Spoiler altert: I discuss the full plot of the book and film Rebecca in this blog, as well as the ending of Denis Johnson’s “Emergency.”
I first saw Daphne Du Marier’s Rebecca as a film–Alfred Hitchcock’s amazing movie with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. I was just a kid; my babysitter, who was a writer, took me to a little theater that used to live by LaVal’s pizza in Berkeley. As the credits ran, I searched for the name of the actress who’d played the most captivating character of them all, the title role of Rebecca. But of course, she never shows up in the film. In the book, too, she is entirely a creation of the narrator and the people around her.
The narrator is the mousy and very young second wife of the drowned Rebecca’s husband Maxim de Winter. Everything we learn about Rebecca is filtered through her lens, and although we cringe at her meekness and long for her to stand up for herself and realize her own worth, we are as convinced as she is that Maxim is in love with Rebecca and probably always will be. His moodiness is easy to understand as an inability to adjust to this simple, plain wife after having been married to the charismatic and gorgeous Rebecca who stirred so many people’s passions.
The great turning point near the end of the book comes when our nameless narrator learns that Max did not love Rebecca. “I hated her,” he declares. In fact, he killed her, struck her because she was carrying another man’s baby and knew that he would be too ashamed to divorce her and call her bluff. Or so he believes. In the movie, the young protagonist can barely hear Maxim’s confession about hitting Rebecca, watching her fall, realizing she was dead and shunting her off in her sailboat. She just keeps repeating, “You didn’t love her.”
Here is where I am making my grand play for the POV is plot argument: The plot of Rebecca is dependent first on the narrator’s perspective. If we knew all along that Max hated Rebecca, we’d have a completely different story–almost no story at all. Once that tidbit is revealed, we are given a new set of facts that are taken as concrete–Max killed the pregnant Rebecca.
At Rebecca’s cousin-cum-lover’s insistence, the characters begin to follow clues left behind by Rebecca about her last days. It turns out that she’d gone to a doctor far away, up near London. The cousin, the crazy housekeeper who was Rebecca’s nursemaid, the inspector and Maxim’s loyal estate lawyer, Frank, all go, along with Max and his young wife, to find out why Rebecca went to the doctor. The narrator and Max know why, of course: she was pregnant. The suspense at this time, then, is how will these facts come out and how will this cast further suspicion on Max. They are really just stretching out the time before the inevitable discovery of Maxim’s crime–and they want, now, to spend that time together.
But at the doctor’s we learn that Rebecca was not pregnant, as she’d told Max. She had cancer and was dying. Point of view, again, sets us up and turns the story.
Plot is about what is revealed and what is hidden. What somebody knows that somebody else does not know. Therefore, in those moments when you wish you could follow some other characters to some other place and leave your chosen narrator behind, consider instead your plot options–what your narrator doesn’t know can hurt him, but that can’t hurt the plot!
Plot, in turn, will test your characters, which will reveal them the more fully, which will have an impact on their point of view.
A few more brief notes on some of the other ways point of view is interwoven into every aspect of the book: What your narrator sees and misses in a room or landscape will define your setting. The character’s mood will define, too, what s/he sees and how it looks. The voice, the language choices, that shape your narrative will come from the narrator, whether an embodied character or an omniscient point of view or one that moves among characters. The language will shape the page, the rhythms and feeling of the story.
What your narrator hears will influence dialog. Think of Denis Johnson’s wonderful use of dialog to end “Emergency.” (I am discussing this from memory, so forgive any slight errors.) He sets us up for the line a couple of pages ahead, telling us that it was saying this thing that showed the narrator what set his friend apart from him. Then we get the whole scene about picking up the guy who’s gone AWOL, and at the very end, the AWOL guy asks the friend, who is a drug-addled orderly, What do you do for a living? And the orderly answers, “I save lives.”
What is remarkable about the line is what it means to the narrator and how it is set up, rather than the sentiment itself. This whole story is about point of view, as when the narrator sees giant angel faces full of pity and it turns out to be the drive-in movie theater in the snow. Oh, he says, I thought it was something else. The splendor of that scene, and of the entire story, is wholly dependent on the misunderstandings fostered by the point of view.
Does this mean you should stress out more about your point of view choices? I don’t think so. I think it means that you should lean into the limits of the point of view. Use them for plot turns and thematic revelations, and as guides to language, setting and dialog. Trust the work that point of view does in your story and see where it can lead you.
[I am offering an online course in revision beginning January 15 for anyone with some rough manuscript, fiction or narrative non-fiction–including memoir. Send me an email to receive my once-a-month writing tip newsletter for sales and special offers. See you on the screen!]