Maxim, Rebecca was also Mrs de Winter, demonstrating further the narrator’s lack of identity. Rebecca’s presence is only emphasised more, and the narrator is unable to free herself from her insecurities of replacing her and struggle to live up to her. The self-scrutiny of the narrator stems from the idealistic image of Rebecca that she has, her insecurities and jealousy are only heightened whenever she hears her name. As the only name connected with the narrator is Mrs de Winter, it could be argued that the narrator’s own identity is completely diminished and commandeered by her husband as she, from then on, goes by his name. This portrays the lack of female power and the oppression of female identity within the patriarchal society. In addition, the reader learns that the protagonist has a “a lovely and unusual name”, which she responds to with ‘My father was a lovely and unusual person.’ The lack of female influence on her name represents the patriarchal view of women as subordinate to men.
Due to the misogynistic and oppressive beliefs of the patriarchal society of the Victorian era, there was a lot of pressure on women to fulfil certain expectations, such as being the ‘perfect’, submissive wife. However, in ‘Jane Eyre’, Brontë contradicts these expectations, having Jane refuse to marry Rochester once she learns of his marriage to Bertha. He questions, “You are going, Jane?” and “You are leaving me?”, signifying how their roles have reversed. His questioning emphasises his loss of power and submission to Jane. Although Jane returns to Rochester at the end of novel, this is ultimately her own decision. Women were expected to be passive and subservient to men and by Brontë contradicting this and having Jane make the final decision, she is bringing to light the fundamental gender issues of Victorian society.
Published over 90 years later, ‘Rebecca’, with clear influences of ‘Jane Eyre’, also explores societal expectations of women. However, written in the 1930s, these views were evolving. The suffragette movement became prominent in early 20th century, with women obtaining the vote two decades prior to the novel’s publication, perhaps, Du Maurier was exploring the changes role of women in society. The struggle to be the “perfect wife” is a strain that is caused by the misogynistic patriarchal society and although the protagonist does not outwardly battle against the oppression inflicted on her, she has clear insecurities and internal struggles of trying to fulfil the duties of a ‘perfect wife’. The character Rebecca is representative of the idealistic wife, a point of comparison for the narrator to compare herself to. highlighting the still apparent sexism through rivalry between women over a man. This demonstrates the narrator’s lack of identity, as well as inability to conform to the role she has been entitled.
In both novels, the ‘hero’s’ former wife poses as a threat to the happiness of the protagonist and the ‘hero’. However, many modern, feminist readings of the text emphasise the oppression of these female characters. Bertha, Mr Rochester’s first wife, and Rebecca, Max de Winter’s former wife, both lack their own narrative. Their version of events is told by the biased former husband and they are both villainised. Due to neither of them complying with the conventions of society, they are persecuted, and their voices silenced. Rebecca’s promiscuous, immoral actions are presented in the novel as evil, due to the conservative Christian beliefs of the era. She becomes almost a femme fatale archetype, allowing the reader to sympathise for her husband, Maxim as though he is the victim. Mrs Danvers claims that Rebecca should have been “born a boy”, demonstrating Rebecca’s lack of ideal femininity. This brings to question Maxim’s idealistic traditional views on femininity. This could be referring to Rebecca’s independent and self-ruling personality. Du Maurier could be demonstrating how, for men, this behaviour was more acceptable as they had vast amounts of freedom, in comparison to women. When Maxim confesses to the murder of Rebecca, the protagonist feels a sense of relief, comparing her “heart” to a “feather floating in the air”, because “Maxim had never loved Rebecca”. The protagonist’s self-centred personality makes her ignorant to the wider issues. She is so focused on her insecurities that she is oblivious to the horror of what her husband has confessed to. Due to Du Maurier’s use of first-person narrative, the reader is absorbed in the protagonist’s own perspective, diverging from the bigger picture. However, a modern reader might be more inclined to question whether Rebecca’s actions gave Maxim the right to kill her, or perhaps, Du Maurier was highlighting how women who defied the traditionalist patriarchy and challenged the power struggles they were under, were treated. Mr Rochester is presented as the victim as he is metaphorically ‘trapped’ by his wife, as he is unable to marry Jane due to still being married to Bertha, who is mentally unstable. However, Bertha is physically restrained in the attic, (Sort, 2016) who Jane describes as “creature”, a “wild animal” and a “beast”. The use of animal imagery dehumanises her, because of the lack of acknowledgement for the mentally ill in the Victorian society.
To conclude, Du Maurier’s use the first-person narrative to demonstrate the insecurities of the narrator caused by the pressures of women in society. Jane suffers oppression from those around her, as a child and is isolated due to her class and gender. She manages to overcome these obstacles in her life and eventually gains independence and the power to make her own decisions. Whereas, Du Maurier creates a protagonist who is so desperate to overcome her isolation and be loved, she ultimately submits to the patriarchal system. Du Maurier was influenced by Brontë yet still felt that issues of role of women were prevalent over 90 years later, highlighting how gender inequality is an ongoing issue. Du Maurier and Bronte both demonstrate the prevalent female oppression in their own societies use their work to explore how women react under these societal pressures.
- A. Horner, S. Z. (1998). Daphne du Maurier: writing, identity and the gothic imagination.
- Light, A. (n.d.). ‘Returning to Manderley’: Romance Fiction, Female Sexuality and Class.
- Pell, N. (1977). Resistance, Rebellion, and Marriage: The Economics of Jane Eyre . Nineteenth-Century Fiction.
- Sort, M. I. (2016). The Silenced Voice of the Madwoman in the Attic.