Bluebeard's Accomplice: Rebecca as a Masochistic Fantasy

By Pyrhonen, Heta | Mosaic (Winnipeg), September 2005 | Go to article overview

Bluebeard's Accomplice: Rebecca as a Masochistic Fantasy


Pyrhonen, Heta, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


This essay interprets Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca as an instance of Bluebeard Gothic, arguing that it turns the typical Gothic relations of dominance upside down: the romantic hero turns out to be a masochist, while his wife is allotted the role of the beating woman. The essay also examines the novel's "masochistic art of narration."

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In many Gothic romances, an older man brings a young wife into his family mansion. The imposing house contains a terrible secret, but the wife must promise not to explore it. In finally giving in to curiosity, she, however, acts according to the husband's covert script, for he never intended the requirement of obedience to be fulfilled. His goal, Anne Williams explains, is to make her realize the extent of his wealth and power and to see her (reflected) place in it. The dead women in Bluebeard's forbidden chamber, she argues, represent, "patriarchy's secret, founding 'truth' about the female: woman as mortal, expendable matter/mater" (43). We are dealing here with what I call Bluebeard Gothic, a specific variant of the Gothic romance that uses the "Bluebeard" fairy tale as its key intertext. Many women authors have used it in order to explore patriarchal power structures. Examples include Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle, Angela Carter's "The Bloody Chamber," Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," and Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, to name a few.

For Michelle Masse, the Gothic romance is about female masochism, as it portrays "suffering women whose painful initiations provide some vague pleasure for women authors, characters, and readers" (1). Treating masochism and the Gothic as mutually illuminative explications of women's pain, Masse analyzes the genre in terms of what Sigmund Freud calls the beating fantasy, in which a spectator watches someone being hurt by a dominant other. Bluebeard Gothic in particular highlights the danger of this fantasy by foregrounding what usually remains repressed: the beating itself and what it feels like to be the beaten. Freud holds that a girl identifies with the position of the beaten. Her fantasy of her father beating her confirms that she is loved, for his violence protects her against her forbidden incestuous desire: it equates being beaten with being loved. By depicting the fictional heroine's psychological development into a masochist who assigns subjectivity to another, argues Masse, the Gothic romance persuades readers to accept this situation as describing "normal" gender relationships (2-3, 7). Female writers and readers must come to terms with this Gothic danger. They must consider whether the spectator's position, which allows the pursuit of knowledge about the beating drama, is available for them. It enables them to recognize both their own and other women's suffering, to ask questions about it, and to make aggression work for the self, not against others (Masse 3, 239-40).

This essay treats Daphne du Maurier's best-selling Gothic romance, Rebecca, as a significant example of Bluebeard Gothic in order to examine the role masochism plays in it. The beating drama supplies a useful heuristic structural-psychological model for gaining access to the ways in which masochism as a fantasy structures du Maurier's novel. As a popular classic, Rebecca has invited considerable critical attention. Masse, for example, links it with female masochism, while Horner and Zlosnik identify it as a "Bluebeard" story with dream-like qualities (102, 104). Treating masochism as a psychic fantasy, however, is the aspect previous studies ignore. Fantasy structures, argues Meredith Ann Skura, invariably "pull the [text's] surface elements into new patterns and reveal new emphases" (88). In arguing for the usefulness of psychoanalysis as a mode of interpreting Gothic fiction, Williams calls for subtle textual analysis so that we might perceive how "these dream-like texts manifest in unexpected ways the expected principles of dream work, such as overdetermination, condensation, displacement" (137). …

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