Echoes in Gothic Romance: Stylistic Similarities Between Jane Eyre and Rebecca
III. Surface Similarities in Plot & Characterization
When studied alongside one another, the popular Gothic romance novels Jane Eyre and Rebecca bear striking similarities. While Du Maurier admitted to admiring Brontë’s work, she never made any public mention of an intention to transform the classic novel in a modern context (Bertrandias). Still, perceptive readers and harsh critics alike have noted the number of connections between the two works. In many ways, Rebecca captures the true essence and Gothic romantic style of Jane Eyre, something countless imitations of the classic had previously failed to achieve (Bertrandias). As examples of the Female Gothic romance, Jane Eyre and Rebecca offer similar heroines, heroes, and assorted plot devices.
Jane & I: The Perfect Gothic romance Heroines
As the narrator and central focus of the plot, Jane Eyre and I each offer ideal characterizations of the Gothic romance heroine. In her article “The Utopian Impulse in Popular Literature: Gothic romances and ‘Feminist’ Protest,” Janice Radway offers a thorough analysis of the typical heroine in a Gothic romance novel: “she…is obsessed with her unexceptional appearance… sexually innocent and highly romantic… [and] marked by [a] self-deprecatory tendency.” These traits combine in a perfect recipe for a woman in distress, controlled by her environment, and suffering from a near-constant state of anxiety.
Rebecca’s narrator I fits this description perfectly, especially considering that she doesn’t even think to give the reader her own name! These anxieties prompt her to make outlandish statements about her wishes to change. On one drive through Monte Carlo with her new friend Maxim de Winter, she declares boldly: “I wish I were a woman of 36, dressed in black satin with a string of pearls” (Du Maurier, 37). Her story is riddled with such self-deprecatory comments and her relationship with Maxim is marked by her feelings of inferiority. She is baffled by Maxim’s attention, believing he spends time with her to be polite. Once they are married and arrive at Manderley, I’s feeling of inadequacy is only exacerbated by the constant comparisons by those around her to the previous Mrs. de Winter, the book’s eponymous Rebecca. Living under the shadow of Rebecca, the narrator struggles against her own anxieties and doubts, as well as an unfriendly staff, to find a way to survive in the chilled atmosphere at Manderley with a man she believes does not and cannot love her.
In her own story, Jane Eyre struggles with many of the same insecurities about her appearance, moral character, and deservedness of affection. Because Brontë begins her story much earlier in the life of her heroine than does Du Maurier, readers get to experience many of the events that shape Jane’s self-doubts, including living with an abusive aunt and attending a horrific boarding school. The effect is the same, however, leaving Jane feeling unloved and unworthy enough to be suspicious of any expression of affection. In fact, when Rochester finally reveals his feelings and asks for Jane’s hand in marriage, she scoffs and assumes he is joking. She asks him to face her so she can “read [his] countenance” (Brontë, 257). Once Rochester has convinced her of his honesty and Jane accepts the proposal, her self-image shifts abruptly:
I looked at my face in the glass, and felt it was no longer plain: there was hope in its aspect, and life in its colour: and my eyes seemed as if they had beheld the fount of fruition, and borrowed beams from the lustrous ripple. I had often been unwilling to look at my master, because I feared he could not be pleased at my look; but I was sure I might lift my face to his now, and not cool his affection by its expression (Brontë, 259).
This passage demonstrates just how delicate Jane’s self-perception is, that it may be shifted so drastically as soon as she accepts Rochester’s opinion of her to be true. Her very self-image is determined by those around her, revealing that Jane, although a survivor in the face of the bitterest adversity, has very little confidence and is run by her own self-deprecation.
With these basic traits in common, Jane and I are the perfect Gothic heroines for their novels. As such, they are primed for two similar story lines riddled with drama and anxiety and the brooding, troubled men that will serve as their Gothic heroes.
Rochester & de Winter: Ideal Byronic Heroes
Like the heroines of Jane Eyre and Rebecca, the novels’ heroes provide something of a mirror-image of one another. While some similarities could be seen as duplications by Du Maurier of Brontë’s work, much of their shared traits are the result of hero archetypes common to the genre. Gothic heroes, such as Edward Rochester and Maxim de Winter, are typically characterized as “Byronic,” a reference to the semi-autobiographical heroes of Romantic poet Lord Byron, famously described by Lady Caroline Lamb as “mad, bad and dangerous to know” (Russell).
As Byronic heroes, Rochester and de Winter are rarely understood, seem dark and rebellious at times, and often act in ways that baffle their heroines (Thompson). Likewise, the heroes’ motivations and circumstances are very similar. Karen McCullough and the Gothic Writers Chapter of Romance Writers of America offer a comprehensive list of these factors, still common to modern Gothic romance works today: The hero’s first wife has died or disappeared mysteriously; he has become a loner because of previous failed relationships or losses of those close to him; he believes he is to blame for some tragic act because the person who did do it has made it seem as though he was responsible; and mysterious incidents occur around him, sometimes seeming supernatural, and effect those he cares about.
