‘Cloaked Subversive Representations
of Queer Female Sexuality
in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca’
Chapter One: Sexology, inversion and Freudian identifications in Rebecca
This chapter will analyse the attitudes of 1920s and 1930s British society towards inversion as reflected in Rebecca. Analysing theories from key contemporary sexologists Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis and Havelock Ellis’ Studies in the Psychology of Sex, as well as Freud’s psychoanalysis, this chapter will examine Rebecca’s socio-political framework. Daphne du Maurier, in her constructions of the narrator, Rebecca and Mrs Danvers, seems to implicitly critique pathologising studies in sexology that describe same-sex sexual attraction as a gender inversion of masculine and feminine. Moreover, she seems to unreservedly undermine established Freudian theories on identification and desire within the text.
Sexological works and shaping the parameters of acceptable female sexuality
Studies in sexology emerged at the end of the nineteenth century where what was described as sexual deviance was, for the first time, dealt with scientifically. As well as this, sexology insisted upon the theory of inversion as cross-gender identification for the subject. Its pathologising analysis was problematic as it insisted upon heteronormative and patriarchal structures for its cohesive source of stability. Judith Halberstam in Female Masculinity argues:
Inversion as a theory of homosexuality folded gender variance and sexual preference into one economical package and attempted to explain all deviant behaviour in terms of a firm and almost intuitive belief in a system of sexual stratification in which the
stability of the terms “male” and “female” depended on the stability of the homosexual-heterosexual binary. (Halberstam 82)
In Psychopathia Sexualis, Krafft-Ebing argues that homosexuality in women is the result of a cross-identification, of a “masculine soul, heaving in the female bosom.” (Krafft-Ebing) His taxonomy of lesbianism relies heavily on an essentialism of gender in his classification of four types of women inverts, three of whom identify with a feminine love-object. For Krafft-Ebing, homosexuality in women implies a personal identification with masculinity and the compulsion to complete one’s sexual identity by cross-dressing or adopting masculine roles. As Halberstam notes:
Krafft-Ebing identified four types of lesbians: women who were available to the attention of masculine inverts but not masculine themselves, cross-dressers, fully developed inverts who looked masculine and took a masculine role, and degenerative homosexuals who were practically male (Halberstam 76).
His physiological rationale behind cross-identification expresses the belief that gender and sex are inextricably linked. Although he argues that the form of the body in inversion corresponds to “the abnormal sexual instinct” (Krafft-Ebing), he observes that “actual transitions to hermaphrodites never occur, but, on the contrary, completely differentiated genitals; so that, just as in all pathological perversions of the sexual life, the cause must be sought in the brain (androgyny and gynandry).” (Krafft-Ebing)
On the other hand, Havelock Ellis’ sexological works on inversion in women build on those of Krafft-Ebing’s nomenclature of ‘congenital inverts’ (Horner and Zlosnik 15) by arguing that there is a further type of inversion, a contagious form that can seduce women in realms of society from which men are traditionally excluded: “for example, that of single-sex
environment could be combated by physical cleanliness and normal socialisation, however, the congenital invert is incurable and possesses sexually voracious appetites.
