Whats in a name? Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

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First published in 1938, Rebecca, was Daphne du Maurier’s fifth novel. Since then it has rebeccabeen translated into twenty languages. It has never been out of print and boasts sales of almost four thousand copies a month (source: Telegraph.co.uk). It continues to enthral and fascinate readers as much now as it did in the Twentieth Century.

A multi-faceted story it contains, I believe, all the elements of a great plot: adultery, identity, jealousy, murder and mystery. It is the story of four: two female antagonists, one man and the edifice that is Manderley.  It is the first du Maurier story I have read, and it is the first story where I encountered a nameless narrator. It is for this reason that Rebecca continues to haunt me.

Our very identities are wrapped up in our names. They are crucial to developing our sense our self, and bear heavily on who we think we are, and, is normally one of the first things we wish to learn of another.  Interestingly, in Rebecca, we are told that our heroine’s name is ‘lovely and unusual’ a name given to her by her father.  However, throughout the story, she is only ever identified as Mrs de Winter; a name given to her in matrimony by another man: her husband.  A man, Maxim de Winter, who upholds the patriarchal and class societal rules of his time. Both in the giving and in the taking, our narrator cannot embrace the one thing that may aid in steering her to a sense of who she is: her name. As a result, she willingly assumes the role of the second wife and is further erased and swallowed up in an archaic tradition. A tradition where rules are to be obeyed, a definite code of conduct is enforced, and the best that a wife can do is go along with it.

In the absence of any real sense of her own identity, it is not surprising then that our nameless narrator becomes gripped and fixated on the former, dead, first wife. The eponymous Rebecca. The woman who she believes to be the epitome of womanhood. The woman who she feels ‘…might come back into the room and she would see me there, sitting before her open drawer, which I had no right to touch’. Rebecca is the yardstick from which she appraises her inadequacies. Rebecca, she comes to believe, was everything she herself is not: a wonderful wife, beautiful, the perfect lady for Manderley. In choosing to keep the narrator nameless, Du Maurier creates a device which I believe puts the two antagonists in direct conflict.

Rebecca, though, did not follow the rules. She was rebellious, and dared to live her life as she saw fit ‘seizing life with her two hands’ and not how her controlling husband or society wanted.  She did though pay the ultimate price: death. The second Mrs de Winter allows the ghost of the former wife to haunt her.  She recognises that Rebecca’s rebellious nature was not acceptable behaviour for a woman of that time, however she remains undecided, ambivalent almost and I believe by not forcing herself to decide, a sort of admiration for Rebecca creeps in. But are they so different?  Both women have been taken to their husband’s seat: Manderley.  Both have in their own attempts tried to make it their home too.  They are both expected to conform to the strict societal norms, and conduct themselves in a prescribed manner which their stern husband expects and enforces. While it may seem that these women are polar opposites in manner and style, I think it is their crucial reactions that set them apart. Our narrator, succumbs to her husband and society, prepared to leave her identity behind forever. She chooses to believe rather than to question her husband about the real facts of his first wife’s death. After all his version must be the correct one, a man of his class would surely not deceive her. Rebecca, however fights all the way. She has broken all the rules of conduct, she was not afraid to disobey or question those rules, or more importantly the rule makers. She is Rebecca. Who is our narrator to become if she does not take charge of her own life? What type of life will she lead if she allows herself to be subsumed by everyone and everything around her?

An expert, du Maurier sums up the presence of a dead wife, through the obsession of another. She holds out a mirror where both women can look at themselves but also one another. Rebecca, in death assumes the role of a genius loci for Manderley. Her sense of otherness elevates the edifice even further, taking ownership of the once male province. I believe because she lived how she saw fit, never relinquishing her identity, she will live on. In the end Manderley will ultimately be hers.  We witness her rebellion and respond with empathy. We witness her revolt against the traditions that tie her down.   We admire her for being herself.

