Even though she is writing in the well-worn gothic pattern, Daphne du Maurier incorporates elements from other literary traditions into her novels. Both thematically and symbolically, her works are much richer than most others of their kind.
For example, Rebecca reflects one of the central motifs in literature: the expulsion from paradise. Significantly, when in the first chapters of the novel the protagonist mentions her grief, the focus is not on Manderley, the house, but instead on that area of the grounds called the Happy Valley. The house was a showplace, created by Rebecca and imbued with her evil spirit. Her presence dominated the west wing, overlooking the ocean, and it was almost as evident in the east wing, where the newly wedded couple had been placed, for their rooms had been prepared by Rebecca’s second self, Mrs. Danvers. Rebecca seemed to haunt the oceanside cottage, where she had met her lovers, and the ocean itself, whose deceptive beauty and destructive force mirrored her own being.
While in her dream the narrator does return briefly to the library at Manderley, where she and Max had some companionable moments, it is the Happy Valley that must be seen as their paradise. At Monte Carlo, when he first describes his home to his future wife, Max dwells not on the house, but on that particular area of the grounds. Even without his comments, however, the protagonist would have recognized the importance of the Happy Valley. When Max takes her there, she sees his joy, she finds herself freed from the oppression that grips her elsewhere on the estate, and somehow she knows that the Happy Valley is the heart, the central reality, of Manderley.
The fact that the Happy Valley still exists after the house has been destroyed represents the triumph of good over evil, which is central to du Maurier’s story. Although Max, and the protagonist along with him, must pay the price of murder by being expelled from Manderley and turned away from the paradise at the heart of it, in their love for each other, which the forces of evil could not destroy, the pair carry with them into exile the goodness that they sensed resided in the Happy Valley.
Closely associated with the theme of the lost paradise in Rebecca is that of the loss of innocence. In her choice of a female protagonist as the character who moves from innocence to experience during the course of the story, du Maurier is merely following a convention of gothic romance. By having her narrator play the role of her earlier self as she relates the story, however, the author can show how closely innocence is allied with ignorance and even with potentially deadly error. Admittedly, initially Max finds the protagonist appealing because, unlike Rebecca, she is so innocent. Admittedly, he does send her into danger by evading her questions about the past. It is as much her own imagination as Max’s silence, however, which very nearly results in the protagonist’s suicide. In a sense, while she lives at Manderley, the narrator is writing her own novel. She busies herself inventing scenes in which the gentry criticize her and pity Max—scenes in which she is unfavorably compared to Rebecca. At one point, to Max’s horror, she even acts the part of the Rebecca she imagines. After Max confides in her, it becomes clear how erroneous all the narrator’s assumptions have been. The world she has created does not exist except in her imagination. What du Maurier seems to be suggesting is that in the real world, innocence can be dangerous, even fatal. It is experience, not innocence, knowledge, not ignorance, which enable the narrator to survive.
Why does the narrator remain nameless throughout the novel?
The narrator's anonymity represents her struggle to determine her own identity over the course of the book. Timid, insecure, and unsure of herself, the narrator is uncomfortable with both of her names: first, the "lovely and unusual" name given to her by her parents (which does not match her dull view of herself) and second, the title of "Mrs. de Winter" given to her by Maxim. The narrator is particularly overwhelmed by the symbolism of "Mrs. de Winter" because she feels that she cannot live up to the shadow that Rebecca left on the title: the expectation to be a perfect hostess and perfect wife. Only after the narrator learns the truth about Rebecca does she feel confident enough to assume to full meaning of her married name and exercise authority at Manderley. Even at the end of the novel, however, the narrator is still unnamed; at this point, she no longer needs a name in order to establish her identity.
How does the narrator's relationship with Maxim change after the revelation of Rebecca's death?
For the first part of their marriage, Maxim and the narrator have the unequal relationship of a parent and child. Maxim remains aloof from his wife, treating her with patronizing consideration and striving to maintain her innocence. The narrator feels Maxim's condescension and desperately wishes to be taken seriously and be able to support Maxim as an equal partner in the relationship. After the truth about Rebecca's death is revealed, the narrator loses her child-like innocence but also loses her insecurity and fears about Maxim's love for Rebecca. She is able to "grow up" for the first time and become a part of a mature relationship with her husband. Although Maxim regrets the loss of her innocence, he acknowledges that it allows her to surpass her status as a child in the relationship.
What justification does Maxim give for killing Rebecca?
Maxim's primary reason for killing Rebecca is her manipulative lie that she is pregnant with Jack Favell's child. Maxim is so horrified by the prospect of Rebecca's bastard child becoming the heir to Manderley that he shoots her through the heart. When he explains Rebecca's death to the narrator, Maxim also gives a more general background to justify the murder and explain his emotions leading up to the act; he describes Rebecca's immorality and the unspeakable things that she had told him about her life on the cliff in Monte Carlo. At the end of the novel, Maxim's act of killing Rebecca is further justified by the revelation that she was already dying of cancer and had simply manipulated him into ending her life quickly.
In what ways does Rebecca exemplify the Gothic literary tradition?