Finally, Rochester and de Winter also each own a grand, country mansion that serves as the setting of the novel. Perhaps the most famous of all Gothic devices, these mansions (sometimes castles) serve as both a setting and the identity of their owners (MacAndrew). The dark, imposing atmospheres of Thornfield Hall and Manderley are metaphors for their owners’ own dark pasts and secrets. The walls offer an environment where the hero himself hides, while the heroine may feel trapped or imprisoned either emotionally or mentally (MacAndrew). In both novels, these mansions eventually burn to the ground, symbolically liberating the hero and his heroine from the dark, tumultuous past (Yardley). Once freed from their physical environments, Rochester and de Winter are also free to connect to their heroines on a more equal playing field.
Similarities in Plot & Structure
Many of the basic plot points of Rebecca have been sighted as uncannily similar to those of Jane Eyre. Other literary critics argue, however, that the similarities exist purely because of the novels’ shared genre and its tropes. Gothic heroines, for example, are nearly always orphans who must find a way to care for themselves without money or status, seeking “only the opportunity to survive” (Radway). Both are orphaned before the stories begin: Jane as a young child and I as a teenage girl. At the beginning of their respective novels, Jane Eyre and I must each work for their own survival in subservient roles to those in higher socioeconomic standing: Jane as a governess to a wealthy girl and I as a companion to a wealthy woman (Yardley).
Eventually, both women stumble upon their heroes, Edward Fairfax Rochester and Maxim de Winter, respectively, whom they ultimately fall in love with (Yardley). These relationships offer another parallel: both women are young (Jane is 19, I a mere 21) and find themselves captivated by older, once-married men in their forties. These men both harbor dark secrets about their previous wives, which Jane and I must come to learn and then accept. While Jane and I must each forge her own path from ignorance to knowledge, her respective hero works in opposition to her efforts, idealizing his love interest as “a figure of innocence and purity in which [he is] determined to keep her enclosed” (Bertrandias). The failure to accept Jane and I as autonomous human beings ultimately drives both Rochester and de Winter to withhold their secrets for too long out of overprotective urges, straining their relationships and adding to the heroines’ internal anxieties (Bertrandias).
The Romantic piece of the plot pushes this relationship out of the realm of strictly Gothic fiction, however, which would show one partner clearly dominated by another. In Rebecca and Jane Eyre, the Gothic romance storyline instead winds its way to a point of “symmetrical internal development that establishes the mutual dependency of hero and heroine and witnesses their parallel expressions of affection” (Radway). Together with their heroes, these typical Gothic romance heroines ultimately find a way to accept themselves, create a bond based on equality with their partners, and survive in the face of dramatic and unfortunate events. In these ways, the basic plot structures and hero/heroine characterizations drive many critics to see Rebecca as a modernized version of the classic Jane Eyre.
IV. Microelements of Gothic romance
While many of the aforementioned similarities between Jane Eyre and Rebecca demonstrate each novel’s categorization as Gothic romance, many other elements of the genre are also seem throughout the texts. Smaller, less obvious similarities, such as the tropes of Gothic romance and common rhetorical devices like metaphor and metonymy, are all at play within these novels.
Other Gothic Tropes
Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a significant or recurrent theme; a motif,” a trope is something often easy to identify in genre works like those of Gothic romance. As previously discussed, the heroines and heroes of Jane Eyre and Rebecca exhibit many traits typical to the archetypes of their genre. Likewise, the plot lines and settings also include similar thematic elements, identified as tropes by literary critics.
Gothic romance novels also offer additional tropes, many of which appear in Jane Eyre and Rebecca. Firstly, a victim, helpless against her torturer, is at the center of the story (ScepticThomas). The victimizers in these scenarios are often associated with evil and may even have supernatural powers (ScepticThomas). Jane Eyre finds herself helpless to many torturers: her cruel aunt Mrs. Reed, Lowood School’s headmaster Mr. Brocklehurst, and eventually the crazed first wife of Rochester, Bertha Mason. At Thornfield, Mason’s crazed psychological torture seems supernatural because it originates from a source unknown to Jane for much of the novel. In Rebecca, the narrator’s real helplessness comes in the form of psychological torture. Rebecca’s spirit haunts her every thought and action, while Rebecca’s favorite servant Mrs. Danvers exerts her own brand of passive aggressive torture on I.
The setting of a Gothic romance also serves to heighten the victim’s feelings of hopeless isolation (ScepticThomas). The central Gothic image of a castle or mansion may be breathtaking to look upon but offers little comfort to the heroine who resides within it. As described in their initial impressions of Thornfield and Manderley, both Jane and I are simultaneously in awe and at odds with their new homes. Beyond the walls of the mansions, these parallel Gothic romance settings also include other symbols: forbidding cliffs, stormy seas, menacing rain and weather (MacAndrew). As the literature of nightmare, Gothic writers, even those of Gothic romance, have been known to use their work as a vehicle for notions of psychological evil (MacAndrew). Through the narrative of a Gothic novel, authors can make the entire world of the story seem strange and foreign, focusing on the evil that warps the mind of man instead of some external force that threatens him (MacAndrew). From within the mansion walls to the boundaries of the surrounding grounds, the setting of a Gothic romance novel like Rebecca and Jane Eyre is a common device used to create the atmosphere of mystery so essential to the genre.