Ellis insists upon a binary relation between masculinity and femininity in relation to inversion in his analysis of homosexuality in feminine women, who can be segregated from masculine women inverts by their motivation to turn to homosexuality. Ellis denies the existence of a feminine congenital invert; rather than the true congenital invert, who identifies as masculine, the feminine invert seeks recognition from the masculine invert as a substitute for a man. The implication is that she has been rejected by men and thus identifies with the masculine woman invert as a substitute: “the feminine invert was a social, rather than a sexual deviant who had been rejected by men and pushed therefore into the arms of the masculine invert. They were the “odd women,” or as he puts it, “they are the pick of the women whom the average man would pass by.” (Halberstam 76)
Freud’s psychoanalysis sought to break away from the sexological and physiological analyses of homosexuality, which he described as offering “not so much as a ray of a hypothesis”. (Gay 622) Unlike sexology that defines homosexuality in women as gender inversion, Freud asserts that homosexuality is a result of misplaced or undeveloped oedipality. Where he argues that identification can be defined as “the wish to be the other”, (Fuss 11) he defines desire in opposition to this; “the wish to have the other” (Fuss 11). For Freud, then, “to desire and to identify with the same person at the same time is, in this model, a theoretical impossibility.” (Fuss 11) Thus, Freud’s theories argue that homosexuality in a woman occurs when the subject fails to separate from the mother in the oedipal crisis and
consequently identifies with the wrong gender. Diana Fuss in Identification Papers argues that Freud uses this theory in order to reiterate the normative developmental path of heterosexuality:
Freud summons and reworks the concept of identification to keep firmly in place a normative theory of sexuality based upon oedipal relations. Identification is also the theoretical lynchpin Freud’s theory of oedipality requires to keep the homosocial and the homosexual from collapsing back onto one another (Fuss 12 - 13)
Fuss’ analysis of the Freudian description of homosexuality in women as the ‘pre’ exposes the normative aspect of Freud’s work. In discussing Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman, she draws attention to the way in which Freud assumes that the subject is in a psychosexual state of pre-oedipal development and transfers her incestuous compulsions to incest to a series of older, sexually experienced women as substitutes for her mother. Freud concludes that her homosexuality is attributed to a pre-developmental state which rejects the existence of homosexuality in women; the female subject in oedipal development should, in normative cases, ultimately reject her mother in favour of the father. According to Fuss, “Freud immediately disavows, however, this homosexual daughter-mother incest by reading it as a displacement of a preceding heterosexual daughter-father incest.” (Fuss 62) She further notes:
In the history of psychoanalysis, female homosexuality is theorized almost exclusively in terms of the “pre”: the preoedipal, the presymbolic, the prelaw, the premature, even the presexual. The critical presupposition that female homosexuality occupies the space and time of an origin – that it is widely assumed to be, in a word,
pretheoretical – could account for its long-term neglect in revisionist theoretical work ordinarily devoted to challenging normative definitions of sexual desire. (Fuss 58)
Identifications and Sexology in Rebecca
Du Maurier in Rebecca launches an attack on sexology and psychoanalysis’ assertions about identification and sexuality, but cloaks the attack by adopting the ideologies and appearing to uphold them in the context of the novel. She appears to support the assertions of sexology and psychoanalysis but nonetheless attacks them in the constructions of Rebecca and Mrs Danvers. Although their relationship supposedly endorses Havelock Ellis’ assertions about the contagious nature of exclusively female atmospheres it also undermines them. For instance, Mrs Danvers has unrestricted access to Rebecca’s bedroom, even though Maxim has attempted to seal it off from the rest of the house. Nonetheless, Mrs Danvers’ recollections of when Maxim and Rebecca were together in the sexualised sphere of her bedroom describe in emasculating terms his inability to satisfy his wife. Thus, in Rebecca, it is not Maxim’s absence from the female environment that creates a contagious atmosphere of inversion, but his incapability to perform within sexualised spaces.
Where Krafft-Ebing and Ellis insist that inversion is always a result improper morphologies and identifications and Freud insists that inversion in women is always a case of failed oedipal relations, du Maurier criticises their staunch resolution that sexuality and gender are governed by strict binaries of desire and identification, mostly through her depiction of the late Rebecca de Winter, who is both masculine and feminine.
