By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Rebecca’ is a short story by the American writer Donald Barthelme (1931-89), whose work is sometimes labelled as ‘postmodernist’ (a label he was not entirely comfortable with, but which he accepted) and, occasionally, ‘metafiction’ (a label he was less happy with).
Published in the New Yorker in 1975, ‘Rebecca’ is a short story about love, acceptance, appearance, and identity, among other themes. Before we offer an analysis of the story and its themes, however, here’s a brief attempt to summarise the story’s plot.
‘Rebecca’: plot summary
The story begins with the third-person narrator telling us that a woman named Rebecca Lizard is trying to get legal permission to change her last name, which is ‘ugly’ and ‘reptilian’. However, the judge declines her request, so she’s stuck with the surname Lizard.
Rebecca, a schoolteacher, is in a relationship with another woman, named Hilda, and they live together. She has consulted numerous dermatologists about getting her skin treated, since it has a slight greenish tinge (which is doubly unfortunate when your surname’s Lizard). However, the latest in a long line of dermatologists she has seen tells her what all the others have told her: there is nothing to be done about her greenish skin.
When she gets home, she is upset about her failure to change her name or her skin colour. She even contemplates killing herself by putting her head in the oven, but even this cannot be done, since she has an electric (rather than gas) oven.
When Hilda arrives home late, Rebecca asks her where she’s been and Hilda tells her she was having a drink with a woman named Stephanie. Rebecca grows jealous and worries that Hilda doesn’t love her any more. However, Hilda reassures her that she finds Stephanie boring and isn’t interested in her in that way.
Nevertheless, shortly after this Hilda admits that she isn’t fond of Rebecca’s slightly greenish skin tone. Although she loves her, she doesn’t like her greenishness. Rebecca gets drunk, and when Hilda apologises for saying what she said, Rebecca reminds her that she used to say she love her greenishness. Was she lying then? Hilda says that she wasn’t lying: she did love her partner’s greenish skin colour when they first met, but not any more.
Hilda only makes matters worse when she seeks to reassure Rebecca that she can love her in spite of her appearance. They sit down to dinner, and the narrator ends the story by considering the nature of human love.
How should we analyse ‘Rebecca’? It is tempting to search for some kind of allegorical message, perhaps seeing Rebecca’s ‘greenish’ appearance as a subtly surreal symbol for some other skin colour (whether Black, Hispanic, Chinese, Japanese, or some other). Given Rebecca’s forename, one might alternatively view the story as about Jewishness and the persecution faced by Jewish people.
But any such interpretation of Barthelme’s story is not only reductive but also blind to its free-wheeling surrealism. Rebecca is supposed to be greenish. The greenishness is not a stand-in for something else, any more than ‘Lizard’ is meant to be interpreted as some code for another name. Lizard is her name, and her skin suffers from a rare and untreatable condition which renders it slightly green.
Either one of these afflictions would be unfortunate; Rebecca is doubly unlucky in having them coincide in her, given the greenness of lizards and the ugliness implicit within both characteristics.
‘Rebecca’ hasn’t received a great deal of critical commentary, compared with more famous Donald Barthelme stories like ‘The School’ (surely his signature work) or ‘The Indian Uprising’. But on Literary Hub, Emily Temple has gone through the story with a fine and forensic eye for detail, sensitively uncovering the clever and unusual narrative technique Barthelme deploys in this story.
After all, we cannot fail to register, as we read the story, the strange interjections made by the third-person narrator, especially in the story’s second half when Rebecca and Hilda are together.
What are we to make of these digressions, which are almost miniature lectures or essays delivered on the topic that the two women have been discussing? One possible way of approaching Barthelme’s unusual approach here is to view them as a form of ventriloquising of Rebecca’s own thoughts.
Right from the story’s opening sentence, as Temple observes, there’s a closeness between the narrative voice and the opinions held by Rebecca Lizard herself: the labels ‘ugly’ and ‘thoroughly unacceptable’, which are attached to her surname, sound like an expression of Rebecca’s own views (she is, after all, seeking legal permission to free herself of her ‘unacceptable’ surname at the beginning of the story), especially with the intensifier ‘thoroughly’ which qualifies ‘unacceptable’.
This is a form of free indirect speech, that narrative device whereby the words of an impersonal third-person narrator are merged with the words (whether spoken or merely thought) of one of the story’s characters. But Barthelme takes this technique one stage further in ‘Rebecca’.
As Temple observes in her analysis of the story, the narrator’s sharp words to the ‘idiot’ who accosts Rebecca as she leaves the courtroom indicate that the narrator feels a great degree of sympathy for Rebecca, and we might go even further and suggest that Barthelme is giving us free indirect speech taken to its extreme.
When the narrator breaks into the account of Rebecca and Hilda’s row at the end of the story, opining about everything from drunkenness to what the Larousse Encyclopedia of Animal Life has to say about lizards, we might view these moments as a more extreme version of Rebecca’s own internal monologue: she is trying to deflect from the situation, and these asides might be viewed as an insight into her own racing thoughts (inflected, though, in a rather unbelievable and surreal manner) as she tries to cope with the mounting argument between her and her lover. They are, in other words, an avoidance tactic.
These moments, then, give us an insight into Rebecca’s own evolving attitude towards herself, towards Hilda, and specifically, towards Hilda’s attitude towards Rebecca. How we view ourselves is often dependent on how others view us.
These moments where narrator brings us out of the story, as it were, with little fact-dumps or proffered opinions, echo Rebecca’s own uneasy shift between internal knowledge or knowingness and her constant sense of how others, such as Hilda, view her and know her.
In the last analysis, then, ‘Rebecca’ might be viewed as a story about an unlucky woman whose beauty is tempered by a slightly unusual ‘genetic anomaly’ and an unfortunate piece of luck when it comes to her family name. Should we seek to change these intrinsic details about ourselves, or accept them? What if others around us cannot accept them, such as when Hilda confesses that she finds her lover’s greenish hue a turn-off?
To risk descending into platitudinous territory, love is about accepting the minor flaws in those we love, especially those out of their control. And ‘love’ is clearly an important theme for the story, as the final sentence makes clear: and love is, in the words of the narrator, grisly and golden, beautiful and rough. Perhaps even easy and hard?