Even though she is writing in the well-worn gothic pattern, Daphne du Maurier incorporates elements from other literary traditions into her novels. Both thematically and symbolically, her works are much richer than most others of their kind.
For example, Rebecca reflects one of the central motifs in literature: the expulsion from paradise. Significantly, when in the first chapters of the novel the protagonist mentions her grief, the focus is not on Manderley, the house, but instead on that area of the grounds called the Happy Valley. The house was a showplace, created by Rebecca and imbued with her evil spirit. Her presence dominated the west wing, overlooking the ocean, and it was almost as evident in the east wing, where the newly wedded couple had been placed, for their rooms had been prepared by Rebecca’s second self, Mrs. Danvers. Rebecca seemed to haunt the oceanside cottage, where she had met her lovers, and the ocean itself, whose deceptive beauty and destructive force mirrored her own being.
While in her dream the narrator does return briefly to the library at Manderley, where she and Max had some companionable moments, it is the Happy Valley that must be seen as their paradise. At Monte Carlo, when he first describes his home to his future wife, Max dwells not on the house, but on that particular area of the grounds. Even without his comments, however, the protagonist would have recognized the importance of the Happy Valley. When Max takes her there, she sees his joy, she finds herself freed from the oppression that grips her elsewhere on the estate, and somehow she knows that the Happy Valley is the heart, the central reality, of Manderley.
The fact that the Happy Valley still exists after the house has been destroyed represents the triumph of good over evil, which is central to du Maurier’s story. Although Max, and the protagonist along with him, must pay the price of murder by being expelled from Manderley and turned away from the paradise at the heart of it, in their love for each other, which the forces of evil could not destroy, the pair carry with them into exile the goodness that they sensed resided in the Happy Valley.
Closely associated with the theme of the lost paradise in Rebecca is that of the loss of innocence. In her choice of a female protagonist as the character who moves from innocence to experience during the course of the story, du Maurier is merely following a convention of gothic romance. By having her narrator play the role of her earlier self as she relates the story, however, the author can show how closely innocence is allied with ignorance and even with potentially deadly error. Admittedly, initially Max finds the protagonist appealing because, unlike Rebecca, she is so innocent. Admittedly, he does send her into danger by evading her questions about the past. It is as much her own imagination as Max’s silence, however, which very nearly results in the protagonist’s suicide. In a sense, while she lives at Manderley, the narrator is writing her own novel. She busies herself inventing scenes in which the gentry criticize her and pity Max—scenes in which she is unfavorably compared to Rebecca. At one point, to Max’s horror, she even acts the part of the Rebecca she imagines. After Max confides in her, it becomes clear how erroneous all the narrator’s assumptions have been. The world she has created does not exist except in her imagination. What du Maurier seems to be suggesting is that in the real world, innocence can be dangerous, even fatal. It is experience, not innocence, knowledge, not ignorance, which enable the narrator to survive.