Du Maurier’s construction of Rebecca de Winter reflects du Maurier’s compulsion to revise pre-established beliefs about sexual identification. Rebecca does not fit into the taxonomy provided by sexology; it would appear that she identifies neither as masculine nor
feminine and is frequently described in both masculine and feminine terms. As such, Rebecca’s duality upsets the masculine/ feminine, homosexual/ heterosexual binary that sexology insists upon. The duality of her gender is perhaps best expressed in Maxim’s description: “She looked like a boy in her sailing kit, a boy with a face like a Botticelli angel.” (Du Maurier 312) Similarly, Ben’s description of Rebecca as ‘slim’ (Du Maurier 305) has stereotypically feminine connotations, but is followed immediately with: “She gave you the feeling of a snake...” (Du Maurier 305) Apart from referring to Rebecca’s alleged devious nature, the snake is a visual symbol of the Phallus and thus a reference to Rebecca’s association with masculine power. In seeming to implicitly critique Krafft-Ebing’s theory that the association of women and stereotypically masculine activities insinuates gender inversion, she emphasises Rebecca’s masculine and feminine characteristics:
The masculine soul, heaving in the female bosom, finds pleasure in the pursuit of manly sports, and in manifestations of courage and bravado. There is a strong desire to imitate the male fashion in dressing the hair and in general attire, under favourable circumstances even to don male attire and impose in it. (Krafft-Ebing)
Where Rebecca can wear a white dress, emulate perfectly the virginal femininity of Caroline de Winter’s portrait and thus give the facade of upholding the ideals of femininity, she also partakes in what can be seen as masculine activities, such as sailing unescorted and flogging her horse savagely while riding it. Thus the double nature of Rebecca’s gender is tied to the dual nature of her sexuality; where it is implied that she and Mrs Danvers are romantically involved, the reader is also told throughout the novel of her sexual encounters with men such as Giles and Favell. Moreover, her sexual agency and seeming sexual aggression could also
be viewed as stereotypically masculine from a Freudian perspective. As such, Rebecca de Winter defies taxonomy by the limited conclusions of Krafft-Ebing and Ellis’ sexology.
Throughout the novel, du Maurier brings attention to the multifaceted nature of identifications, which ultimately gives the impression that they cannot be classified in such fixed sexological or psychoanalytic terms. Diana Fuss in Identification Papers addresses the covert and indefinable nature of identifications:
The astonishing capacity of identifications to reverse and disguise themselves, to multiply and contravene one another, to disappear and reappear years later renders identity from ever approximating the status of an ontological given, even as it makes possible the formation of an illusion of identity as immediate, secure, and totalizable. (Fuss 2)
In Rebecca, this is perhaps best expressed in relation to the narrator who blindly upholds the conventions of patriarchy and heteronormativity in obeying her husband to the point that she tries to mould herself into the perfect wife for Maxim. However, in identifying herself with the late Rebecca, her husband’s first wife, the narrator undertakes a psychosexual transformation, distancing herself from her father-figure husband and exploring the different realms of sexuality. For instance, the dream-like scene where Mrs Danvers invites the Second Mrs de Winter into Rebecca’s bedroom is the most implicit moment of sexual exploration as a result of her identification with Rebecca:
“You’ve been touching it, haven’t you? This was the nightdress she was wearing for the last time, before she died. Would you like to touch it again?’ She took the
nightdress from the case and held it before me. ‘Feel it, hold it,’ she said, ‘how soft and light it is, isn’t it.” (Du Maurier 189)
As the most overtly sexual scene of the novel, this can be compared with the aftermath of Maxim’s unromantic proposal: “And I should make violent love to you behind a palm tree”. (Du Maurier 36) Evidently, this proposition is never followed through and the narrator never again addresses any sexual encounters with her husband, ultimately expressing the unsatisfying nature of heterosexuality for the narrator. Furthermore, Mrs Danvers’ dealing with the narrator in this scene demonstrates her willingness to transfer her identification with Rebecca onto her replacement; she treats her as a sexual surrogate for her lost love. For instance, the narrator notes the drastic change of Mrs Danvers’ attitude to her within the sexualised sphere of Rebecca’s old bedroom; the usually cold and foreboding character becomes ‘startlingly familiar’ (du Maurier 189) with the narrator. Finally du Maurier subverts the Freudian notion that homosexuality in female relationships is always related to oedipal ‘pre-sexuality’ (Fuss 58) in representing the homosexual encounter as a natural sexual progression for the narrator. The narrator has followed what Freud establishes as the normative developmental path, but her sexuality is now developing in a different direction.
