What’s in a Name?: Shadows and Identity in REBECCA

3 April 2011

In one of the most climactic moments of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 noir thriller Rebecca, Max (Laurence Olivier) tells his unnamed wife (“what’s her name”) (Joan Fontaine), “[Rebecca’s] shadow has been between us all the time, keeping us from one another.”  Oh, if it were only as simple as that, Max.  Although he is correct, Rebecca is often represented as a shadow and comes between him and “what’s her name,” it is his new wife’s lack of identity that allows interference in the newlywed’s relationship.

Shadows creep over nearly all the characters in Rebecca from time to time (it is noir after all), but no character is as overlaid with shadows as “what’s her name.”  This is particularly true in the scenes at Manderley.  At times, the shadows covering “what’s her name” are so overwhelming she fades completely into the walls or room décor.  “What’s her name” moves into Manderley as Mrs. de Winter, the lady of the house, but she does not enter with any prior sense of self; therefore, Rebecca, who was the original Mrs. de Winter and lady of the house, becomes superimposed, in the form of shadows, over “what’s her name.”

Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) recognizes how Rebecca’s shadowy presence lingers in the house and is overwhelming “what’s her name.”  When Mrs. Danvers takes “what’s her name” on a tour of Manderley’s west wing (Rebecca’s quarters), Mrs. Danvers articulates for the audience the connection between Rebecca and shadows.  As Mrs. Danvers holds Rebecca’s black, shear negligee, she puts her hand underneath it and says, “Look, you can see my hand.”  Mrs. Danvers’s hand is barely recognizable beneath the dark negligee, the way “what’s her name” is barely recognizable under the shadow of Rebecca.  The comment frightens “what’s her name” with good reason; Mrs. Danvers’s statement about Rebecca’s negligee (and, symbolically, Rebecca herself) points out the fear “what’s her name” is facing; Rebecca’s presence is all around her, covering and constraining her.

Yet, Rebecca’s presence can only overtake “what’s her name” (her thoughts, actions, and dreams) because “what’s her name” has no identity of her own.  Every character in the film, including the title character (who is dead before the start of the narrative), the mansion, and the dog, has a name; in fact, most characters have nicknames in addition to their formal names.  For example, Mrs. Danvers is Danny, Maxim is known as Max, and Jackson is known as Jack; yet, “what’s her name” has no name at all, and therefore no identity.  In marrying Max she gains the title Mrs. de Winter; however, this title is not an identity.  Truthfully, Mrs. de Winter is more an extension of Maxim de Winter’s identity than “what’s her name’s.”  That is, Mrs. de Winter serves as an accessory to the famous Mr. de Winter.   Even Rebecca was aware of that.  After all, only days after marrying, Rebecca made a deal with Max to play the role of Mrs. de Winter in public, but live out her true identity, as Rebecca, in private with Jack. 

Because “what’s her name” never identifies herself, Max’s realization that he and his new wife are being “[kept] from on another” will remain true, even after Manderley and Rebecca are eliminated from the new couple’s lives.  It is not Rebecca or anyone else at Manderley who came between the two; any identity can take hold of “what’s her name” until she finds or defines her own.   

Symbolically, “what’s her name” is the dead woman Max originally identified as Rebecca; a person who he describes as “some unknown woman, unclaimed, belonging nowhere.”  Again, since this is a film noir, the Rebecca’s conclusion must leave a sense of purposelessness and hopelessness.  These feelings have nothing to do with Mrs. Danvers burning Manderley down; they have everything to do with “what’s her name” never identifying herself.  And, like that dead woman, “what’s her name” will always be manipulated to serve someone else’s interests, forced to wear a guise, and displaced from her true self.

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 03/04/2011.

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