Rebecca is a classic of modern gothic literature. Gothic fiction is characterized by picturesque settings, an atmosphere of mystery and terror, and a hint of violence and the supernatural; Rebecca exemplifies the genre. The action takes place in the hallowed mansion of Manderley; the book encompasses a murder, a terrible fire, and features a sinister servant; finally, the entire story is pervaded by the unquiet ghost of Rebecca herself. And in typically gothic fashion, the weather mirrors the characters' moods: a fog descends when the heroine is confused and depressed; Maxim kills Rebecca on the night of a terrible storm. Indeed, many of the novel's elements--the mansion consumed by fire, the romance between an older man and a younger woman, the lurking, secret-enshrouded presence of a first wife--mirror the plot elements of Charlotte Bronte's
Yet Rebecca is more than a reflection of its era's literary fads: the book is simultaneously an insightful psychological novel. Its heroine, symbolically nameless, comes to Manderley and finds herself competing with the ghost of her husband's dead wife. The heroine has recently become "Mrs. de Winter," but Rebecca was "Mrs. de Winter" first, and the novel shows us the heroine's attempts to escape the dead wife's shadow, even as the sinister servant Mrs. Danvers dresses her in Rebecca's clothes and urges her to kill herself and leave the house to the ghost. This struggle to fight off the oppressive presence of the first wife gives the story an Oedipal/Electran dimension (referring to the psychological theory that suggests that young people want to kill one parent and marry the other): in marrying Maxim, the heroine escapes the maternal figure of Mrs. Van Hopper, but still finds herself forced to "kill" the presence of Rebecca in their life, a metaphorical act that can only take place once Maxim reveals the truth about Rebecca's evil nature.
Finally, Rebecca is a masterfully plotted suspense novel; the narrative turns on two unexpected twists. Beginning in the present, with Manderley burned and its owners in exile, the novel creates an atmosphere of foreboding even before flashing back to the story's beginning. After an idyllic few scenes in Monte Carlo, we enter the sinister, supernatural atmosphere of Manderley, where the ghost of Rebecca and her living servant, Mrs. Danvers, threaten to trounce the heroine and ruin her marriage. But then, with the recovery of Rebecca's body from the sea, the story makes its first great shift; countless small clues fall into place, and we realize that Rebecca, despite her beauty and wonderful reputation, was in fact a creature of utter evil, and that Maxim never loved her. From there, the story becomes a kind of murder-mystery in reverse, with the reader rooting for the murderer--Maxim--and his present wife--the heroine-- as they try to save him from arrest. This thread then abruptly changes direction in the book's second shocking twist, as Rebecca is revealed to have been terminally ill when Maxim killed her, and not pregnant with Favell's child, as she had claimed. From here, the action falls away to the inevitable finale, when Maxim and the heroine must pay for their escape from Rebecca's clutches by suffering the destruction of their beautiful home. The story has come full circle, and we are back at the present, where we began, having been led on a gothic adventure of psychological and supernatural intrigue.