Rebecca begins with the sentence, "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." The heroine, dreaming, sees herself as a ghost, flitting through the charred ruins of the once-beautiful mansion Manderley, where she once lived. When she awakes, she resolves not to speak of the dream, for "Manderley was ours no longer. Manderley was no more." The only person to whom she could speak of it, we realize shortly, is her husband, whose name we have not yet learned. Together, the couple is traveling through Europe, staying in small hotels to avoid meeting people they both know. They have recently been through a period of great suffering, connected to the destruction of Manderley, but the heroine does not reveal the nature of their predicament. Pieces of a vanished life float vaguely about: the heroine misses her dog, Jasper, and remembers how meals were prepared at Manderley, and then she thinks of a Mrs. Danvers, and a man called Favell, and wonders where they are now. Mrs. Danvers, we learn, was always comparing the heroine to someone named Rebecca, but details are not forthcoming. Instead, the heroine's thoughts turn to her younger self, years before, and then the real story begins, told in a flashback.
As a young woman, the heroine (whose given name we never learn) travels across Europe as a companion to Mrs. Van Hopper, a wealthy American lady. (It was a common custom in the 19th and early 20th century for wealthy, unmarried older women to pay young girls to travel with them, as both a servant and a friend with whom to converse. During their travels, the two women come to Monte Carlo, a resort city in the south of France. Mrs. Van Hopper, a nosy, gossipy, vulgar woman, recognizes a handsome middle-aged man who is staying in their hotel, and points him out to the heroine. He is Maxim de Winter, the owner of the famous estate known as Manderley, and he is reportedly in mourning for his wife, who died the previous year. Mrs. Van Hopper invites him to tea, but shows her most vulgar and crude side, to the great embarrassment of the heroine. Maxim treats her coldly, but later that day he sends a note to the heroine, apologizing for his rudeness at tea.
The following day, Mrs. Van Hopper is ill, and so the heroine has the day to herself. At lunch she runs into Maxim, who insists on eating with her, and then invites her to drive with him along the beautiful coastline. He shows warm and courteous demeanor--except at one place on the road, a place with a particularly striking view, where a bad memory seems to trouble him. At the end of the drive, the heroine notices a book of poetry in the car, and he insists upon giving it to her. She reads it that night, and notices that it is inscribed, "Max--from Rebecca." Then she recalls what Mrs. Van Hopper said about Maxim's dead wife: her name was Rebecca, and she drowned, accidentally, in a bay near Manderley.
A sense of loss hangs infuses the opening pages of Rebecca. The narrator and her husband, neither of whose names we know yet, find themselves in exile from Manderley, a place of great beauty that now lies in ruins. But their exile owes not only to the physical destruction of their home; a house can be rebuilt. Rather, their exile is a spiritual one, and one freely chosen, to escape the ghosts that haunt Manderley's ruins. "We can never go back again, that much is certain," the heroine says. "The past is still too close to us. The things we have tried to forget and put behind us would stir again... " Indeed, their exile is not an unhappy one, despite the tinge of regret for what has been lost. "We have come through our crisis," she asserts, and exile is the price they must pay for their triumph over the forces that once oppressed them.
The narrative does not supply names for these distressing forces--though it briefly mentions a Mrs. Danvers--but the reader's foreknowledge of Manderley's destruction nevertheless creates a mood of foreboding as the novel's action veers into the flashback, and the meat of the story begins. In the heroine's memory, the scenes shifts to sun-drenched Monte Carlo, where Mrs. Van Hopper holds sway. We quickly gain insights into the characters presented: the old lady is hardly a nice person, certainly, but her disagreeableness contains no real malice; indeed, her ghastly, gossipy behavior around Maxim, while embarrassing to the heroine, is amusing to the reader, as are Maxim's coldly cutting replies. For his part, this man shows himself to be intelligent, sophisticated, unflappable--more than a match for the Mrs. Van Hoppers of the world.
Rebecca is a gothic novel, meaning that it belongs to the same genre as books like Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and even Dracula, in which dark, ominous landscapes and architecture are the setting for violence, fiery passions, and supernatural events. Rebecca's characters, too, fit the gothic pattern: already we see that in Maxim de Winter, the author has created the perfect gothic hero--the broodingly handsome nobleman with a terrible secret. "His face," the heroine relates, "was arresting, sensitive, medieval in some strange inexplicable way... [C]ould one but rob him of his English tweeds, and put him in black, with lace at his throat and wrists, he would stare down at us in our new world from a long distant past--a past where men walked cloaked at night, and stood in the shadow of old doorways, a past of narrow stairways and dim dungeons, a past of whispers in the dark, of shimmering rapier blades, of silent, exquisite courtesy." He is thus the perfect person to own Manderley, a place where that medieval world of shadows and secrets lives on.
But while Maxim is painted vividly, the heroine--"with straight bobbed hair and youthful unpowdered face... trailing in the wake of Mrs. Van Hopper like a shy, uneasy colt"--seems to vanish into the background. We are told neither her first name, nor the family name that she gives up to become Mrs. de Winter; this lack of a name symbolizes her search for identity, a search that constitutes one of the novel's main themes. Indeed, Rebecca is in large part the story of the heroine's psychological quest for her own selfhood; and our constant sense that the heroine is in danger of failing in this quest provides much of the novel's suspense.