The narrator remembers the Sunday when the idea of a “fancy dress ball” was first proposed. Maxim and the narrator are entertaining a number of unexpected guests for lunch, including Frank Crawley and several of Maxim’s friends. One of the guests is Lady Crowan, a boring old woman who lives nearby. Crowan proposes to Maxim that he host a summer ball. Maxim seems indifferent to this idea—he suggests that Crowan ask Frank Crawley about the idea. Crawley says that he doesn’t mind organizing the ball at all, if the narrator approves. The narrator says, “I don’t mind,” though privately she has no desire whatsoever for a large ball.
The narrator has no experience organizing parties, but as the mistress of a big manor house in England, she’s expected to host a ball from time to time. Thus it’s only a matter of time before someone proposes the idea of a dress ball (i.e. costume party). Although Maxim is the master of the house, it’s ultimately the narrator’s decision whether or not to approve of the event—and yet once again she feels to insecure about her position to assert her real desires.
After the guests leave, the narrator, Frank, and Maxim discuss the idea of a ball. The narrator complains that Lady Crowan is a tiresome woman—her desire for a party shouldn’t be the reason for hosting a ball. Frank points out that the narrator is a new bride, however, and should have some sort of celebration for herself. He assures the narrator that she’ll enjoy herself, and the narrator bursts out laughing—Frank is good at calming her down. She wonders what costume she should wear. Frank and Maxim suggest an “Alice in Wonderland” theme. Not knowing what she’ll wear, the narrator tells Frank and Maxim that she’ll keep her costume a secret until the last minute.
The narrator decides to organize the dress ball after all. In part, she does so because she wants to prove herself to Maxim and the rest of his “circle,” but also because Frank and Maxim convince her that it could be fun. In general, Frank seems to have much more rapport with the narrator than Maxim, her husband, does. And yet both Frank and Maxim regard the narrator as a child in many ways, even suggesting that she come dressed as Alice, the young girl who was lost in Wonderland, much as the narrator is “lost at Manderley.”
The narrator goes to the west wing of the house with Jasper. She thinks about Maxim’s orders to close up these rooms, and wonders if he ever comes into Rebecca’s old bedroom and touches her clothes, as Mrs. Danvers does.
From the narrator’s perspective, Maxim is still devoted to Rebecca, and therefore wants the narrator to imitate Rebecca by hosting a costume party.
Word gets out that there’s to be a costume ball at Manderley. Clarice, the narrator’s favorite maid, tells the narrator that she’s excited for the big night. Frank and the servants spend weeks preparing for the ball. The narrator tries to think of an appropriate costume. She goes through the books on the history of painting that Beatrice bought her, hoping to find inspiration. Dissatisfied, she makes sketches of gowns from paintings by Old Masters, but then throws them in the trash.
The narrator thinks that she can use the dress ball as a way to ingratiate herself with her new friends and neighbors, proving that she really does belong among the landed gentry instead of the middle class (into which she was born). For this reason, the success of her costume becomes something more symbolic and meaningful than just a dress in itself.
The next day, Mrs. Danvers approaches the narrator about the sketches she’s thrown away—she claims to want to make sure that the narrator meant to throw these away. The narrator insists that she did. Mrs. Danvers inquires whether the narrator has determined what to wear to the ball, and the narrator, sensing that Mrs. Danvers is secretly disdainful of her, admits that she hasn’t. Mrs. Danvers suggests copying any one of the pictures hanging in Manderley, especially a picture of a young lady in white. She also gives the narrator the name of a good dress shop in London. Finally, Mrs. Danvers notes that it would be better to make the ball a “period event”—that is, telling everyone to come dressed as figures from a specific historical era.
In this scene, Mrs. Danvers gives the narrator something she’s never offered before: assistance. Right away, this makes us suspicious. But the narrator, in her haste to be successful, doesn’t question Mrs. Danvers’ motives—she thinks that Danvers is the perfect person to consult for advice in this matter, since she’s helped organize dozens of similar balls over the years. It’s fitting that Mrs. Danvers thinks the ball should be a strictly period event—Danvers is so trapped in her own past that it’s only natural for her to want to extend her nostalgic worldview onto everyone else.
