Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
Questioning and Disruptive, Lighthearted, Nostalgic
Daphne du Maurier questions everything in Rebecca: relationships between different social and economic classes, the institution of marriage, romantic love, sexuality, gender roles, and notions of respectability. This novel even blurs the lines between villain and victim, disrupting any simplified ideas we have about good and evil, and truth and lies.
Justine Picarde, author of the novel Daphne (which fictionalizes du Maurier's own marital problems) says that "Rebecca asks us to become complicit with Max de Winter, a man who's a murderer. […] When I first read it, I was desperate for Max to get off, and this is a man who shot his first wife" (source). So, don't feel bad if you have a similar reaction, at least on some level. When a work of art makes us feel something we don't want to feel, it's an opportunity to more deeply examine our views on that topic.
It's a Laughing Matter
As serious as all this business is, du Maurier seems to be having quite a bit of fun. She pokes fun at the characters (Shmoop joined the club!) and we can almost hear her laughing between the lines sometimes. Tell us you didn't hear a chuckle when Favell says, "A lovely woman isn't like a [car tire], she doesn't wear out" (23.57); or when Mrs. Danvers says "[Rebecca] was not in love with you, or with Mr. de Winter. She was not in love with anyone. She despised all men. She was above all that" (24.119). Okay, okay, we know this isn't funny in a comfortable way; it gives us that "I can't believe she/he just said that" sensation that some readers and reviewers describe as guilty pleasure. But hey, that may not be a bad thing.
Ah, the Past
The tone of Rebecca also suggests a deep nostalgia for what might have been and an uneasy alliance with the present. The following excerpt from the long memory of a dream at the begging of the novel is a nice example:
When I thought of Manderley in my waking hours I would not be bitter. […] I should remember the rose-garden in summer, and the birds that sang at dawn, […] the blown lilac, and the Happy Valley. These things were permanent, they could not be dissolved. They were memories that cannot hurt. All this I resolved in my dream, while the clouds lay across the face of the moon […] (1.12)
These elements – nature, dreams, memories, and fantasies – are seen throughout the Rebecca and they frame the basic plot. They also provide a kind of coping mechanism for Mrs. de Winter. Nostalgia is all she has, and because she can't change the past, she needs to find some way to deal with it.