Gothic fiction, a combination of horror and romance, originated in 1764 with Horace Wadpole's The Castle of Otranto. Since its origins, the Gothic literary tradition has become associated with certain stereotypical elements, such as tormented heroes, secrets, the supernatural, death, innocent damsels, haunted estates, and more. Although Rebecca was written long after the heyday of Gothic literature, Du Maurier was inspired by the classic Gothic novel, Jane Eyre. As a result, the novel includes all of the primary elements of the genre, including Manderley as the haunted mansion, Maxim as the tormented hero, and the narrator as the innocent damsel, plus the ominous Mrs. Danvers, the secrets surrounding Rebecca's death, and a general sense of foreboding.
Is Maxim a likable character? Why or why not?
For the majority of the novel, Maxim de Winter is not a particularly likable character. Throughout his early interactions with the narrator, he is rude, moody, condescending, and generally detached from those around him. The narrator is entranced with his sophistication and brooding temperament, but it is difficult for the reader to fall in love with him as quickly as the narrator does. His behavior to the narrator when she finds the beach cottage, as well as after her entrance at the costume ball, is especially appalling. It is only after the truth of Rebecca's death is revealed that Maxim becomes a more sympathetic character. His previous moodiness and detachment from the narrator are explained, and he is suddenly capable of treating the narrator as an equal partner in the relationship, rather than a child.
What role does Mrs. Danvers play in the novel?
From the very start, it is clear that Mrs. Danvers is the antagonist of the narrative; her rude resentment of the narrator establishes their relationship as the conflict that must be resolved. However, Mrs. Danvers is also crucial as the physical representation of Rebecca's presence at Manderley. Mrs. Danvers maintains all of Rebecca's traditions and habits in the house -- even down to the use of the house telephone for approving menus -- and strives to keep Manderley the same as it was during Rebecca's life. In this role, Mrs. Danvers also articulates the narrator's fears about Rebecca, assuring her that she is and always will be inferior to Rebecca. It is only after the narrator discovers that Maxim never loved Rebecca that she is able to escape Mrs. Danvers (and Rebecca's) influence at Manderley.
What is Ben's significance in the novel?
Ben is the only character in the novel to refer to Rebecca in a negative way from the very beginning. Until Maxim reveals the truth about Rebecca near the end of the book, the narrator operates under the delusion that Rebecca was beloved by everyone. As such, she overlooks Ben's cryptic assertions about Rebecca, assuming that they are merely the confused ramblings of a mentally disabled man. In this way, Ben assumes the position of the wise fool, a literary archetype that dates back to Ancient Rome but was popularized in Shakespearean plays such as King Lear. As with the Fool in King Lear who uses his "mental eye" to see the true natures of the King's daughters, Ben is able to see the evil in Rebecca long before the narrator does.
How does the narrator compare to Rebecca?
For the majority of the novel, the narrator gives the impression of being very innocent, timid, unsophisticated, and insecure. Rebecca, on the other hand, is described by all as being overwhelmingly beautiful, elegant, graceful, vivacious, and clever. The narrator herself prefers Rebecca's glamour and sophistication to her own shyness and finds it difficult to believe that Maxim could ever love such an inferior character. Even to the readers, Rebecca seems to be a more appropriate heroine than the insecure girl with lanky hair is. However, as Frank Crawley points out, the narrator also possesses characteristics that Rebecca could never attain: modesty, sincerity, and kindness. After the narrator comes into her own at the end of the book, Rebecca no longer seems to be superior. The narrator is now a self-assured confident woman, far more worthy of being a heroine than the flashy and sexualized Rebecca.
What role does Manderley play in the novel?
Although Manderley does not have an overt role in the novel, Maxim's love for the estate is the underlying catalyst of all of the major conflicts in the novel. After Maxim marries Rebecca and learns the truth of her nature, he agrees to remain married to her because she promises to transform Manderley into a magnificent estate. Even after her affairs have become more overt, Maxim continues to uphold their farce of a marriage because Rebecca has fulfilled her end of the bargain and Manderley has become the most famous house in the area. Even Maxim's decision to murder Rebecca is determined by his love for Manderley: he only pulls the trigger after Rebecca tells him that her bastard child with Jack Favell will inherit the estate. If Maxim had been less preoccupied with Manderley, he could have annulled the marriage immediately and avoided the following years of anguish. Instead, he chose his house over logic and morality and ultimately paid the price of seeing his beloved Manderley burn to the ground.
What is the significance of fire in the novel?
Fire appears twice in the novel: first, when the narrator destroys the inscribed flyleaf from Maxim's book of poetry, and second, when Manderley itself is destroyed in flames. In both cases, fire represents purification, a complete destruction of the past. With the inscription in the book of poetry, the narrator was already preoccupied with the thought of Rebecca and felt tormented by her presence. She first cut out the flyleaf and then ripped it into small pieces but only felt at peace after burning the pieces. Rebecca's presence at Manderley was far more pronounced than in the book of poetry, and the fire at the estate similarly destroyed her influence over the narrator and Maxim. Although both characters greatly mourn the loss of Manderley, the fire is the only way for them to leave the past behind them.