To what extent does isolation cause the characters in both Rebecca and The Shining to be driven to destructive acts?
Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) and Stephen King’s The Shining (1977) explore the horror of isolation. The characters face the destructive effects of physical and mental isolation. This essay argues that isolation is a major cause of destructive acts, both psychological and physical because the characters are victims of alienation, ultimately causing entrapment. In Rebecca, there is a heavy emphasis on emotional isolation, which is depicted as a burden. Maxim’s self-imposed isolation results in a strained and tense marriage. The diffident narrator is isolated from ‘knowing’ which generates her unhappiness; thus, she creates a private fantasy that is detached from reality, leaving her in Rebecca’s shadow. This self-destructive act is detrimental to her self-identity as she over-identifies with Rebecca. The supernatural lurks in The Shining, due to isolation from humanity. The Overlook Hotel is a remote place of isolation, situated away from society and holds threatening secrets. While Jack intentionally isolates himself to cope with his alcoholism, Danny, due to his supernatural abilities, is the isolated outsider, even to his parents. Isolation, therefore, is one of the most horrifying experiences as it oppressively reminds the characters a lack of hope.
Isolation in Rebecca is depicted as a burden and imprisonment. The nameless protagonist’s naivety and innocence are affected by the physical isolation she experienced at the beginning of her life. Mrs Van Hopper remarks: ‘You’ve led an extremely sheltered life up to now, you know’ (Du Maurier, p.65). While being sheltered is a sign of protection and safety, the narrator lacks experience. Being an orphan, she is isolated from navigating the upper-world she is unexpectedly thrust upon – she is guideless from a familial perspective. In being ‘sheltered’ from society, she is characterised as ‘a docile narrator vulnerable to be overpowered by doubt and lack of self-confidence’ (Sharma, p.126). This social awkwardness is emotionally destructive as she cannot communicate the worries plaguing her mind to Maxim, her husband.
Her timid nature is at the forefront of her marriage where she is also alienated from Maxim’s thoughts and emotions. The heroine is exposed to Maxim’s ‘remote and emotionally chilly’ (Horner, p.102) aura, and this has disastrous effects upon her confidence and insecurity. She perceives her conclusions:
Was it always going to be like this? He away ahead of me, with his own moods that I did not share, his secret troubles that I did not know? Would we never be together, he a man and I a woman, standing shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand with no gulf between us? I did not want to be a child. (Du Maurier, p.220).
There is little communication between Maxim and the narrator, affecting her mental health. The secrecy that isolates them, the narrator’s ignorance, and Maxim’s refusal to communicate, portray the barrier that exists in their marriage. As she overthinks, the narrator’s numerous questions add a clutter element, reflecting her stressed mental state. Not knowing where the gulf or distance between them lies isolates her. This has a psychological effect upon her self-esteem and self-worth, which has derived from the emotional isolation imposed by Maxim. Power dynamics illustrate the unequal relationship between them: she cannot stand next to him, ‘shoulder to shoulder’, suggesting physical as well as carnal isolation. In her position as Maxim’s wife, the narrator drifts into a bubble of doubt and fear. The narrator becomes captive to psychological imprisonment due to rampant secrecy.
Maxim’s self-imposed isolation is further destructive to their marriage. He asserts his authority over her, treating her as a child:
There is a certain type of knowledge I prefer you not to have. It’s better kept under lock and key. So that’s that. And now eat up your peaches, and don’t ask me any more questions, or I shall put you in the corner’ (Du Maurier, p.226-227).
Maxim’s benign neglect reveals that ‘she has escaped a domineering employer only to be trapped in an equally troubling marriage’ (Sherman, 2017). Maxim draws up a barrier between them, where she is ‘free to explore and yet continually held under surveillance, the narrator…is “enclosed in openness” and infantilized’ (Horner, p.104). She is an outsider in her own marriage. Her enclosure is a paradox because she can explore Manderley, engage in a new lifestyle, yet there is ‘forbidden’ knowledge that Maxim detaches her from. This paradox expresses her emotional isolation as a place of confusion and anxiety. The narrator appears frustrated and dejected as she cannot access the ‘lock and key’ that would eliminate her emotional isolation. Maxim’s tone sounds patronising due to its finality, meaning she is ‘infantilized’ – she is treated ‘more like a young girl than an equal partner’ (Sharma, p.126). The imperative verbs ‘don’t’ and ‘eat’ are imposing and oppressive; her marriage has a lack of freedom as she is ‘forbidden’ to access certain ‘knowledge’. She is moulded to Maxim’s authority, leading to her unhappiness, highlighting their strained relationship.
