The novel opens with the narrator describing a dream that she had the night before. In the dream, the narrator travels in ghost form through the grounds of Manderley. The drive is overrun with grass and moss and the rhododendrons have overtaken the garden, but the beautiful house is still as elegant and perfect as it once was. Suddenly, a cloud passes in front of the moon, and the illusion vanishes. Instead of the house that she remembers, the narrator sees nothing but a charred ruin. Still dreaming, the narrator decides not to be upset by this tragic vision of Manderley but to find comfort in her memories of the estate. Yet, when she awakes, she will not speak of the dream because Manderley “was no more.”
The narrator describes her current living situation: she is travelling across Europe with a yet unnamed male companion, who turns out to be her husband. The couple has endured great suffering, but the narrator believes that they have finally overcome their painful memories to find happiness with each other. Still, there are times when the narrator and her companion are unable to forget the past. Once, the narrator read aloud an article about wood pigeons that reminded her so much of Manderley and the English countryside that she had to stop reading for fear of upsetting her husband.
The narrator privately reminisces about their past life, thinking about the crumpets from their daily tea, their faithful dog, Jasper, and a mysterious Mrs. Danvers. The narrator remembers how Mrs. Danvers always compared her to Rebecca, but, at this point, the readers are given no additional details. When the narrator remembers the darker events of those times, she is glad to retreat back to the present reality of their little European hotel. She considers her younger self—shy, timid, awkward—and then embarks on a flashback that encompasses the majority of the novel.
As a young woman, the narrator works as a paid traveling companion for a gossipy American woman named Mrs. Van Hopper. Mrs. Van Hopper adores introducing herself to members of high society and often uses the narrator as a way to break the ice, a role which the narrator dreads fulfilling. While lunching at an expensive resort in Monte Carlo, Mrs. Van Hopper spots a particularly notable individual, Maxim de Winter, the owner of the renowned Manderley estate.
Mrs. Van Hopper immediately introduces herself and sends the narrator away to fetch coffee, but Maxim unexpectedly insists that the narrator join them. Listening to their conversation, the narrator is humiliated by Mrs. Van Hopper’s overt familiarity and invasive comments, especially when she begins to notice Maxim’s irritation. Finally, Maxim extricates himself from the conversation with a few well-placed barbs directed at Mrs. Van Hopper.
Back in their room, Mrs. Van Hopper criticizes the narrator for being too familiar with Maxim, and the narrator considers the dull evening that awaits her. As she absentmindedly begins to sketch Maxim’s profile, the elevator boy knocks on the door and gives her a note from Maxim, apologizing to the narrator for his rudeness.
The next morning, Mrs. Van Hopper has a sore throat and temperature. The doctor insists on hiring a trained nurse, and the narrator suddenly has free time on her hands. She goes down to the dining room for lunch and immediately sees Maxim already eating lunch. Uncertain of the proper course of action, she decides to ignore him and, after sitting at her table, promptly knocks over a vase of water on the table. Maxim insists that she join him for lunch, and the narrator finds herself telling him all about her life, including her unusual name, her dead parents, her job with Mrs. Van Hopper, and her hatred of artificial snobbery.
The narrator is embarrassed for having monopolizing the lunch conversation, but Maxim assures her that he enjoyed their time together. He invites her on an afternoon drive around Monte Carlo, and the narrator is overwhelmed with the glamor and sophistication of their excursion. At one point, Maxim shows her a spot next to a cliff, and his mood changes: the spot seems to bring back bad memories for him. Noticing the narrator’s anxiety, Maxim apologizes for his mood and begins to tell her about his sister and his love of flowers at Manderley.
Back at the hotel, the narrator finds a slim volume of poetry in the car, and Maxim encourages her to take it and read it. She returns to her room and looks at the book, noticing the inscription “Max—from Rebecca. May 17th.” The “R” of “Rebecca” seems somehow stronger than the other letters, and the narrator is unnerved. She remembers the gossip that she heard from Mrs. Van Hopper about Maxim’s first wife and her tragic death by drowning.
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.