Rebecca begins with, well, not Rebecca. Actually, the opposite of Rebecca (if a person can have an opposite) – you'll see why in a minute. This woman, our narrator, is dreaming of returning to a place called Manderley, but she and the man she's with can never go back; it holds too many bad memories for them. Also, it's suggested that Manderley has been physically destroyed. Hmm.
The narrator remembers when she first met Mr. de Winter (the guy she's with now). She was working as a paid companion to a snobby American woman named Mrs. Van Hopper in Monte Carlo, France. After meeting Maxim (that's his first name), she hears that his wife Rebecca drowned about nine months before, and that he is mourning her loss. Eventually, though, they fall for each other and get married. And so she becomes Mrs. de Winter.
After honeymooning in Italy, the new Mrs. de Winter and her husband arrive at Manderley, Maxim's palatial estate. Mrs. de Winter meets Mrs. Danvers, head housekeeper at Manderley, who looks like a corpse and is just about as friendly. Mrs. de Winter can tell Mrs. Danvers is comparing her to Rebecca. It kind of haunts her.
Our narrator has a hard time adjusting to Manderley: she feels forced to do things the way everybody tells her Rebecca used to do them. Even after meetings Maxim's estate agent, Frank Crawley, Maxim's sister, Beatrice, and Beatrice's husband, Giles, she's not super comfortable.
Near Manderley, Mrs. de Winter comes across what she thinks is a boathouse, but is also a furnished apartment that once belonged to Rebecca. Her discover upsets Maxim, and from then on, she is petrified that she will say something to make Maxim think about Rebecca's accident.
One day when Maxim is in London, Mrs. de Winter peers through the window of Rebecca's room and sees Mrs. Danvers and a strange man inside. She goes into the house and tries to hide, but the strange man sees her. She learns his name is Jack Favell. He's Rebecca's cousin – and to be honest, he's kind of a sketch ball. That night, Mrs. de Winter overhears Maxim yelling at Mrs. Danvers. He's heard that Favell was around and bans Rebecca's cousin from the house.
Not long after, it's agreed that a costume ball, a tradition at Manderley, will be held in Mrs. de Winter's honor. Mrs. Danvers suggests that she dress as Caroline de Winter, Maxim's ancestor, whose portrait hangs in the house. Mrs. de Winter takes the suggestion and keeps her costume secret until the night of the ball. When she arrives at the party, she finds out (too late) that the costume she's wearing is just like the one worn by Rebecca at the last Manderley ball. Oops. Should have seen that one coming.
Mrs. de Winter fears that her marriage is over (it must have been shaky if that's what would do it), and she resigns to live with Maxim to keep up appearances, without his love. She decides to confront Mrs. Danvers about the costume and finds her in Rebecca's bedroom. Mrs. Danvers convinces Mrs. de Winter that Maxim doesn't love her – that he only loves Rebecca – and that she'd be better off dead. Yikes.
After a near-suicide incident, Mrs. de Winter learns that divers inspecting a wrecked ship have found Rebecca's boat with a body inside it. This is pretty curious, considering that Maxim already identified another body that washed up on the beach as Rebecca's. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Maxim admits to Mrs. de Winter that he shot Rebecca and sank her boat with her body inside.
Apparently, he had his reasons: Rebecca, he claims, cheated on him constantly, and he hated her. He killed her when she told him she was pregnant with another man's child. Mrs. de Winter is actually relieved by this news. (Just for the record, Shmoop would not be relieved if we heard our spouse was a murderer.) Anyway, this means that Maxim loves her, not Rebecca. She promises to stand by him and help him cover up his crime.
After a brief investigation, Favell reveals that he and Rebecca were lovers (cousins, too, in case you'd forgotten). He has a note from Rebecca, written the day of her death that proves Rebecca didn't kill herself – Maxim killed her. Now Favell is trying to blackmail Maxim for money.
The investigating colonel and Mrs. Danvers are summoned. Mrs. Danvers has Rebecca's appointment book, and it's revealed that Rebecca had an appointment with a doctor on the date of her death. The next day, Colonel Julyan, Maxim, Mrs. de Winter, and Favell all visit this doctor, and they learn that Rebecca had a cancerous growth and was terminally ill. This satisfies Colonel Julyan and even Favell as a credible reason for her to kill herself. Case closed. (Closed incorrectly, but closed.)
Maxim and Mrs. de Winter plan to dine, drive leisurely, and then stay somewhere overnight, returning to Manderley in the morning. But, when he calls Frank to give him the good news, Maxim learns that Mrs. Danvers has suddenly moved out of Manderley. This gives him a bad feeling, so they drive back to Manderley immediately. As they're pulling up in the wee hours of the morning, they see bright lights on the horizon and realize (we assume) that Manderley is on fire. Not quite the happy ending they thought they had.