Rebecca is a gothic romance of the kind that has been popular since the genre was invented in the late eighteenth century. The plot is conventional: The protagonist, a young woman, finds herself in an unfamiliar and sinister setting, where she must solve a mystery and win the heart of a handsome man. This novel, which is considered one of the finest of its type, continues to be popular in the late twentieth century, despite the fact that the central character accepts a subservient role in society and in marriage.
Rebecca begins, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” This often-quoted line sets the story in motion, not only establishing the narrative voice but also indicating that what follows will be an account of past events, ending sadly. In the pages that follow, however, the narrator explains that although they must live far from home, she and her husband are devoted to each other. After further arousing the curiosity of her readers with tantalizing references to the title character and to a Mrs. Danvers, Daphne du Maurier begins her story.
Although from this point on the novel moves chronologically, the narrator frequently uses similar hints to foreshadow future events, thus maintaining a high level of suspense. For example, in chapter 3 she muses, “I wonder what my life would be today, if Mrs. Van Hopper had not been a snob.” It soon becomes clear that the social aspirations of this rich American woman vacationing in Monte Carlo have resulted in the introduction of the narrator, who is Mrs. Van Hopper’s hired companion, to the aristocratic Maxim de Winter, and eventually in their marriage. When Mrs. Van Hopper decides to leave immediately for New York, the recently widowed Max does not want to lose his young companion, and to the older woman’s astonishment, he proposes. The result of Mrs. Van Hopper’s snobbery is now clear; what is still to be explained is the rest of the sentence, which recalls the narrator’s statements about suffering in the introductory chapters. For those answers, one must read on.
After this brief beginning, the novel moves to England and Manderley, Max’s country house by the sea. From the moment she sees the staff waiting for her, the narrator feels insecure. Ill at ease in British upper-class society, the shy, inexperienced girl fears that she cannot live up to the standards set by Max’s late wife Rebecca, a woman of great sophistication and legendary beauty. The narrator’s sense of inadequacy is carefully nurtured by the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, who adored Rebecca and who takes every opportunity to make her successor feel like an intruder. Unfortunately, Max goes on with his own life, minimizing his wife’s concerns and refusing to talk about Rebecca. Thus isolated, the narrator is sustained only by the kindness of Max’s sister Beatrice Lacy and by the evident approval of his agent Frank Crawley.
Without any facts at her disposal, the protagonist proceeds blindly, with no way of knowing what will please or displease her husband. When she breaks a valuable ornament, horrifying Mrs. Danvers, Max treats the matter as trivial. Yet he disapproves of his wife’s going into a boathouse used by Rebecca, and he becomes livid after learning that Rebecca’s cousin Jack Favell has put in an appearance. The protagonist does not feel Max’s full fury, however, until the ball. When he sees her in the costume that Mrs. Danvers had suggested, he becomes enraged. Without explaining that Rebecca had previously worn an identical costume, he simply tells his wife to change and throughout the evening treats her like a stranger. Taking advantage of this breach between husband and wife, Mrs. Danvers has begun hypnotizing the broken-hearted girl into jumping to her death when, providentially, the explosion of rockets, signaling a shipwreck, shocks the narrator into sanity.
Ironically, it is the shipwreck that reunites the couple, even though it also results in Max’s having to defend himself against a suspicion of murder. When he hears that divers have found Rebecca’s body on her sunken boat, Max finally takes the narrator into his confidence. Throughout their marriage, he says, Rebecca had been malicious and promiscuous; when she indicated that she was to have a bastard child, who would inherit Manderley, Max shot her, put her body in the boat, and sank it. Now, he says, Rebecca has won. When the narrator assures him that she has no intention of deserting him, however, it is evident that, in fact, Rebecca has lost. Whatever follows, love has triumphed.
The final segment of the book describes the inquest and its aftermath. Despite the efforts of Jack Favell and Mrs. Danvers, Max is officially cleared of suspicion. Even though he has guessed the truth, the magistrate, Colonel Julwin, is so sympathetic with Max’s sufferings and so repelled by Favell’s attempts at blackmail that when he discovers Rebecca had been terminally ill, he chooses to call the drowning a suicide. On their way back from London, however, Max and his wife see a glow in the sky and realize that Rebecca’s two friends have taken revenge by setting Manderley on fire.