Rebecca opens with an unnamed narrator remembering her dream of Manderley. We know she misses this place, and that it was beautiful. Quickly, we jump into pre-Manderley flashbacks: they begin with a whirlwind romance set against the exotic backdrop of Monte Carlo in the French Riviera. There, the twenty-one year old girl trades in her depressing job as a paid companion to an obnoxious American woman for a fantasy life with the dashing, wealthy and mysterious widower, forty-two year old Maxim de Winter. Now we're all set up: reversal of fortunes, swanky husband, set-for-life.
Yep, Rebecca is the conflict. When Mrs. de Winter gets to Maxim's famous home, Manderley, she's petrified that she won't fit in. To make matters worse, she feels like everybody (especially Maxim) is comparing her unfavorably to Maxim's recently deceased first wife, Rebecca. This is partly due to Mrs. de Winter's vivid imagination and low self-esteem. But we can also blame the manipulations of skull-faced Mrs. Danvers, head housekeeper at Manderley. All in all, Mrs. de Winter feels like she might be able to get a handle on the whole marriage and high society thing if the presence of Rebecca weren't so strong.
Mrs. de Winter's obsession with Rebecca starts to fade as she begins to get excited about the costume ball (an annual tradition at Manderley) to be held in her honor. Intrigue over her top-secret costume is helping keep things light-hearted at the house. Sadly, Mrs. de Winter blindly lets Mrs. Danvers (who is clearly out to get her) suggest her costume. It turns out to be the exact same costume worn by Rebecca at her last costume ball. Of course, Maxim thinks Mrs. de Winter did it on purpose. Her whole evening is ruined, and, she thinks, her marriage, too. All the progress she made in forgetting about Rebecca goes right out the window.
The day after the costume ball, Mrs. de Winter decides to confront Mrs. Danvers about her crummy costume advice. Mrs. Danvers reveals that she totally despises Mrs. de Winter and is way too loyal to the not-alive-anymore Rebecca. Playing hard on Mrs. de Winter's insecurities, Mrs. Danvers almost convinces her to jump out of the window of Rebecca's bedroom. As our narrator hovers over the edge of the window sill, we hold our breath – this is definitely the climactic moment of a very bumpy ride.
First, we need to mention that Maxim admits to having murdered Rebecca. Yeah. It's clear very quickly that Mrs. de Winter is more relieved than horrified to hear the news; in fact, she doesn't seem to care at all. If "Maxim had never loved [Rebecca]" (21.2) then she doesn't have the worry about measuring up to Rebecca's standard anymore. It means she's free to be Mrs. de Winter, which is all she really wants. So we aren't really in suspense over whether or not she will stand by Maxim. We know she will. Rather, we share her suspense. We worry with her about whether or not Maxim will be publically exposed as a murderer and legally punished, even after Rebecca's death is ruled a suicide by the coroner.
After Favell accuses Maxim of murdering his wife, Rebecca's doctor reveals that Rebecca was terminally ill. So, in the end, it seems like she would have wanted to kill herself. This revelation is a big shock to everybody, and it totally gets Maxim off the hook. But even though we know Maxim murdered her, this still provides some explanation (as any good denouement will): Rebecca intentionally provoked Maxim to murder, both as a final act of revenge against him and to release her from the pain that her illness would have brought. Is this what you were expecting?
The conclusion of Rebecca is rather, well, inconclusive. After the meeting with Rebecca's doctor, Maxim learns that Mrs. Danvers has moved all her stuff out of Manderley. He's very worried that something fishy is going on, so he and Mrs. de Winter speed back to the property. The novel closes with the suggestion that, upon their arrival, Manderley is on fire. Who set it? What was the extent of the damage? Was anyone inside? These are questions that are left unanswered. What do you think?