Speaking of self-suppressing heroines (well I was, anyway), consider the protagonist of Daphne Du Maurier’s blockbuster 1938 novel, Rebecca. This first-person narrator is so self-deprecating that she never thinks it worthwhile to reveal her name, though she makes it clear that it’s a memorable one. The Rebecca of the title is the first Mrs. Maximilian de Winter, the narrator’s predecessor in marriage to a handsome but brooding aristocrat a good 20 years older than his naïve new bride. The plot centers on the narrator’s sense of utter inferiority—to the point of self-erasure—in comparison to her husband’s formidable first wife. The novel’s ingenious arc is only incompletely evident in the multiple movie and mini-series versions made over the decades (the best and most famous of which is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film). As the sordid truth about the late Rebecca is revealed, the narrator gradually gains substance, insight, motivation and decisiveness. At the very end, she displays a critical assertiveness that determines her husband’s entire future.
Yet it would be an exaggeration to say that the narrator ever asserts or imposes a self. Her ultimate decisiveness is not the product of individual will, her insight not a function of individual genius. She is still a young, untutored, unprepossessing girl who simply learns to make decisions based on accurate perceptions and interpretations of what is around her. In other words, she learns to read the social and behavioral codes of a completely alien world—the English landed gentry—that she is forced to adopt in spite of her unshaken conviction that she has no importance as an individual presence. Indeed, by the terms of those codes, she still has no self. She has no family history (or “blood,” as Anthony Trollope puts it), no property, and no social position other than that imposed on her by her husband’s name (thus the absence of her own name). The very notion of position requires a persona to be positioned, and Rebecca’s narrator has none. Still, this narrator is a heroine in that she brings about an existential change, not only in her husband’s life and her own destiny, but in the entire social stratum of the de Winter family. Furthermore, this change is exaggeratedly public, involving a social scandal and a sensational legal trial.
One of the most important moments of the novel (and of every film adaptation) in this regard is the narrator’s disastrous appearance at Manderley’s annual costume ball—the de Winter estate’s first attempt at a public event since Rebecca’s death. The connivance of head housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, the narrator’s nemesis, imposes a costume on the narrator, a false identity that turns out to be cataclysmically real. It is the same costume that Rebecca wore in her last public appearance. Moreover, it is the incarnation of the portrait over the staircase of an iconic Mrs. de Winter of the past. And Danvers has engineered this assumption of an identity so as to have the narrator appear in the most publicly scandalous way possible: on the staircase in front of the portrait, before the horrified eyes of the entire crowd of the de Winter social set. The narrator appears thus assuming the identity of not just Mrs. de Winter, but of the most iconic and revered Mrs. de Winters and of all Mrs. de Winters before and since. The one fact most manifest from this catastrophe is that the narrator will never fit into Mrs. de Winter’s clothing, will never be able to assume this identity and should never have tried. Indeed, she has no business trying to assume any socially recognizable identity. She must remain self-less.
The real brilliance of Rebecca is the way it brings the self-suppressing heroine of the romantic tradition, still hanging on past its zenith in Victorian realism, into something distinctly modern and relevant to post-realist sensibilities. De Maurier exploits all the trappings of the tradition—indeed at times she exaggerates them (the de Winter property, Manderley, is practically a caricature of the both English country estate and the gothic mansion). But Rebecca’s twentieth- and twenty-first century success owes to its narrator’s distinctly post-realist condition. The narrator is a woman unmoored from tradition, convention, expectations, even name—a free floating, shape-shifting agent without realism’s agency. Moreover, her culminating decisiveness changes her husband into a similarly unanchored subject. At the end of their story, that is to say at the beginning of the novel, for the entire story comprises a flashback, Max de Winter too has no identity, no status and no home (he and the narrator are literally homeless wanderers). The narrator’s heroic act consists of transforming her husband’s individual identity, bound by social convention and position to past sins and misery, into a spirit unweighted by any history. She paves the way for generations of similar heroines with absent, suppressed or ambivalent selves who transform the lives of those who depend on them, from the works of Muriel Spark to Paula Fox to Anita Brookner, Jane Smiley, Ann Tyler, and Toni Morrison, among others. (I also just read an interesting article on the Bette Davis classic, Now Voyager, which makes me want to examine similar heroines in other Hollywood films.)
The main reason I’m pondering all of this is because I’m trying to create my own self-suppressing heroine, Emma Yosell, the protagonist of my historical novel-in-progress, The Mayor of Newark, and I can now vouch for just how difficult a task it is. How do you represent silence, absence, demurral, noncommunication? How do you elaborate a character who accomplishes something truly heroic (rescuing her husband from the Mob), without ever outwardly taking action, expressing her views or knowledge, or explicitly influencing others? I’m curious to know what others may have experienced or read along these lines and what you all have to say.