On the other hand, du Maurier feels the need to cloak her subversion of normativity within the novel. Through the monstrous depiction of the relationship of Mrs Danvers and Rebecca, who, it is implied, were romantically involved, she echoes Ellis’ attitudes towards relationships between women. Ellis characterises social spheres from which men are traditionally excluded as dangerous to patriarchy as, he claims, they propagate homosexuality in women: “Ultimately, the findings of sexology resulted in women’s friendships and schoolgirl crushes being seen as dangerous.” (Horner and Zlosnik 16) This is best expressed in the bedroom scene where Mrs Danvers recollects how she used to brush Rebecca’s hair:
“It came down below the waist, when she was first married. Mr de Winter used to brush it for her then. I’ve come into this room time and time again and seen him, in his shirt sleeves with two brushes in his hand. “Harder, Max, harder,” she would say, laughing up at him, and he would do as she told him. [...] “Here, I shall be late”, he would say, throwing the brushes to me.” (Du Maurier 190)
This sexually suggestive scene emphasises how Rebecca would undermine Maxim’s masculinity by ordering him to perform better in his endeavours to serve her physically, and as a result, sexually. That he often resigned in his task and threw the brushes to Mrs Danvers to take over from him further suggests his inability to perform to Rebecca’s approval, as well as Maxim’s own knowledge that Mrs Danvers could satisfy her in a way that he could not. Mrs Danvers relates that years later he had completely stopped brushing Rebecca’s hair and that she herself had replaced him. Rebecca’s stereotypically masculine sexual power is feminised with the action of brushing her hair; this ultimately undermines sexological claims that women inverts seek to identify with masculinity, and thus, a power that is not usually afforded to them. Later in the novel, Mrs Danvers’ disclosure of Rebecca’s philosophy on sexual relations epitomises these anxieties:
“She had a right to amuse herself, hasn’t she? Lovemaking was a game with her, only a game. She told me so. She did it because it made her laugh. It made her laugh, I tell you. She laughed at you like she did at the rest. I’ve known her come back and sit upstairs in her bed and rock with laughter at the lot of you.” (Du Maurier 382)
She relates the maniacal laughter of the two women with seeming vengeful relish; their bond serves as an example of how relationships between women can destabilise the patriarchal and heteronormative status quo in relation to sexuality. Thus, in a deconstruction of usual sexological pathologies on inversion, du Maurier creates a world where female homosexuality does not seek to identify with the masculine for prestige that is not usually afforded to women; rather, the two seek to undermine masculine power.
The narrator constantly refers to Mrs Danvers as androgynous, which undermines the notion of fixed gender binaries: “There was a strange buzzing at the end of the line, and then a voice came, low and rather harsh, whether that of a woman or a man I could not tell”. (Du Maurier 95) The duality of her gender, too, comes into play later in the novel where her feminine attributes surface; she cries bitterly over the loss of Rebecca. Thus, in the constructions of the sexually deviant women in the novel, it appears that Du Maurier adheres to the gender binary laid out by sexology, yet she constantly complicates these binaries by attributing another facet that is easily glossed over.