Communicative isolation is psychologically destructive for the heroine. The memory of Rebecca hangs oppressively, and she lives in an atmosphere where no one communicates with her. When left to her own devices, she escapes her stifling isolation into a world of private fantasy, where she creates a version of Rebecca that leaves her in the latter’s shadow. This detachment from reality is detrimental at the expense of her female identity as she appears to over-identify with Rebecca. When obsessing over Rebecca’s handwriting, she realises, when she writes to Mrs Van Hopper, the housekeeper, ‘for the first time how cramped and unformed…[her] own handwriting [was]; without individuality, without style, uneducated even’ (Du Maurier, p.98). This demonstrates the female Gothic which has ‘anxieties surrounding identity and entrapment’ (Sherman, 2017). Rebecca ‘functions not only as the psychological projection of the heroine but also as a character of considerable power of her own’ (Meyers, p.34). The heroine’s obsession with Rebecca causes her to recognise the former wife as a rival, a double. Rebecca’s writing as cursive and elegant places the heroine’s in direct opposition as her writing is ‘cramped’ and ‘unformed’. The ‘cramped’ handwriting is symbolic of her entrapment in Rebecca’s shadow. Being over-shadowed leads to feeling of inadequacy, as she becomes fixated on her inexperience with education and lack of success. Living in Rebecca’s shadow produces the narrator’s isolation from her self-identity and individuality.
In The Shining, Danny’s supernatural ability is the cause of his isolation: ‘My son here can’t stop crying. Please send THE MEN IN WHITE COATS to take him to the SANNY-TARIUM. He’s LOST HIS MARBLES’ (King, p.215). Due to his young age, Danny lacks the knowledge to understand his ability. This is especially troubling at the Overlook as the Hotel lures him close enough for him to be obsessed with room 217, yet also isolates him from fully divulging its secrets. This private fantasy reveals Danny’s detachment from reality; he is afraid that if he breaks down due to his isolation and shows his torment, he will be labelled as insane and physically isolated in a psychiatric hospital. He becomes an outsider even from his family who cannot understand him fully. This is apparent through the capitalisation, illustrating phrases that further isolate him due to his phrases. It is a disturbing fantasy, especially for a child so young. This isolation in communication is a burden that entraps Danny, who cannot confide with anyone.
Dreams and desires are other effects of the narrator’s isolation. They manifest as a result of her being isolated from her self-identity. She consciously desires herself to be someone else: ‘I wish I was a woman of about thirty-six dressed in black satin with a string of pearls’ (Du Maurier, p.40). Liminality exists here, where the narrator longs to cross the age boundary to become a ‘woman’. Even by Maxim, she is referred to as a girl, fresh with innocence and naivety. She wishes to be another person, particularly a member of a higher social class she has been alienated from her entire life. She lacks experience and is prone to dangerous desires; her expectations and comforts are distorted the longer she stays at Manderley. Her identity crisis is encapsulated through ‘black satin’ and ‘string of pearls’, which symbolise the wealth and elegance the narrator lacks. Associating ‘black’ with the timid narrator is absurd because the colour signifies strength, authority, or sophistication. She shows insecurity during the early stages of her marriage to Maxim, showing Rebecca as the ideal woman she would aspire to emulate.
The heroine’s dream at the end of the novel implies her unconscious desire to emulate Rebecca:
I saw then that she was sitting on a chair before the dressing-table in her bedroom, and Maxim was brushing her hair […] as he brushed it, he wound it slowly into a thick rope. It twisted like a snake, and he took hold of it with both hands and smiled at Rebecca and put it around his neck (Du Maurier p.426).
According to Sigmund Freud, dreams reveal our repressed wants; the narrator’s disturbing dream establishes her repressed desire to become Rebecca. Her isolation from her self-identity causes her to unconsciously identify with Rebecca’s identity and sexuality.
Societal isolation for women of the period leads to Rebecca’s death as she is entrapped with social norms and decorum, as well as the cause of the narrator’s unstable female identity. The ‘thick rope’ that Maxim wraps around his neck signifies not only his escape from the law, yet also the narrator’s subconscious desire to escape from the patriarchal prison contemporary women were forcibly imposed under. This type of shared isolation is caused by the patriarchy. For Maxim, women are the ‘Other’, and this rendering allows ‘the construction of the masculine self’ (Horner, p. 106). As Horner and Zlosnik support, the ‘woman comes to represent the margins or extremes of the norm – the extremely good, pure and helpless, or the extremely dangerous, chaotic and seductive’ (Horner, p.106). The sexually deviant woman – Rebecca – becomes an outsider of society, as they threaten to undermine the structured, class-based, patriarchal order by refusing to fit the category of the ideal woman. Maxim isolates Rebecca and the narrator from each other according to his spectrum of female sexuality. When Rebecca usurps this order and Maxim’s masculine power, he murders her. This destructive action ‘reduces Rebecca to the role of catalyst in a masculine struggle for power and social status’ (Horner, p.108). Consequently, societal isolation for women due to stifling norms causes the novel’s most destructive act, Rebecca’s death. Despite Maxim’s efforts to isolate the narrator from Rebecca as a salacious woman, she continues to unconsciously identify with her.
