When I was preparing to write this column I was of the firm opinion that Maximillian de Winter was a definite douchebag. My vague memories of him, from reading the book years ago, were of a cold man who married a mouse of a girl and then began to coolly neglect her as she was bullied by those around them. In many ways he was to me the epitome of a romance alphahole – proud, rich, and full of himself. It was surprising when I went back to the text to see how differently the heroine saw him.
At the start of the story she tells us, “He is wonderfully patient and never complains, not even when he remembers.” Impressive but then after all he has been through maybe he has learned contentment. But then further down is a section that really impressed me:
“Mr. de Winter is having coffee with us, go and ask the waiter for another cup,” she said, her tone just casual enough to warn him of my footing. It meant I was a youthful thing and unimportant, and that there was no need to include me in the conversation. She always spoke in that tone when she wished to be impressive, and her method of introduction was a form of self-protection, for once I had been taken for her daughter, an acute embarrassment for us both. This abruptness showed that I could safely be ignored, and women would give me a brief nod which served as a greeting and dismissal in one, while men, with large relief, would realize they could sink back into a comfortable chair without offending courtesy.
It was a surprise, therefore, to find that this newcomer remained standing on his feet, and that it was he who made the signal to the waiter.
“I’m afraid I must contradict you,” he said to her, “you are both having coffee with me.”
Okay, I’ll admit that at this moment I swooned a bit. Clearly our heroine had been used to being dismissed before and here this handsome, rich, eligible man is the first to treat her with courtesy. I love a man with gracious manners and good will towards those considered beneath him. He went even higher in my estimation a little later in the conversation after an embarrassing moment. “I think he realized my distress, for he leaned forward in his chair and spoke to me in a gentle voice.”
This is one of endless little thoughtful acts, from driving the heroine to the places she wants to sketch to caring for her comfort. “There’s a cold wind this morning, you had better put on my coat.”
Then things seem to go south starting with the marriage proposal. “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool” is hardly the romantic question women dream of. “It’s a pity you have to grow up” makes him sound more a pedophile than an ardent lover. The moments leading up to The Big Revelation don’t really show a lover like devotion either.
The problem, of course, is that rather than being a traditional romantic hero Max de Winter is a gothic hero. What’s the difference? Here’s one explanation:
The thrill that people find in a Gothic novel is based on fear, desire and sin—the things that lack in the average person’s life. However, all these would be nothing without a Gothic Hero to embody all of those things. The Gothic Hero delights the reader with his elusiveness and the foreboding danger that always seems to follow him. As opposed to the seemingly perfect, savior-like personality the traditional hero has, the villainous allure that the Gothic Hero possessed enchants the reader. In Rebecca, Maxim de Winter is a true Gothic Hero. Experiencing a fall from grace in which he showed villainous impulses; Maxim isolated himself from the world and eventually received retribution for his crime.
I think the above explains the attraction of the gothic heroes of such authors as Victoria Holt and Phyllis A. Whitney, some of whom would easily be called douchebags. And now it is time to ask the question to AAR Staffers: Is Max de Winter a dreamboat or a douchebag?
Anne Marble: I like that distinction. Getting a Gothic hero is like expecting Ryan Gosling, or Chris Hemsworth, or…. (OK, name your popular star)… And getting Johhny Depp. Or Neil Gaiman. Or even Eric Draven from The Crow. He’s not going to make wisecracks in the middle of a fist fight, but he might be the stronger hero in the right circumstances. Maybe he’s the hero equivalent of the “quiet strength” heroine, although of course he’ll have his inner demons to worry about. This reminds me of the Eight Hero Archetypes article that I was looking at recently.
Caz: When I read the sentence about his being a gothic hero rather than a romantic one, I practically jumped up and pumped by fist into the air, because yes, that’s it exactly. I haven’t read the book all that recently, but I’ve read it several times, and also had a bit of a binge on gothics some years back – older “classic” titles as well as digging into the big collection of Victoria Holt’s books I amassed in the 70s and 80s.
And Max is definitely a hero in that mould. The story is told exclusively from the heroine’s PoV, which immediately puts the reader at a distance from him, as we can never really get inside his head and have to view his actions through that one viewpoint. It’s something I’d forgotten, and which was brought home when re-reading and listening to audio versions of some of Holt’s books over the last couple of years. I can understand that it’s also something which can be particularly frustrating to the modern reader who is more used to getting both protagonists’ PoV in romance novels.
With Max, I think the point is that he shows to best advantage when he’s out of England. The place holds so many terrible memories for him, and it’s clear that from the moment he sets foot in his home, he starts to feel the weight of those memories start to pull him down. But when in France, he’s charming and considerate and I think it speaks volumes for the depth of his attraction towards “the girl” that he pays attention to the “little” things – protecting her from Mrs van Hopper’s wrath when he can, taking her sketching, just showing her the small considerations that she’s probably never received before – and then to go so far as to marry her, a nobody, when he could have had anyone… As the book progresses, we come to see that one of her attractions –probably the main one – is that’s she’s Rebecca’s polar opposite, but IMO that still doesn’t diminish the fact that Max married her when he didn’t have to or need to – so he must have wanted to.
Later in the book, it’s much more difficult to see Max as a romantic hero as his past comes back to haunt him. He seems to neglect his new wife the moment they set foot inside Manderley, which points to douche-baggery, it’s true, but I think it’s also probably true of men of that time and that class that they would have expected to continue to run their lives as they had before marriage – although it’s definitely selfish and and inconsiderate of him to expect his bride to know how to run a house like Manderley when the reason he married her was precisely BECAUSE she had never been brought up to do something like that. I put it down to thoughtlessness rather than being a douchebag, but again, modern sensibilities will undoubtedly err in that direction.
Ultimately, I think it’s difficult to pin Max down with either of those tags. In the early part of the book he’s a definite dreamboat, then he starts to look like a douchebag… although I really can’t bring myself to condemn him that far, and let’s face it, he’s got some pretty nasty inner demons to deal with. Can he be a dreamboat with some douche-bag tendencies?
Dabney: I feel like you have no idea who Max will be now that there is no Manderley. So, based on who he has been in the book, I think he’s no one I’d believe could love the second Mrs. DeWinter in a supportive, partnered way.
I must confess I also find Max a bit of a weakling–he couldn’t define himself beyond his evil wife and his house. I didn’t hold out much hope for a robust spouse post-fire.
Mary: Me either, Dabney.
Caroline: I’ve only seen the movie, but I thought he was a real sucker to have the wool pulled over his eyes by Mrs. Danvers like that. As soon as she duped the narrator into wearing Rebecca’s costume to the party, Max ought to have sacked her. Gothic, whatever – if you let your employee treat your wife like that, you’re a douchebag.
Lynne AAR: Yes! On the one hand, I can see strains of tortured hero in Max and the way he initially took notice of the invisible narrator and whisked her away to Manderley seemed so romantic to me. However, life at Manderley is anything but romantic. Max de Winter seems terribly rigid and underneath that inflexibility, terribly weak to have been so duped by Mrs. Danvers. And then there’s that description of Max and the narrator’s life together after the events at Manderley – they so carefully avoid anything that might remind them of bad memories that he ends up basically making the poor nameless narrator avoid anything that seems like life all together.
I love this book, but as I once blogged, I just can’t call it romance. And I do think Max is horrid.
So now it’s your turn. Max de Winter, dreamboat or douchebag?