In the novel, du Maurier subverts the Freudian idea that identification is only for the same and desire is only for the other in her construction of the affinity between the narrator and Rebecca and again through the relationship between Mrs Danvers and Rebecca. Similarly, Janet Harbord in ‘Between Identification and Desire: Rereading Rebecca” argues that the novel presents a curious middle ground in which the axes of identification and desire overlap: “The excesses and contradictions that condition gender and sexuality surface here where the reader is invited to fantasize the spectacle of femininity (in this case Rebecca) in an indistinct tension of desire for and identification with her.” (Harbord 96) Where on one hand, the narrator’s affinity with Rebecca is fundamentally characterised by a sense of inferiority and jealousy for the more socially successful version of herself, her desire for the late Mrs de Winter complicates the binary of identification and desire. The intermingling of
identification and desire within the text is perhaps best demonstrated in the bedroom scene where the narrator prepares for the fancy dress party and is shocked by her reflection: “I did not recognize the face that stared at me in the glass. The eyes were larger surely, the mouth narrower, the skin white and clear? The curls stood away from the head in a little cloud.” (Du Maurier 237) The narrator’s description is strikingly similar to previous descriptions of Rebecca’s physical appearance - on numerous occasions her hair is said to have taken the formation of a cloud. “I watched this self that was not me at all and then smiled; a new, slow smile.” (Du Maurier 237) Her smile appears to be involuntary; where it could be argued from a heteronormative perspective that the smile is unrepresentative of her identification and desire for Rebecca, but is rather a physical manifestation of her possession by Rebecca’s threatening presence in Manderley, on the other hand it is clear that she finds her own image in the mirror fascinating and arousing: “I paraded up and down in front of my glass watching my reflection.” (Du Maurier 237) Moreover, the smile insinuates a dawning self-consciousness very unlike her usual school-girlish naivety that Maxim so admires. From this perspective, the narrator’s identification with Rebecca is complicated by its coupling with her desire for her and she consequently becomes less acquiescent to the role of submissive wife; she is becoming aware of an identity and sexuality of her own. As such, where a phobic reading of the text is also facilitated through the monstrous depictions of female sexuality, it could also be argued that du Maurier argues against Freud in her assertions that identification and desire cannot always be defined in opposition to each other.
Demonism, Identification and The Uncanny in Rebecca
Rebecca’s demonic presence could be interpreted as the narrator’s guilt at her identification with and desire for her. In
, Maxim asserts that he enjoys the Monte
narrator’s company “because you are not dressed in black satin, with a string of pearls, nor are you thirty-six” (du Maurier 41), adding a warning that she should never wear black satin; that is, she should never be like Rebecca. In identifying herself with Rebecca and in her endeavour to become her, however, the narrator defies the father-like Maxim’s orders: “I was following a phantom in my mind, whose shadowy form had taken shape at last”. (Du Maurier 47) The narrator’s observance of resurfacing objects that remind her of Rebecca can be read as the misplaced guilt she feels for disobeying his normative regulations; she, however does not realise this and wrongly deciphers the unpleasurable feeling as jealousy of her predecessor. The “R” of Rebecca’s signature is perhaps the best example of this:
I picked up the book again, and this time it opened at the title-page and I read the dedication. ‘Max – from Rebecca. 17 May’, written in a curious slanting hand. [...] And then as it bubbled through the nib, it came a little thick, so that the name Rebecca stood out black and strong, the tall and sloping R dwarfing the other letters. (Du Maurier 36)
The narrator fails to realise that the uncanniness from reading Rebecca’s inscription is not due to Rebecca’s ghostly presence, which would suggest the uncanny existence of demonic entities. Rather, the unpleasurable feeling is her guilt from secretly prying into Maxim’s past and as a result, identifying with and desiring the late Rebecca.
According to Freud, the double or the doppelganger is “the product and hiding-place of castration”; (Freud, Strachey, Cixous & Dennomé 581) a means through which the subject can identify with the other and protect itself from the threat of castration. In her construction of doppelgangers in the text, however, du Maurier depicts the narrator’s identification with Rebecca in a seemingly heteronormative method; on the surface she is overcome with
jealousy of the first wife who surpasses her in terms of beauty, intelligence and social graces. Her Freudian wish to be Rebecca, rather than to have Rebecca is manifested in this jealousy. The narrator’s identification with Rebecca is so strong that at times she is unable to differentiate between her true self and that of Maxim’s late wife: “Moreover, a person may identify himself with another and so become unsure of his true self; or he may substitute the other’s self for his own. The self may thus be duplicated, divided and interchanged.” (Freud 142) This uncanny reduplication can be interpreted as the unbounded self-love of primordial narcissism which is, Freud argues, the subject’s process of adopting the image of the other as the self, while simultaneously taking that other or self as a love-object. (Freud 142) In this scene, the narrator takes the image of Rebecca as both self and other, which echoes strongly the dyadic relation between mother and infant in libidinal development. Although the relationship has revealed itself to the narrator in an uncanny method that seems to insist upon Rebecca’s monstrosity, the likening of Rebecca to the nurturing mother figure of infantile development deconstructs her depiction as monstrous. Moreover, the double deconstructs heteronormative identification in Rebecca. Given that the creation of the double, for Freud, is a psychical method of self-preservation, “an insurance against the extinction of the self” (Freud 142) the transformation of the narrator into another Rebecca communicates that transgressive sexuality cannot be abolished comfortably from society but rather, will always reduplicate itself.
