Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Manderley. Estate in Cornwall to which Max de Winter brings his new bride, the second Mrs. de Winter. There, he earlier lived with his first wife, Rebecca. From the blood-red rhododendrons surrounding this house of secrets to its iron gates holding in its past when Max and his second wife arrive in early May, Manderley is a forceful, menacing, and even malignant presence. The house itself seems to cause the events of the plot by acting upon the characters. As willful and capricious as the spirit of the dead Rebecca herself, the house symbolizes her tomb; her spirit infuses the place. In this ghostly personification, Rebecca actually seems to transcend the gothic form.

Manderley is based on two distinctive houses, one a house du Maurier visited as a child, and the other, Menabilly, a house in which she herself lived for more than twenty-five years. The houses merged in the landscape of her imagination to become Manderley, which inspired one of the most famous opening lines of twentieth century literature: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” As potent as a presence, as moody as a person, Manderley has a living aura and is as much a character in the novel as any man or woman. In fact, the house figures in the sensibilities of both of Max de Winter’s wives more than any living presence by being imbued with the spirit of his first wife, Rebecca.

According to a published memoir, du Maurier visited a family friend’s home, Milton, in 1917, and her memory of that house created the seed for Manderley. Struck by Milton’s portraits of four centuries of family ancestors, du Maurier wondered if the ancestors’ presences still haunted the house—with menace. For her the past is clearly a destructive force, destroying the present, just as the past wreaks havoc on present lives in Rebecca.


*Cornwall. Historic region of southwestern England to which du Maurier felt a passionate attachment. Her sense of Cornwall’s atmosphere is integral to each of the novels she set there. Remote, distant from the rest of England, full of antiquities from prehistoric times to Arthurian legend, Cornwall infuses the imagination with history in a setting in which the ghosts of the past intrude upon the present. Dramatic things happen in such settings. For example, a shipwreck that du Maurier witnessed off the Cornish coast in 1930 became transposed as a symbol of the tragedy haunting Manderley in Rebecca. Indeed, the novel itself, originated in du Maurier’s memory of place. While she was living in Alexandria, Egypt, she became so homesick for the woods and shores of Cornwall that she was moved to write a novel about it, and that novel became Rebecca.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

When Rebecca appeared in 1938, it was dismissed as a romance written to fit a familiar formula, designed purely for entertainment. Critics admired du Maurier’s technical skill, but they did not look in the novel for thematic or symbolic subtleties. The fact that since its publication Rebecca has continually remained in print, selling steadily over the years, must be attributed primarily to its still holding the same appeal for readers which made it such a commercial success a half century ago. The book is exciting and suspenseful, it has the kind of setting that lends itself to ghost stories, and it is essentially a love story with a happy ending.

Although many women readers evidently can still identify with heroines as subservient as the protagonist of Rebecca, contemporary critics are taking a new look at the novel. It is difficult to reconcile its seeming acceptance of a patriarchal system of male dominance with what, in her authorized biography, Margaret Forster has shown about the author herself. Not only was du Maurier convinced from childhood that she was a male in a female body, but, though a wife and mother, she felt free to have affairs with other people of both sexes. In other words, although she was not selfish and spiteful, in many ways du Maurier resembled Rebecca more than she did the virtuous protagonist of her novel.

Evidently, Rebecca is a more complex work than it was once thought to be. While it can hardly be argued that Rebecca is a sympathetic character or that her minions, Favell and Mrs. Danvers, are anything but revolting, du Maurier does show how dangerous not only innocence but also a system based on female subservience can be for both partners in a relationship. As she finally realizes, the narrator is of little use either to herself or to Max until she has developed an identity of her own. It is not the shy and helpless girl, but a woman—strong, self-confident, and independent—who chooses to support her husband in his ordeal and, in their exile, to make his life worth living.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Post World War I
During the 1800s, Britain had built its empire by adding colonies, dominions, and protectorates. These were the...

(The entire section is 935 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

With the exception of the opening chapters in Monte Carlo, Rebecca takes place at the country estate of Manderley. The now famous...

(The entire section is 200 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

There are two main settings for this novel. The first is the resort of Monte Carlo on the southern coast of France....

(The entire section is 1032 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Du Maurier excels at first person narration. Rebecca is written from the point of view of Maxim's second wife, whose name is never...