Our narrator, on the other hand, follows her husband into exile leaving any chance of ever finding herself behind.  She reverts to what she started out as, a paid companion, this time for a domineering man. By choosing to not force herself to ask the right questions she remains subservient in thought and action, she becomes the woman who fades away from us.  In the end it is, I believe, it is our nameless narrator who dies.

Daphne de Maurier has played with our emotions throughout this gripping tale. Which of the women deserves our sympathy? Who has really died? Who continues to live? The perils of not knowing oneself are as valid in the Twenty First Century as they were in the 1938 and I am reminded of that famous quote by Shakespeare: ‘To thine own self be true’.

Rebecca’s haunting prevails.

 

 

 

Indiana Jones and Me

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image: empireonline.com

image: empireonline.com

In four weeks time I will sit a significant exam. If successful the trajectory of my life will change. How do I feel? Like Indiana Jones has showed up at my front door and insisted I accompany him on his next hair raising, whip-cracking adventure.  Tut tut, you say. Surely I must know that I will be in good hands with Professor Jones? Yes, but what if I let him down? What if I can’t live up to his lofty expectations or meet his exacting needs? What if, due to my lack of experience in the trusted role of side-kick, our quest fails? I’m not much good with water, hate heights and deciphering ancient hieroglyphics certainly is not my forte. The dangers and risks are many: the likelihood of failure too great. I could, of course, just explain all of this to Indiana. He’s a reasonable guy.  Hey, he’ll say, we’ll do this together and with a wink he’ll whisk me into action. He too has his fears: snakes.

My fear of failure, especially in exams, stems from my experiences in the classrooms of my youth. I remember when we, students of varying intellectual capabilities, competed with each other either for good grades or other rewards. Plus ça change. I can still see the faces of my opponents: the intelligent girls, the very smart girls, and those including me, who hovered precariously above the range known as average.  As an adolescent I hated the locale of average; it made me feel like I had fallen short somehow: never quite clever enough: ordinary.   Average wormed its way through me and nibbled away at any hopes I ever had for myself. Dare attempt to raise my little average self above the parapet, aim my arrow a little higher, a little further, a little to the left, or a little the right: Heaven forbid. So, I did what any good descent average person would do: I stepped back and let those unreasonable goals to the intelligent and very clever girls. At least my dignity remained intact.

Among the faces of the eighties there were the teachers who encouraged (a handful) and those who were adept in the art of beating away any semblance of confidence in a student like me; back then it was called getting too big in your boots. So, to acknowledge their unwavering dedication for knocking as much of the good stuff out of me as possible, I would like to propose a toast: To the teacher who snapped the foolscap essay copy from me on Monday mornings, certain (without even reading) that what I presented was average: To the teacher who insisted on leaving my copy book at the bottom of the pile: To the teacher who gave me a thump in the shoulder when I accidentally sewed the hem of my skirt (a class project, that sent the fear of God into us!) crooked. Our brown and peach (I know!) uniform lacked a vital, but very necessary component; one, I believe that should have been compulsory: a cuirass.

Should any of you be still teaching: Note Bene: Confidence and self-esteem in adolescence responds to the above with a sickening thud.

We live in an inherently competitive and cut-throat culture. From early childhood we pit child against child in the classroom. We raise children who believe that in order to succeed they must be the best, the brightest: brilliant.  We score their achievements: A, B, C, D. We say things like “could do better”, or the ubiquitous “needs to try harder”. No wonder most children are exhausted by the age of twelve.  They are trying harder all the time at subjects their brains are not hard-wired for; subjects that they will never, no matter how much time and energy they pour into, excel at. Outside the classroom, we take it another step: What team sports do you play? What hobbies do you have? Who has given up chocolate for Lent? Who is doing extra Maths after school? Do you attend camp during school holidays? Which ones? It goes on and on…As a society we are placing extraordinary pressure on these young children. Yes, I do know as adults we must prepare our children for the world and adulthood. But, what about just leaving them alone to just be? Allow them to tap into their inner selves and discover who they are? What about teaching children about citizenship? What does being a citizen really mean?  It’s hard been a kid. It always has been.

