The most important thing to know about Rebecca is it relates to your life. Not because you’ve had a whirlwind romance with Armie Hammer that brought you to an English mansion. That probably hasn’t happened. But it relates to you because, at its core, Rebecca is about feeling like an imposter. That sense you don’t belong and can’t live up to standards or expectations others have of you. We’ve all experienced some pang of that feeling, whether in a relationship or a job or when entering a new environment like high school or college or moving to a new neighborhood.
Because Mrs. de Winter’s conflict is so universal, there’s an important lesson to learn from her story.
Rebecca is a coming-of-age story
At its core, Rebecca is a coming-of-age movie. The gothic thriller murder mystery that makes up most of the story is a vehicle for the evolution of Mrs. de Winter (Lily James), her journey from servile and naïve to confident and comfortable in the direst of circumstances.
In coming-of-age stories, the goal is to challenge the innocence of the main character (or characters). That can be done in any number of ways. For example, look at The Sandlot. Trying to “save a baseball signed by the legendary Babe Ruth from a backyard where a giant dog lives” interrupts the magical summers where a group of friends plays baseball. The experience challenges them in ways they had never been before. It begins to feel like life or death. And while that summer bonds them forever, they’re not the same innocent kids they were before.
Then you have a coming-of-age story like Forgetting Sarah Marshal. There, Peter, a guy in his late-twenties, struggles to get over his recent breakup. At the start of the movie, he’s man-child—eating cereal from a dog bowl, lounging in his pajamas all day in an apartment, with no real motivation. Soon after, his 5-year relationship ends, and he’s challenged by heartbreak. How do you recover? How do you improve? There are comedic and dramatic highs and lows that transform Peter into an adult capable of a serious meaningful relationship not just with someone else but, for the first time, with himself.
The Breakfast Club, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Lion King, The Kissing Booth, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, The Fault in our Stars, Superbad, Almost Famous, Dead Poets Society, Stand By Me, Good Will Hunting and many more all use this basic structure: introduce an innocent character, challenge them, have them rise up to the challenge.
Mrs. de Winter vs the ghost of Rebecca: a challenge
The secret ingredient is the challenge. The idea of a “challenge” is broad enough to incorporate all genres and almost any situation. Gambling (Rounders), football (The Waterboy), getting into college (Lady Bird), a summer job (Adventureland), or sharing pants with your friends (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants).
For Rebecca, that challenge is Mrs. de Winter being a second bride to Maxim de Winter. She steps into the life that had belonged to the previous wife. The house at Manderley. The decor. The clothes. The staff. Everything is a remnant. Nothing belongs to our narrator. And because of that, she feels out of place. It all serves to fuel Mrs. de Winter’s imposter syndrome. Especially the head-of-house, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Danvers, with her age and confidence, feels like the true matriarch. Her approval is something Mrs. de Winter craves. Lo and behold, Danvers is totally mad. A delusional woman who encouraged the late Rebecca’s every indiscretion and whim and now obsesses over the woman’s memory. There’s legitimately nothing the narrator could do to win Mrs. Danvers’ favor. Unfortunately, it takes most of the movie for her to realize that.
And that’s really where a lot of the core message of Rebecca derives from. During the second act, Mrs. de Winter wants to live up to the ghost of Rebecca. Will Maxim love her as much as Rebecca? Will the staff respect her as much as Rebecca? Will Maxim’s family be as fond of her? The shoes she has to fill feel colossal.
But it turns out, all of that pressure is due to a lack of information. Mrs. de Winter doesn’t know anything about Rebecca, aside from the cryptic, passing comments. The mystique that’s built up is akin to Apocalypse Now and the rumors and legends of Colonel Kurtz that we hear for 2 hours before finally encountering the character. Kurtz is true to the rumors, being every bit the deranged warrior-poet everyone said he was. Rebecca, though. Rebecca is anything but a beloved, lovely, tragic figure.
Rebecca was unfaithful. Hateful. Spiteful. Cruel. Maxim loathed her. She wasn’t this great lost love. She was his darkest secret. What everyone thought was grief over Rebecca’s death was nothing more than guilt over having been baited into shooting her in the stomach by Rebecca’s taunts of having a baby with her cousin, Jack Favell (Sam Riley).
That knowledge frees the narrator. She no longer perceives herself to be in Rebecca’s shadow. The light of truth burns away her trepidation and fear, allowing her take control of the situation in a way she’d been incapable of. The last act of Rebecca finds Mrs. de Winter responding with courage and confidence. She’s truly Maxim’s partner, unquestioning of the love he has for her and whether or not she deserves to be with him.
Belonging, the last shot, the power of eye contact, bye Rebecca
Mrs. de Winter’s microcosm is very niche and specific. Not many of us end up in a gothic mansion outside the UK, with staff to do our bidding. But all of us are capable of making the false assumption we don’t belong. That we’re unwanted. That we’re too common or unworthy of love from someone, or success in our career, or being part of a group. Often we talk ourselves into a panic, exaggerating minor moments and details. When the reality is far less ego-ruining.
I mean, Mrs. de Winter’s reality was still pretty dramatic. Maxim did kill his wife. And Mrs. Danvers is a psychopath who burns down the Manderley house then commits suicide. But, for Mrs. de Winter, all of that is much more palatable and tolerable and manageable than the pressure to live up to expectations of perfection. She could accept her husband’s sordid past far easier than trying to constantly live up to an ethereal, unmeasurable ideal.
The final voiceover contains all the psychological nuances of the coming-of-age journey: Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderely again. I dreamt of Mrs. Danvers and of Rebecca. But this morning, I woke up and left the dead behind. And as I sit before the mirror in our stuffy little room in Cairo—just another stop on our quest to find a real home—I can see the woman I am now. And I know that I have made the right decision. To save the one thing worth walking through flames for. Love.
It’s not a coincidence the voiceover plays while the character looks at photos of her and Maxim’s shotgun wedding. This was her at the beginning of the movie, with all her innocence in-tact. It’s a visual reminder, a final juxtaposition between then and now. The point driven home by her own words: “I can see the woman I am now.”
What kind of woman is that?
The answer lies in the film’s final shot. The couple wrapped in each other’s arms, kissing, escalating their passion—when Mrs. de Winter looks over Maxim’s shoulder and makes direct eye contact with the camera. Of her face, only her eyes visible. As if we’d been caught watching them. Yet. She’s not mad about it. She doesn’t register shock or embarrassment or any kind of self-consciousness. The look, rather, feels like a challenge to us. It’s something that will catch the viewer off guard. Put you back on your heels. She belongs there, in that moment. Do you?
And that’s one of the things I really love about Rebecca—it can remind you that you belong. Or inspire you to find that sense of belonging. As an artist, as a leader, as a significant other. Stop doubting your worth. Stop wondering if you can be happy or should be happy. Claim your title. Make eye contact. Stop comparing yourself to Rebecca.