History: When Rebecca was first published in 1938, du Maurier became – to her great surprise – one of the most popular authors of the day. Rebecca is considered to be one of her best works. Some observers have noted parallels with Jane Eyre. Much of the novel was written while she was staying in Alexandria, Egypt, where her husband was posted at the time. However, it did not receive critical acclaim
Plot: While working as the companion to a rich American woman vacationing on the French Riviera, she becomes involved with a wealthy Englishman, Maximilian (Maxim) de Winter. After a fortnight of courtship, she agrees to marry him, and after the marriage, accompanies him to his mansion, the beautiful West Country estate, Manderley.
Only upon their arrival at Manderley does the new bride realize how difficult it will be to lay to rest the memory of her husband's first wife, Rebecca. Rebecca is understood to have drowned in a sailing accident off the coast next to the mansion a year before, but her memory has a strong hold on the estate and all of its inhabitants and visitors, especially its domineering housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, one of literature's most infamous female villains.
Mrs Danvers, who was profoundly devoted to Rebecca, tries to undermine the second Mrs de Winter, suggesting to her that she will never attain the urbanity and charm that Rebecca possessed. Whenever Mrs de Winter attempts changes at Manderley, Mrs Danvers points out how Rebecca ran Manderley when she was alive. Each time Mrs Danvers does this, she implies that the new Mrs de Winter is lacking in experience and knowledge and understanding of the complexities of the management of such an important estate such as Manderley. The second Mrs de Winter is cowed by Mrs Danvers imposing manner and complies with the housekeeper's suggestions.
Lacking self-confidence and overwhelmed by her new life, the protagonist commits one faux pas after another, until she is convinced that Maxim regrets his impetuous decision to marry her and is still deeply in love with the seemingly perfect Rebecca. The climax occurs at Manderley's annual costume ball. Mrs Danvers manipulates the protagonist into wearing a costume replica of one of the former inhabitants of the estate--the same costume worn by Rebecca to much acclaim the previous year, shortly before her death. In the early morning hours after the ball, the storm that had been building over the estate leads to a shipwreck. A diver investigating the condition of the wrecked ship's hull discovers the remains of Rebecca's boat. It is just prior to this shipwreck that Mrs Danvers reveals her contempt for and dislike of the second Mrs de Winter. Taking the second Mrs de Winter on a tour of Rebecca's bedroom, her wardrobe and luxurious possessions, which Mrs Danvers has kept intact and a shrine to Rebecca, she encourages the second Mrs De Winter to commit suicide by jumping out of an upstairs window, but is thwarted at the last moment by the disturbance created by the shipwreck.
The revelations from the shipwreck lead Maxim to confess the truth to the second Mrs de Winter; how the willful and adulterous Rebecca taunted him with a series of love affairs and suggested that she was pregnant with another man's child. Maxim, truly hating her, shot her and disposed of her body on her boat, which he sank at sea. The narrator is relieved to hear that Maxim did not love Rebecca.
Rebecca's boat is raised and it is discovered that holes had been deliberately drilled in the bottom which would have caused it to sink. There is an inquest and despite it not being clear who drilled the holes, a verdict of suicide is brought. However Rebecca's cousin (and also, apparently, her lover) Jack Favell appears on the scene claiming to have proof that Rebecca could not have intended suicide. Jack attempts to blackmail Maxim because he believes that Maxim killed Rebecca and then sank the boat.
Rebecca, it is revealed, had an appointment with a doctor shortly before her death, presumably to confirm her pregnancy. When the doctor is found he reveals instead that Rebecca had been suffering from cancer, and would have died within a few months. Moreover she could never have become pregnant. The implication is that, knowing she was going to die, Rebecca lied to Maxim that she had been impregnated by another man, because she wanted Maxim to kill her (thus her death could indeed be considered a form of suicide). Before returning to Manderley, Maxim and his bride hear that Mrs Danvers has disappeared. Maxim feels a great sense of foreboding and insists on driving through the night to return to Manderley. However, before they come in sight of the house, it is clear from a glow on the horizon and wind-borne ashes that it is ablaze.
It is evident at the beginning of the novel that Maxim and the second Mrs de Winter now live in some foreign exile. The events recounted in the book are in essence a flashback of the narrator's life at Manderley.
The given name of the second Mrs de Winter is not revealed in the novel. However, in chapter 3, after she receives a note from Maxim, she says how her name was "spelt correctly, an unusual thing", which implies that her name is either strange or complex. Early in the story, Mr. de Winter compliments her on her "lovely and unusual name".
Review: Captivating is perhaps the best one-word description for the book. It opens with one of the most well-known lines in fiction “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.” It ends with ashes and salt. In between, the reader follows the narrator into Maxim de Winter’s second marriage. A marriage that is inextricably hooked into the line of his first marriage and is sinking quickly. The narrator struggles to understand her situation and to learn all she can about Max’s first marriage and his dead wife Rebecca.
While the narrator struggles to untangle the web around Rebecca’s life and death, she makes observations about the nature of reality and perception. “This moment was safe though, this could not be touched. Here we sat together, Maxim and I, hand-in-hand, and the past and the future mattered not at all. This was secure, this funny little fragment of time he would never remember, never think about again…For them it was just after lunch, quarter-past-three on a haphazard afternoon, like any hour, like any day. They did not want to hold it close, imprisoned and secure, as I did. They were not afraid.”
Opening Line: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again."
Closing Line: “And before us, long as the skein of wool I wind, stretches the vista of an afternoon.”
Quotes: “Why don't you go? Why don't you leave Manderley? He doesn't need you. He's got his memories. He doesn't love you. He wants to be alone again with her. You've nothing to stay for. You've nothing to live for really, have you? Look down there. It's easy, isn't it? Why don't you? Why don't you? Go on. Go on. Don't be afraid!”