When I was fourteen years old I had to sit a very important (teacher’s words) exam in Chemistry.  If I did not pass this exam, the likelihood was that I would not be able to sit Chemistry for my Intermediate Cert (aka Inter Cert).  Up to that point, I was barely keeping my head above water; picture a solider fording a river, rifle held high.  The truth was I never wanted to study Chemistry, but the class I found myself in was orientated very much towards the science subjects. I tried to prove Chemistry wrong. I could beat it.  I would be successful and win.  I studied hard. I asked questions. I remembered the answers.

The day came, a Wednesday, and into the lab I went.  I took my seat at the bench and waited for our teacher to appear.  She didn’t.  A tall, lanky young fellow walked into the lab and announced he would be our sub for a few weeks; our teacher was ill. At first, I was relieved: no test. But then, this young sprat went on to say that he knew we were to be tested that day.  He turned his back to the class and proceeded to write two questions on the blackboard (it was 1987!). I watched his long letters appear on the board, and as his words formed, I wrote the questions into my test book.  And then it happened.  The questions on the board were not the questions I had studied. I couldn’t believe it.  I knew I was finished: Chemistry had beaten me.  I couldn’t even begin to think of what to write. Then, Mary Hannon piped up: Sir, they are not the questions we’ve studied for.  His caught ye all out smirk spread like soft butter across his face: Girls, if you studied Chapter Three and Four not only would you be able to answer your prepared questions, but these questions also.  We stared incredulously at this sadist. Slowly pens were put to paper. Some wrote pages, some wrote paragraphs and then there was me: I wrote lines: Short lines. The following week my result was revealed: D-.  When our teacher returned I was bumped out of Chemistry and found myself in double Biology learning about photosynthesis.

What did I learn from all this? Not much it seems.  Throughout my school years, I felt huge pressure to succeed even when I knew my brain was not hard-wired for certain subjects. I continued pushing. There was always a finishing line that needed to be crossed.  Failing was not an option. I can’t blame for parents for this. They certainly did not sublimate their ambitions through me. They did though insist that I did my best and try: God loves a trier you know.  But, somewhere inside me, a seed had germinated.  I nurtured it as a mother nurtures her baby.  I watered it. I fed it. I played with it. I even took it out for walks and trips to the park. By the time I was ready for college my baby, fear, was strong and ready to take its place in the world. It was this fear of failure that propelled me into adulthood.  I was terrified of letting myself down.

It doesn’t matter from what exactly: the fear of failure sucks.  Since life has a tendency to poke and prod, developing coping skills and becoming resilient beings that bend with our failures rather than abandon our hopes of success is of paramount importance. But, it’s not always that simple, is it?  How do you grow skin as thick as a rhinoceros in order not to feel that thump on the shoulder?  We are, after all, creatures that feel. Fear will curse through our veins ready to emerge at any moment; ready to pulse the very moment we find ourselves becoming audacious: a new goal, a new plan, a new dream. It is often easier to assume the ostrich position: Stick our heads in the sand, don’t do anything to distinguish ourselves from the herd. Settle for mediocrity.

When we settle for less we deny ourselves the joy of daring and looking beyond the pale of mediocrity.  We allow our fears to destroy our dreams and rob our lives of hope.  I, too, am aware of the crippling effect of fear, and know that if I allow it to consume me I will be no better than the thief that comes and steals during the dark of night; I will have sacrificed above all things loyalty to myself, and will remain a minion.   This isn’t a blame game. Blaming others for how we feel, while sometimes feels necessary, is also a way of letting our pain and discomfort go. I do, though, sincerely wish that teachers, and all those who possess huge influence over us during our Wonder Years would just stop and think about that: our Wonder Years. Please don’t knock that out of us too early. Please.