(The entire section is 254 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1938: The first nuclear fission of uranium is achieved by German scientists. This is the physical reaction that leads to the nuclear...

(The entire section is 372 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Mrs. Van Hopper has briefed the young narrator on the history of Manderley and its owner, Maxim de Winter. With her previous knowledge, do...

(The entire section is 228 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Discuss the way the young narrator slowly collects information on Rebecca's personality and habits.

2. Read Charlotte...

(The entire section is 116 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Monte Carlo is still recognized around the world as a vacation spot for the rich. Research what it was like in the 1930s: what sort of people...

(The entire section is 199 words.)

Techniques / Related Titles

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

As at least one critic has pointed out, du Maurier is at her best when writing in first person. My Cousin Rachel (1951) is told from the...

(The entire section is 187 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Rebecca follows the tradition of the Gothic novel and is largely responsible for the genre's resurgence in the twentieth century. First...

(The entire section is 298 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

While Rebecca describes the struggle between good and evil, My Cousin Rachel explores the nature of good and evil. The...

(The entire section is 234 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Barkham, John, Review in New York Review of Books, March 8, 1953, p. 8.

Davenport, Basil, "Sinister...

(The entire section is 122 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Bakerman, Jane S., ed. And Then There Were Nine . . . More Women of Mystery. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1985. A collection of essays. Bakerman’s chapter on Daphne du Maurier argues that in her six “romantic suspense novels,” including Rebecca, can be seen not only new uses of the gothic “formula” but also reflections of other literary traditions. Sees du Maurier as preeminent in her genre.

Beauman, Sally. “Rereading Rebecca.” The New Yorker 69, no. 37 (November 8, 1993): 127-138. Points out that the publication in 1993 of Forster’s biography of du Maurier and of Susan Hill’s Mrs. de Winter, a sequel to the novel, indicate the lasting importance of Rebecca in literary history. Beauman voices her surprise that feminist critics have not turned their attention to a work in which the narrator so clearly equates love with submission. A balanced and perceptive analysis.

Conroy, Sarah Booth. “Daphne du Maurier’s Legacy of Dreams.” The Washington Post, April 23, 1989, pp. F1, F8. Accounts for du Maurier’s continuing appeal by placing her in the oral tradition. The deep-seated “universal fears” that are experienced by her characters and the rhythms of her prose are reminiscent of fireside storytelling. Of all of her well-developed characters, the most convincing is Manderley itself.

Du Maurier, Daphne. The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1980. Examines the birth and adolescence of a novel. Contains all textual notes and personal commentary by the author. A comparison of this source and the final text is fascinating. Also included are family anecdotes.

Forster, Margaret. Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller. New York: Doubleday, 1993. The first authorized biography of du Maurier. With the aid of previously unavailable source materials, Forster reveals du Maurier’s lifelong ambivalence as to her sexual identity. She concludes that the novels permitted du Maurier to be psychologically, as well as financially, independent. Although it contains little critical analysis of the works, the volume is a useful addition to du Maurier scholarship.

Hollinger, Karen. “The Female Oedipal Drama of Rebecca from Novel to Film.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 14, no. 4 (1993): 17-30. A feminist view of the translation of a Gothic novel into the film media.

Kelly, Richard. Daphne du Maurier. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Discusses the notebook for Rebecca as well as subsequent film and television versions. Includes commentary from periodicals and a list of all works in chronological order.

“Novel of the Week: Survival.” The Times Literary Supplement, August 6, 1938, 517. A contemporary review of Rebecca, “a low-brow story with a middle-brow finish.” Of the characters, only the narrator is believable; however, the work is well crafted and readable, one of the few in its genre which can be considered an unqualified success.

Shallcross, Martyn. The Private World of Daphne du Maurier. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. An insightful, sympathetic overview of the author by a close family friend. Includes many pictures and a chronological bibliography of the du Maurier canon.

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

In 1977, as part of the celebration of her seventieth birthday, Daphne du Maurier participated in a television biography about her life. This...

(The entire section is 169 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

The script for Arthur Hopcraft's 1996 adaptation of Rebecca for television has been published in paperback by Andre Duetsch Ltd.


(The entire section is 238 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

"Daphne du Maurier—Romantic." Ladies' Home Journal (August 1971): 102-103. Biography of du Maurier; also includes one of her...

(The entire section is 147 words.)