The orphaned young narrator is working as a paid companion to an older woman when she meets Maxim de Winter. She falls in love and they soon marry, but she feels she can never compare to the more sophisticated and glamorous Rebecca, her husband's first wife. From a lower social class, the protagonist does not feel that she fits in at Manderley. Plagued with a vivid imagination, the narrator continually imagines Rebecca and her relationship to Maxim, never realizing until it is almost too late that things may not have been exactly as they seemed.
Maxim de Winter is an urbane and world-weary widower when he meets a naïve and charming young woman, the narrator, in Monte Carlo, where he has gone to escape the memories that haunt him at home. After the couple marry, the reserved and distant Maxim tries to start a new life with his new wife until the past surfaces.
Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter, is seen by most as glamorous, vivacious, beautiful, and accomplished. Her impeccable taste is in evidence throughout Manderley, which she decorated and ran with minute attention to detail. However, to those who knew her better, she was headstrong, faithless, willful, manipulative, and ruthless.
The sinister Mrs. Danvers resents the narrator for taking Rebecca's place. Her devotion to her late mistress, whom she looked after as a child and whose room she keeps exactly as it was when Rebecca died, is obsessive, with an unhealthy attachment to Rebecca's memory.