Over the past few years, I have made a concerted effort to help, maybe even heal myself. I have always been on the qui vive for the help I needed. Some of the things I have tried helped, some have not. But, and I love that sometimes there is a but, I’m very happy to say that I have made a wonderful discovery on my quest. I would love to share it with you.

This treasure comes in the form of a wonderful poem. Last Night As I Was Sleeping has transformed how I feel about, and face fear.  In his great poem (see below), Antonio Machado conjures image after vibrant image.  It’s the second verse that stopped me in my tracks. A powerful, startling image that of a beehive inside his heart, and of bees making sweet honey from his old failures.  When I first read these lines, it felt like I had stood upon frozen water that cracked and broke into shards beneath my feet. They broke open a new way of seeing my life. Imagine if we could see all our past failures as so sweet that we could produce sweet honey from them? Failures can instead become the ingredients for new experiences, new ways of being, new worlds. This is simply marvellous: life affirming.

Dare we believe that if we had not encountered these failures we would not be the people we are now. Initially perceived as disasters, our failures are now “making white combs and sweet honey”. What does this really mean? Perhaps, it means that, in the end, everything was as it should have been: as it should be.  I cannot begin to tell you how much these words mean to me. They give me a warm fuzzy feeling just like cinnamon, spice my hope like the peppery scent of the geranium and comfort me like hot milk on a cold winter’s night. Like flotsam, I will cling to these words and images for the rest of my days.

Indiana need wait no longer.  I’ve done a little research on snakes; just in case we come across any on our quest. I like to feel useful. When the water comes gushing forth, fingers crossed, he’ll somehow keep me afloat. On the rope bridge suspended between the towering cliffs, he’ll find a way to help me conquer my dread of heights. As for the hieroglyphics, I’m a fast learner!  Perhaps it is true to say that in the end life is one long quest, sometimes we will reach The Holy Grail sometimes we will not.

It’s time to trust Indiana, step out of average and into possibility.

 

Last Night As I Was Sleeping
Antonio Machado

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night as I slept,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.

Antonio Cipriano José María y Francisco de Santa Ana Machado y Ruiz, known as Antonio Machado was a Spanish poet and one of the leading figures of the Spanish literary movement known as the Generation of ’98. For more information please click here

A duty to reproduce: Modern Ireland is a sci-fi dystopia for women

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A wonderful post that deserves to be shared.

Feminist Ire

In an episode of Battlestar Galactica called “The Farm”, Starbuck gets shot during a raid on Caprica and loses consciousness. She wakes up in a hospital, where it turns out that the cylons have a lot of human women hooked up to “baby-machines”, because they can’t reproduce themselves, so they’re trying to reproduce with humans. The human women are used as incubators and the cylons are of the view that they have a duty to reproduce. The cylon doctor tells Starbuck how women of reproductive age are very “precious commodities.” The agency of the individual does not matter – they are merely vessels. Vessels do not need to consent. The women hooked up to machines for the sole purpose of reproduction are, in this case, science fiction, and it’s pretty grim.

As I type this, there is a woman who is clinically brain dead but being kept alive on life…

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Proximity: A Quarterly Collection of True Stories

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BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

pBy Towles Kintz

In the fall of 2008, when I was knee-deep in new motherhood, I received an unexpected opportunity. Maggie Messitt, a friend of mine from graduate school, wanted to know if I’d join her and another Goucher grad, Carrie Kilman, on a literary adventure of sorts.

The plan was for the three of us to launch a blog that would celebrate both the diversity of the world around us and our inherent interconnectedness. We would choose one location or point in time (bus stop, library, evening) and spend an hour there, resulting in a blog filled with immersion and personal essays that would become Proximity.

At the time, Maggie lived in South Africa and worked as a narrative journalist. Carrie had recently moved from Montgomery, Alabama, to Madison, Wisconsin, where she freelanced her way through a new city, and I lived in Atlanta and had mostly surrendered my…

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