The novel’s Freudian castration complex in relation to Maxim seems to insist upon structural patriarchy, but the underlying message serves to destabilise it. In The Uncanny, Freud outlines the compulsion to ‘guard something like the apple of one’s eye’ (Freud 139) as a result of the fear of castration. For Maxim, his greatest anxiety relates to potential severing of the de Winter family lineage. When Rebecca threatens to break the line of the family by having another man’s child, Maxim’s preventative measures are completely
disproportionate to the threat - he murders her. ‘“If I had a child, Max,” she said, “neither you, nor anyone in the world, would ever prove that it was not yours. It would grow up here in Manderley, bearing your name. There would be nothing you could do. And when you died Manderley would be his. You could not prevent it.” (Du Maurier 313) The idea that Rebecca could subvert societal structures through the use of her sexuality is taken a step further in this scene; she ironically seeks to castrate Maxim through the use of her own body. Given that Manderley House is burned down in the final chapter – a symbolic castration of Maxim - an argument could be made that Manderley is the physical embodiment of Maxim’s ancestral line, which is to say of patriarchy, which he guards with murderous passion. In Rebecca’s literary counterpart, Jane Eyre,
both symbolically and physically; Thornfield Hall is burned down and he
is blinded and loses his hand in the blaze. From this perspective, it could be
argued that not only is the castle or manor house an embodiment of the Phallus,
it is also inextricably tied to the body of its master. Moreover, that du
Maurier had originally planned the castration of Maxim to be more physically
pronounced emphasises this pairing of house and master. (Du Maurier  47) Rochester
For Freud, the involuntary compulsion to repeat is the subject’s subconscious impulse to repetitively act out repressed thoughts through dreams, infantile mental life and traumatic neurosis. The compulsion to repeat works with the ego’s reality principle, often in opposition to the Id’s pleasure principle in its tendency to re-enact cognitively unpleasurable experiences:
In the unconscious mind we can recognize the dominance of a compulsion to repeat, which proceeds from instinctual impulses. This compulsion probably depends on the essential nature of the drives themselves. It is strong enough to override the pleasure principle and lend a demonic character to certain aspects of mental life. (Freud 145)
In the opening chapter of Rebecca the narrator describes a dream where she is forced to return to a greatly changed Manderley: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” (Du Maurier 1) That the narrator is forced to relive her experience of returning multiple times - first through the dream and then through recounting the dream to a third party - emphasises the role of involuntary repetition and returning. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud argues that the original function of dreams is not for wish fulfilment or the satisfaction of impulses, (Gay 609) but rather to bring repressed wishes into consciousness. Her vision of Manderley, then, could be interpreted as a psychological trigger for the narrator; an unconscious resurfacing of the site of her repressed desire and identification. As such, the renunciation of desire and repression of instincts has had, for the narrator, a degenerative psychological effect; she needs to relive her story through therapeutically revisiting the locus of repression.
In conclusion, Rebecca presents a world to the reader that appears to reaffirm binaries of gender essentialism, inversion and heteronormativity, as conveyed in late nineteenth and early twentieth century sexology. Through her depictions of the often prudish and normative narrator Du Maurier manages to uphold these preconceived ideologies. In this same way, she also appears fundamentally to uphold Freudian ideologies on gender essentialism, oedipality, identification and desire, as expressed in his Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman. Nevertheless, du Maurier complicates the world presented in Rebecca in her constructions of the eponymous heroine and Mrs Danvers’ homosexual relationship. First, their amalgamation of masculine and feminine attributes rejects sexology’s assertions of gender essentialism. On the other hand, the construction of their relationship, along with the construction of the narrator’s psychosexual transformation, rejects Freud’s segregation of identification and desire.
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