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The opening line of the novel, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” immediately frames the work with a sense of loss and mystery. The narrator only gives vague details, mentioning a beautiful house in ruins and the fact that she and her unnamed male companion can never return to it. The narrator also mentions a few characters that will become significant in the novel, including Mrs. Danvers and Jack Favell, but the reader is still at a loss to understand what happened. The narrator only clarifies that they cannot return to Manderley because of the past: “The past is still too close to us.”
As the introduction continues, it becomes clear that the narrator’s exile has been, for the most part, self-imposed. If they were to return to Manderley, they would be faced again with the past that they have been trying to escape. Even in its destroyed state, Manderley would be a reminder and, as the narrator explains, “the things we have tried to forget and put behind us would stir again.” Still, the narrator and her companion have a relatively happy existence as they travel from hotel to hotel; their only pain comes from the fact of their self-imposed exile and the acknowledgment that they can never return to their home.
The narrator alludes to other significant elements of the novel, specifically mentioning a presence at Manderley that makes itself known as the sound of a woman’s evening dress or the patter of high-heeled footsteps. Yet, the narrator does not reveal enough of the mystery to make sense of her obscure comments. Du Maurier uses this literary tool in order to create an environment of mystery and suspense that will influence all of the subsequent plot developments. This opening sense of mystery also corresponds to the Gothic literary genre that Du Maurier promotes to increasing degrees over the course of the novel.
As the flashback sequence begins, the reader gets the first real impression of the narrator as she sees herself. However, with the exception of an incomplete physical description, the narrator does not provide any real information about her personality. Through all of her interactions with Mrs. Van Hopper and Maxim, she gives the impression of being passive, timid, and even dull. She has no defining qualities except for her love of drawing and seems hardly appropriate to serve as the heroine of Du Maurier’s novel. Yet, Maxim seems to see something in her that the reader does not; he invites her to lunch and takes an active interest in her background and upbringing. Maxim even learns the narrator’s name, a fact that the reader never discovers over the course of the book.
Significantly, the character that is described in the third and fourth chapters is vastly different from the self-assured narrator that appears in the introductory chapters. This dichotomy suggests that the novel will also explore the narrator’s development as an individual. With that in mind, all of the events that contribute to the destruction of Manderley also somehow contribute to establish the narrator’s identity, transforming her from the shy, colt-like girl of Monte Carlo to the strong, confident woman who supports her husband through their absence from Manderley.