The Overlook functions as a place of remote, physical isolation for Jack and his reclusive family. The Hotel is described as ‘a strangely indeterminate presence …a presence lacking in actual presence…the reader gets no full description of it, no writerly establishment shot’ (Sears, p.175). The unexplainable presence indicates a sinister motive, associated with secrecy. The Hotel is consumed with mystery, which works to isolate its inhabitants, and from this emerges the supernatural. The Overlook is the family’s deeper progressive isolation from both society and the demons that haunt their minds. Jack’s decision to be isolated from humanity is his struggle with alcoholism and anger issues. When being interviewed by Mr Ullman he declares, ‘I don’t intend to bring any alcohol up here, and I don’t think there will be any opportunity to get any before the snow flies’ (King, p.10). Jack aims to cut himself off from alcohol by the Hotel to avoid temptation. His declaration almost seems foreboding for the reader, as later in the novel, his alcoholism further secludes him from his wife and child by exacerbating his violent actions to commit murder. The Overlook’s menacing supernaturalism makes Jack’s isolation into a prison rather than a solution for him and his family.
The inevitability of isolation leading to destruction is evident with the reference to Poe’s short story, ‘The Masque of the Red Death’. In the epigraph of King’s novel there is a short passage linking to Jack’s isolation:
It was in this apartment, also, that there stood … a gigantic clock of ebony…when the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause (King, epigraph).
Prince Prospero, the ruler of the land, isolates himself from the plague in his mansion to avoid the disease. The motif of inner demons is vital to both stories: Jack aims to avoid his troubles and so becomes reclusive, physically isolating himself from the horrors inside himself and the world. However, the chiming of the clock is symbolic of the inescapability of destruction. The musicians cannot escape the plague, and Jack’s isolation can only aggravate his bad temper, destroying himself through death and his family psychologically as they will bear the trauma. Jack’s isolation places him in a vulnerable position and enables the Hotel to control his thoughts – he is entrapped with his isolation.
Rebecca and The Shining continually portray the main characters to be imposed under physical and mental isolation. The narrator’s isolation in Manderley places her in an inferior position, making her a secluded figure who is exposed to an upper-class lifestyle and is thus unprepared. Her social awkwardness signifies her powerlessness in the marriage, and early on she suffers through a stilted relationship due to uncommunication. Subsequently, being emotionally isolated from Maxim, due to his self-imposed alienation, she becomes detached from reality which manifests through unconscious, repressed dreams. Personal and societal isolation is destructive towards her self-identity. Her anxiety to become Maxim’s ideal wife is results in the lack of a distinguishable identity. Jack, however, wants to isolate himself from humanity but discovers that it further entraps him and forces him to face his inner demons. Danny is the most isolated character, both due to his age and his supernatural abilities. Yet, isolation is not the exclusive factor. Another element includes secrecy; characters are consumed with stifling secrets and reaches a self-destructive point. Isolation, however, broadens the character’s struggles and makes them victims who are entrapped.
Du Maurier, Daphne, Rebecca, London: Virago, 2003.
Horner, Avril, Sue Zlosnik, ‘The Secrets of Manderley: Rebecca’ in Daphne du Maurier: Writing, Identity and the Gothic Imagination, New York: Macmillan Press, 1998, pp.99-127
King, Stephen, The Shining, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2011
Meyers, Helene, ‘Gothic Traditions’ in Femicidal Fears: Narratives of the Female Gothic Experience, New York: State University New York Press, 2001, pp. 25-38
Sears, John, ‘This Inhuman Place: King’s Inhuman Places’ in Stephen King’s Gothic, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011, pp.155-181
Sharma, Sumit ‘Narrator’s Search for Identity in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier’ at http://ijellh.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/20-1.pdf, (accessed 02/03/2019).
Sherman, Pamela, ‘In Rebecca’s Shadow: Female Identity in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca’ at http://www.gothic.stir.ac.uk/blog/in-rebeccas-shadow-female-identity-in-daphne-du-mauriers-rebecca-1938/, (accessed 02/03/2019)