The heroine, who has not got a name, begins her story with her memories of how she and Maxim first met, in Monte Carlo, years before. She was the companion to a wealthy American, Mrs. Van Hopper, when she met Maxim and, after only a few weeks, he proposes marriage. She accepts, and they go back to his estate of Manderley. But Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca, drowned in a cove near Manderley the previous year, haunts the home. The housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, frightens and intimidates her new mistress who starts feeling she can never compare favorably to Rebecca, who was beautiful, and brilliant. During a costume ball the new wife wears a beautiful costume, but she does not know that is the same dress that Rebecca wore at the last ball. The ball ends in a disaster: Maxim is horrified, and the heroine becomes convinced that he will never love her. The following day, some divers swim near a grounded ship and find the rests of Rebecca’s sailboat, with Rebecca’s dead body inside.
This discovery forces Maxim to tell the heroine the truth: Rebecca was a malevolent, wicked woman, who lived a secret life and carried on multiple affairs, including one with her cousin, Jack Favell. On the night of her death, Maxim had demanded a divorce, and she had refused, and told him that she was pregnant with Favell’s child. Furious, he seized a gun and shot her, and then sailed out to the harbor in Rebecca’s boat and sank it, with the body stowed safely inside. The heroine now is ready to shake off the burden of Rebecca’s ghost. Rebecca’s cousin Favell accuses Maxim of the crime. The local magistrate, Colonel Julyan, investigates, and finds that on the day of her death, Rebecca went up to London to see a Doctor Baker. It turns out that Rebecca was dying of cancer, and that furthermore she was infertile; she had lied to Maxim about her pregnancy. Her terminal illness supplies a motive for Rebecca’s supposed suicide. Maxim is saved, Mrs. Danvers disappears.
The heroine – The novel’s protagonist and narrator; we never learn her given name. A shy, self-conscious young woman from a lower-middle class background, she begins the novel as a paid companion to Mrs. Van Hopper, a wealthy American woman. In Monte Carlo, she meets and marries the older, wealthy Maxim de Winter, and becomes “Mrs. De Winter,” mistress of Manderley.
Maxim de Winter – A cultured, intelligent older man, and the owner of Manderley, a prized estate and mansion on the English coast.
Rebecca – a beautiful, much-loved, accomplished wife of Maxim de Winter, and the mistress of Manderley. She haunts the mansion, and her presence torments the heroine after her marriage to Maxim.
Mrs. Danvers – The sinister housekeeper at Manderley, devoted to Rebecca, even after death.
Jack Favell – Rebecca’s cousin. Devoted to alcoholics, he was Rebecca’s lover
The novel was largely inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, one of the most well-known examples of Gothic Victorian novels.
The theme of the secret wife refers again to the double: our heroine and Rebecca, like Jane and Berta in the Brontës’ masterpiece are just two aspect of a woman’s personality, a woman who is evolving and reaching her independence.
Rebecca has been adapted several times. The most notable was the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film version, Rebecca. The final was changed and Rebecca’s death seems accidental because if if Max had murdered his wife, he would have to be punished for his crime..