After Mrs. Danvers leaves, the narrator wonders why Maxim doesn’t like Rebecca’s cousin, Jack Favell. She suspects that Jack is the “black sheep” of Rebecca’s side of the family—a troublesome fool. As she dines with Maxim, she can’t stop thinking about Rebecca and Jack Favell’s relationship—they way they might have spoken furtively over the phone so as not to upset Maxim. Suddenly, Maxim asks the narrator what on earth she’s thinking about. Surprised, the narrator ends her daydream. Maxim says that the narrator has a “flash of knowledge” on her face. He insists that there’s a “certain type of knowledge” he doesn’t wish her to have. Upset, the narrator asks Maxim why she’s being treated like a young child. Without answering, Maxim gets up and leaves the dinner table.
As the narrator spends more time at Manderley, her confusion about Maxim’s relationship to Rebecca is to only growing. As a result, she has long, complicated daydreams in which she imagines how things might have played out between Rebecca and her peers. These daydreams, since they take place entirely within the narrator’s mind, symbolize the narrator’s almost solipsistic shyness—her inability to escape her own head and ask other people the questions she wants to. It’s very refreshing then to hear the narrator ask Maxim, point-blank, what we’d already been wondering—why he infantilizes her. Maxim refuses to answer, proving that he’s really no more mature than his younger wife.
As the ball approaches, the narrator decides to go with Mrs. Danvers’ suggestion for a costume, and copies the portrait of the woman in white. She sends her sketch off to a dress shop whose name Mrs. Danvers mentioned: the shop translates the sketch into a proper dress. Workers prepare the house for the ball, and move much for the furniture away to make room for dancing. Only one day before the ball, the shop in London sends the narrator the white dress, which has turned out beautifully. She decides to keep her costume a secret from Maxim and Frank until the last minute.
We can sense that Mrs. Danvers is going to sabotage the narrator—everything she’s done so far suggests as much. Furthermore, the fact that the narrator is keeping her dress a secret from Frank and Maxim until the last minute seems like a textbook example of Murphy’s Law: anything that can go wrong will go wrong, and du Maurier sets it up to all go wrong at once in a single disastrous reveal.
It is the afternoon of the ball. The narrator is very nervous—so nervous that she can’t eat anything. Beatrice and Giles show up early, before the narrator has put on her costume. They embrace the narrator and tell her it’s “just like old times” at Manderley. Beatrice is carrying her costume—an “Eastern” lady, and Giles will dress as an Arabian sheik. Beatrice tells the narrator she’s excited to see the narrator’s costume.
The narrator’s costume party seems like a triumph, at least initially: the purpose of the party was for the narrator to prove to the community, to Maxim, and to herself that life is back to normal at Manderley. By hosting a lavish party, the narrator is stepping into Rebecca’s shoes and, it would seem, becoming the confident young mistress of the manor.
The narrator goes upstairs to put on her dress. As Clarice helps her with it, the narrator thinks excitedly about the evening ahead of her. Perhaps Mrs. Danvers was right, she admits to herself—it would have been better to make the ball a period event, rather than allowing everyone to dress up as figures from different eras. As she looks at herself in the mirror, the narrator recognizes that she’s dressing as Caroline de Winter—a Lady of Manderley from hundreds of years ago.
It’s fitting that the narrator ultimately chooses to dress up as a Manderley mistress from centuries ago, as Mrs. Danvers suggested. She’s so desperate to fit in at Manderley that she wants to steep herself in tradition and respectability. The only foolproof way to do so is to impersonate another de Winter—in this case, one of Maxim’s distant ancestors!
The narrator, now dressed in her white gown, walks downstairs, to find a group of guests arriving. To her surprise, no one laughs or applauds for her dress—indeed, Maxim looks at her stonily. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he shouts. Terrified, the narrator explains that she’s copied the portrait of Caroline de Winter from one of Manderley’s hallways. Without explaining himself, Maxim orders the narrator to change immediately. As the narrator walks back to her room, she passes Mrs. Danvers, who looks triumphant.
We can tell that Mrs. Danvers has sabotaged the narrator. The question, then, is why wasn’t the narrator more suspicious of Danvers in the first place? In short, the answer is that the narrator was too eager to acclimate herself to life in Manderley—she placed her trust in Mrs. Danvers simply because Danvers was experienced with parties, and the narrator wanted to believe that Danvers was finally beginning to accept her and help her. The tragic result is that the narrator has alienated herself further from both her guests and from Maxim, when the goal of the ball was precisely the opposite.