Rhetorical Devices: Metaphor & Metonymy
In literature, rhetorical devices are tools used by authors to “achieve eloquence of expression or ensure the greatest possible effect on the reader” (OED). The rhetorical devices most used by authors of Gothic romance are metaphor and metonymy. While similar in nature, the two can have distinctly different effects on the reader: a metaphor is used to describe “something that it resembles in some way” while a metonymy is “applied to an event or object with which [the object] is associated” (Clark, 84).
Metaphors abound in Gothic romance, with the best example being that of the hero’s mansion representing the hidden secret from his past. As discussed, the destruction of the mansion serves as a metaphor for the hero’s freedom. In Jane Eyre, after Jane has discovered the existence of Rochester’s first wife in the attic and run off, she hears the story of Thornfield’s demise from a stranger who does not recognize her. He tells her that Bertha Mason set first to the house, beginning with Jane’s former bed, and then jumped to her death from the roof. Rochester, fighting to rescue the servants from Thornfield, is blinded and crippled by the incident. Thornfield Hall, Jane learns, “was burnt to the ground: there are only some bits of walls standing now” (Brontë, 431). Not only has the fire destroyed Rochester’s physical home, but it has also served to expunge the impediment to marrying Jane: his first wife, Bertha. Although he is not without his scars, Rochester survives the actual and metaphorical fire to be united with Jane once and for all.
In Rebecca, many metaphors present themselves to the narrator as she navigates the halls of Manderley for the first time. Everywhere she looks, she is met with Rebecca’s signature, embroidered initials, her friends and servants, and her possessions. I does her best to rail against the constant shadow of Rebecca, surrounding her in a sea of metaphors, but even when she finally tries to differentiate herself as an individual, Rebecca still haunts her. In a climactic scene, I has taken inspiration from one of the gallery’s portraits for her costume at Manderley’s annual masquerade ball. Keeping her costume a secret, she is giddy and gleeful about revealing her dress to her husband and their guests. When she does arrive at the party, however, she is shocked by the angry reaction of Maxim and the appalled looks of her friends. After the tragic unveiling, I retreats to her bedroom to change out of the gown, not knowing why it has caused offense. Maxim’s sister Beatrice explains: “The picture you copied of the girl in the gallery. It was what Rebecca did at the last fancy dress ball at Manderley. Identical. The same picture, the same dress. You stood there on the stairs, and for one ghastly moment I thought…You poor child, how wretchedly unfortunate, how were you to know?” (Du Maurier, 216). This symbolic moment and poorly chosen costume turn I herself into a metaphor with disastrous results.
The metonymy of Gothic romance is another key element used to set tone and mood, while also conveying hidden connotation to the reader. In this subtype of metaphor, one word is used to stand for something else, such as rain symbolizing sorrow (Harris). Many of the common metonymy used in these novels can be spotted throughout both Jane Eyre and Rebecca. These include image-evoking phrases like howling wind, grating door hinges, approaching footsteps, building ruins, blowing winds, disembodied sighing and moaning, slamming doors, and even crazed laughter (Harris). At key moments throughout Jane Eyre, disembodied voices and crazed laughter are both used to create supernatural undertones and imply some unknown and impending doom. One of Jane’s first strange experiences at Thornfield is the strange laughter of Bertha drifting through the house: “It was a curious laugh: distinct, formal, mirthless…It began again, louder: for at first, though distinct it was very low. It passed off in a clamorous peal that seemed to wake an echo in every lonely chamber: though it originated but in one” (Brontë, 110). The laughter itself is a metonymy for the mysterious atmosphere of Thornfield, but Jane’s word choices, including clamorous and echo, suggest an unsettling and sinister quality to the laugh itself.
In Rebecca, the features of the weather are most often used to imply the character’s feelings or the mood in the air. In the midst of the inquest into Rebecca’s death, as she waits for Maxim to return from an errand, I observes the grounds outside of Manderley: “There was a foggy dew upon the grass like frost, and the trees were shrouded in a white mist. There was a chill in the air and a little, fresh wind, and the cold, quiet smell of autumn…the flowers themselves drooped upon their stalks, the petals brown and dragging” (Du Maurier, 356).
Even the grounds of Maxim’s home seem to be frozen in wait, struggling for life at their master’s possible imprisonment and murder conviction. The narrator sees these natural elements through her own sense of dread, giving the reader many examples of metonymy such as frost, white mist, and drooping flowers to illustrate it.
When the rhetorical devices and tropes of Gothic romance are considered in conjunction with the similarities of plot structures and characterizations, it is clear that Rebecca is much more than a mindless copy of Jane Eyre. Indeed, Brontë’s and Du Maurier’s works stand today as classic examples of the Gothic romantic tradition that has evolved over the course of three centuries, still luring readers into their dramatic, suspenseful, and mysterious worlds.
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