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Rebecca | Study Guide

Daphne du Maurier

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Rebecca | Themes


The novel's four major themes increase in complexity as the plot unfolds. They are also intertwined. Jealousy clouds the narrator's search for identity, while complicity with evil helps her to form one. An evil act, murder, will ultimately bring down the great mansion and force the characters into a life of exile, pursued by memories of the past.


The narrator's jealousy of Rebecca pervades the novel. Continually comparing herself to the more sophisticated and glamorous Rebecca, the narrator is unable to believe that her husband loves her. Her jealousy leads her to see herself in a competition with the dead woman that she can never win, and drives a wedge between her and Maxim. In fact, the narrator is so preoccupied with her rival that she even begins to imagine that she has become Rebecca. Her identity confusion intensifies when the narrator arrives at the costume ball inadvertently dressed in the same costume that Rebecca wore, shocking and angering Maxim.

Mrs. Danvers plays on the narrator's jealousy and insecurity when she tries to persuade the narrator to kill herself by saying of Rebecca, "It's no use. She's still mistress here, even if she is dead. She's the real Mrs. de Winter, not you. It's you that's the shadow and the ghost. ... It's you who ought to be dead."

The theme of jealousy is also apparent in Rebecca's relationship with Maxim; it was Maxim's jealousy of Rebecca's affair with Favell that incited Maxim to shoot her. Rebecca, it seems, makes everyone jealous, as Mrs. Danvers gleefully points out at one point in the novel. Jealousy has two consequences in Rebecca. It is a destructive force that threatens to destroy both Maxim and the narrator. It also blinds characters to the true natures of others.

Past versus Present

The narrator's and Maxim's effort to escape the past and live in the present is one of the main conflicts in Rebecca. The narrator often recalls and idealizes the happier times she spent with Maxim, such as their honeymoon. This tendency illuminates the danger of dwelling too much on the past and the importance of accepting and embracing the present. The narrator is unable to do this. She feels the dead Rebecca's presence throughout Manderley, from the woman's exquisite taste in furnishings to Mrs. Danvers' constant references to her. Maxim is also tormented by the past, with good reason: his guilt. When Maxim is forced to face the past, he chooses to bring the narrator into the secret of his past crime. While this appears to draw the husband and wife closer, readers are left with uncertainty. The couple is forced to leave Manderley to escape the past, and yet memories follow them. The two dreams that frame the beginning and end of the novel reinforce the message that the past cannot be escaped. At the story's end, which takes place before its beginning, the narrator dreams that she has become Rebecca and then realizes Manderley is on fire. At the beginning, the narrator is distanced from the ending by some years, but a dream calls her back to Manderley.


Through the first-person narrator's eyes, du Maurier shows the characters Rebecca, Mrs. Danvers, and Jack Favell to be evil. Mrs. Danvers is described as having the face of a skull and as "an exulting devil," Maxim explicitly compares Rebecca to the devil, and Ben compares her to a snake, a symbol of evil. Jack Favell is aligned with Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers, and he threatens to blackmail Maxim and the narrator at the end and to get revenge. He—or Mrs. Danvers—is possibly the source of the fire that destroys Manderley.

However, Rebecca acknowledges that evil is not black and white. Moral ambiguity gives the novel complexity. For instance, Maxim's character is deeply compromised by the fact the he murdered his first wife in a fit of rage. Readers wonder if the narrator must be ever alert for another murderous rage. Mrs. Danvers and Favell have genuinely loved Rebecca and are grief-stricken by her death; the revelation that Rebecca has been murdered casts them in a more sympathetic light. Nor is the narrator wholly good. She is drawn into covering up her husband's past murder as she claims her identity as the second Mrs. de Winter.


One of the major themes of the novel is the narrator's quest for her own identity. Du Maurier establishes this theme immediately by withholding the narrator's name. When she marries, the narrator assumes the name Mrs. de Winter, yet she is initially unable to recognize the name as hers and longs for a simpler life. At times, she becomes ghostlike, fading into the background of the story.

The narrator's quest for identity speaks to class stratification and the position of women at the time the novel was written. From the time of feudalism, British society followed rigid class structures. As an orphan and a paid companion who is one step above being a servant, the narrator must adopt and adapt to her new husband's higher class in order to improve her status. Rebecca, on the other hand, was born to the upper class; she is able to boldly flaunt her beauty and sexuality during her marriage to Max de Winter.

Only after she learns that her husband murdered Rebecca can the narrator start to confidently speak and act as Mrs. de Winter. But she stagnates and becomes a married woman without a home of her own. In the end, she is still in effect a paid companion, albeit one with a wedding ring. Readers are not even certain of the bonds of love and trust between Maxim and the second Mrs. de Winter.

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