Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca: The Replacement Wife (Springer, 2021)

Andrea Sabbadini wrote an important article on the Replacement Child (see under Resources > Articles, Links, Etc. or go directly to the full article here) in 1988. He is kindly sharing his review of Rebecca, the 1940 Hitchcock movie, to be published in 2021. We thank Dr. Sabbadini and Springer for the permission to already post the article.

I cite here especially relevant passages as I have seen several replacement children whose mothers were replacement wives and who suffered from being unfavourably compared to an absent spouse or partner, with love overshadowed by the absent other. As Sabbadini points out, due to “the enormous power that memories have in affecting people’s lives”.

Andrea Sabbadini writes:

“In this film…we have a ‘replacement wife’ rather than a replacement child, but the processes involved are clearly similar… Rebecca is a movie primarily concerned with the enormous power that memories have in affecting people’s lives – sometimes comforting, other times disturbing. This is one of the reasons for this film’s relevance to psychoanalysis.

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Rebecca is a free adaptation from the eponymous 1938 Gothic novel by Daphne Du Maurier. Protagonists of the story are a newly-wed couple settling down in Manderley, the husband’s luxurious mansion; here, the memory of his beautiful first wife Rebecca, the suspicious circumstances of her death by drowning, and the presence of a sadistic housekeeper make his second wife feel deeply inadequate in her role as the new Mrs de Winter. She will eventually redeem herself as the mystery of Rebecca’s death is uncovered and Manderley is destroyed by fire

Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter with Joan Fontaine as his second wife
Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter with Joan Fontaine as his second wife

They arrive in Manderley under the rain, where the mansion’s numerous staff is lined up to greet them. The new (or second) Mrs de Winter, as we should now refer to her, finds it all most intimidating, especially having to meet Mrs Danvers, Rebecca’s nanny …who has since become the manor’s housekeeper.

…The invisible ghost of Rebecca is …absent from the screen but for that very reason a more central character than anybody else, as her memory floats eerily throughout the film, contributing to that sense of Unheimlich so vividly described by Freud in his essay on the ‘uncanny’ (1919). …

A remarkable feature of the film, and one that gives its audiences a rather unique emotional experience, is the disturbing (and paradoxical) presence of absence

The second Mrs de Winter is only too aware that she is constantly being compared to the deceased first one. ‘I suppose you married me’, she once tells Maxim with unexpected insight, ‘because I was dull, gauche and inexperienced’ – implying: by comparison to his first wife. Rebecca’s prominently displayed initial ‘R’ can still be found everywhere in the house – embroidered on the cover of a nightdress, a handkerchief, a blanket or a napkin, or printed on a notebook or an address book – and makes our girl feel upset every time she comes across it. At the same time, though, she also becomes curious to find out more about her husband’s first wife… ‘What was Rebecca really like?’, she once asks Frank. ‘I suppose…’, he answers after some hesitation, ‘she was the most beautiful creature I ever saw’. …

The second Mrs de Winter decides to explore Rebecca’s own private and grandiose bedroom overlooking the sea and secluded in the west wing of Manderley – a reference perhaps to the forbidden and dangerous room in the story of Bluebeard’s castle. Mrs Danvers follows her there and… takes this opportunity to scare her new employer by creeping up on her. On this occasion, she humiliates Mrs de Winter by sadistically inviting her to admire wardrobes full of Rebecca’s beautiful clothes and furs and underwear in order to provoke the girl’s sense of inferiority and presumed envy…

We may …suggest that the second Mrs de Winter, as well as a ‘replacement wife’ to Maxim was also a ‘replacement daughter’ to Mrs Danvers after the loss of Rebecca – the first, beloved child in her care…Mrs Danvers’ uninterrupted attachment to her memory displays clear morbid features, including fetishistic ones for all the objects, clothes etc. that had belonged to her late employer. Such perversities will then be enacted in Mrs Danvers’ relationship to the second Mrs de Winter, constantly if not explicitly blamed for not being her predecessor…

Joan Fontaine as Mrs de Winter with Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers
Joan Fontaine as Mrs de Winter with Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers

Mrs Danvers …attempts to magically bring back to life her first mistress (and ‘daughter’) by killing off her second, and to her mind inadequate, one. As we shall see, she will try do so in reality …and not just in her imagination.

…perhaps in an attempt to emerge from her own isolation and depression and to make at long last an affirmative gesture, the second Mrs de Winter decides to organise a costume ball, as Rebecca used to do with much success every year. She wears for that occasion…a gown shrewdly recommended by Mrs Danvers. But when Maxim sees her in that outfit he becomes furiously angry: years before Rebecca herself must have worn that same costume for him and, for reasons we spectators may not fully understand yet, he cannot tolerate being reminded of her. …‘I shall never forget,’ Mrs de Winter will later recall, ‘the expression on [Mrs Danvers’] face, loathsome, triumphant. The face of an exulting devil. She stood there, smiling at me’ (Du Maurier 1938, p. 240). Mystified, remorseful and feeling very upset, our heroine barely manages to resist Mrs Danvers’ attempts to convince her to jump from a balcony to her death.

The story ends with a series of dramatic, somewhat implausible (but does it matter?), twists.

…Events precipitate when a boat is found by a diver at the bottom of the sea, with Rebecca’s corpse in it: ‘I put her there’, Maxim confesses to his second wife…Mrs de Winter tries to comfort her confused, guilty but unrepented husband, to convince him not to reveal the truth about Rebecca’s death, and that believing in her love for him would be enough to see him through his predicament. But… ‘It’s too late, my darling’, Maxim says, ‘Rebecca has won… Her shadow has been between us all the time, keeping us from one another’.

Her shadow: in his paper on Mourning and melancholia (1917), Freud uses this metaphor to refer to the shadow of someone who has died falling upon those closer to him or her, with powerful consequences on their current grief experience. In the case of Rebecca, her shadow seems to fall on everyone at Manderley, and indeed on the mansion itself…Mrs de Winter… under the spell of the memories left behind by Rebecca, seems unable to assert her identity other than by trying, and inevitably failing, to identify with her predecessor…

In a kind of Gothic-horror finale, we are shown from some distance Mrs Danvers eerily walking with a candlestick behind the glass windows of Manderley and setting the whole place on fire. The second Mrs de Winter miraculously survives; we feel relieved to watch her running in tears to hug her worried husband as he arrives by car at night to his burning mansion…

The melodramatic destruction of Manderley may leave some spectators upset for the loss of such an imposing, beautiful manor with all the precious objects and memories it had contained. However, such fire, loaded with powerful, primitive, unconscious associations, has also a cathartic effect, opening up the potential for a happier relationship between the two protagonists by liberating them from the curse of a past dominated by the shadow of Rebecca…a glimmer of redemptive hope.

Copyrights © Andrea Sabbadini, All Rights Reserved, Used with permission  from Springer

Kristina Schellinski is the author of, Individuation for Adult Replacement Children, Ways of Coming into Being (Routledge, 2019) Teaching Analyst and Supervisor, Geneva, Switzerland.

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