The novel Rebecca begins at an undetermined point in the future. The narrator, who remains nameless, is travelling around Europe with an unidentified male companion. They move from city to city, from hotel to hotel, but cannot help remembering Manderley, a beautiful English estate that they have been forced to leave behind. The narrator alludes to the destruction of Manderley and the painful events that took place within its walls. She also vaguely refers to a few mysterious characters that will play significant roles over the course of the novel: Mrs. Danvers, Jack Favell, and Rebecca. In the final paragraphs of the narrator’s introduction, the novel becomes a flashback on the time that the narrator spent at Monte Carlo and her introduction to Maxim de Winter.
In Monte Carlo, the narrator is a paid traveling companion for a vulgar American woman named Mrs. Van Hopper. Mrs. Van Hopper views herself as a member of high society and takes every opportunity to try to improve her standing. One afternoon, Mrs. Van Hopper recognizes Maxim de Winter, the owner of a renowned estate, and rudely insinuates herself into his conversation. The narrator is mortified by Mrs. Van Hopper’s behavior, and Maxim ends the conversation abruptly. Later on, the narrator receives a note from Maxim in which he apologizes for his rudeness.
The next day, Mrs. Van Hopper feels ill, and the narrator goes into the dining room alone. She runs into Maxim who insists that she join him for lunch. She feels unsophisticated and foolish, but he encourages her to tell him about her life. Over the next several days, the narrator meets with Maxim regularly, having lunch with him and taking long drives up the coast. She only knows a few things about him—his wife drowned in a tragic boating accident—but she already recognizes that she has fallen in love with him.
Finally recovered from her illness, Mrs. Van Hopper announces that she and the narrator will be leaving for America the next day. The narrator is devastated by this news and tells Maxim, who promptly proposes to her and explains the situation to Mrs. Van Hopper. Mrs. Van Hopper is shocked by the turn of events and warns the narrator that she will regret her decision to marry Maxim.
After a few weeks of honeymooning in Europe, Maxim takes the narrator back to Manderley, his estate in Cornwall. The narrator is anxious about assuming the responsibilities of the estate and fears that her poor background will give her a disadvantage. When they arrive, the narrator immediately feels intimidated by the servants, particularly the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who runs the estate in the same way that she did when Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife, was alive. During these first few days at Manderley, the narrator also meets Maxim’s sister, Beatrice, who attempts to put her at ease but also is the first person to compare her directly to Rebecca.
As time passes, the narrator becomes increasingly preoccupied with the idea of the beautiful and sophisticated Rebecca. She is too intimidated by Mrs. Danvers to change any of Rebecca’s domestic procedures and begins to suspect that Maxim is still in love with her. One day, the narrator comes across a beachside cottage that was used by Rebecca. She also meets Ben, a mentally disabled man who spends his time on the beach. When the narrator tells Maxim about the cottage, he becomes extremely upset, a fact that further convinces the narrator that he is still in love with Rebecca.
While Maxim is away from Manderley, the narrator returns home to find Mrs. Danvers talking to a mysterious man in Rebecca’s bedroom. The man introduces himself as Jack Favell and suggests that the narrator not tell Maxim that he was at Manderley. Later, she discovers that Jack Favell is Rebecca’s cousin. When Maxim returns, she overhears him chastising Mrs. Danvers for letting Jack Favell into the house.
At the request of one of the neighbors, Maxim decides to reinstitute Manderley’s famous annual costume ball. The narrator begins to feel more optimistic about her place at Manderley and, on Mrs. Danvers’ recommendation, decides to surprise Maxim with a costume inspired by one of the paintings in the gallery. When the narrator presents herself at the ball, Maxim is horrified and immediately sends her away to change: she is wearing the same costume that Rebecca wore at the last costume ball. The narrator is devastated by Maxim’s reaction and realizes that he loves Rebecca and despises her.
The next day, the narrator goes into Rebecca’s bedroom and is surprised by Mrs. Danvers, who gloats over Rebecca’s beautiful clothing and jewelry. Lulled into a trance-like state by Mrs. Danvers, the narrator is close to committing suicide when she hears the sound of rockets hitting the shore: a ship has run aground at the cove. Divers are sent to assess the damage and discover the wreckage of Rebecca’s sailboat, supposedly lost at sea, and a dead body inside the locked cabin.
That night, Maxim tells the narrator that Rebecca did not die in a boating accident: he shot her in a fit of rage and then put her body in the cabin of the boat before sinking it. He reveals that he never loved Rebecca, and their marriage was nothing more than a sham. The narrator is overjoyed at this news and finally feels assured of Maxim’s love.
After the body is officially identified, Maxim must participate in an inquest to determine the cause of death. There is no sign of the bullet that killed Rebecca, and the coroner concludes that she committed suicide. That night, Jack Favell attempts to blackmail Maxim by showing him a letter written by Rebecca that proves that she did not commit suicide. Colonel Julyan, the local magistrate, arrives, but he is not convinced that Jack Favell and Rebecca were even lovers. When Jack Favell brings in Ben as a witness to his affair with Rebecca, Ben refuses to support Jack Favell’s claims.
The next morning, the narrator, Maxim, Colonel Julyan, and Jack Favell drive to London to question a doctor that Rebecca had visited on the day of her death. The doctor reveals that Rebecca was dying of cancer. Colonel Julyan decides that the coroner’s conclusion is legitimate, and Maxim realizes that Rebecca manipulated him into killing her. On the drive back home, the narrator and Maxim notice a red glow in the distance and arrive at Manderley to find it burning to the ground.