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Themes and Colors
Memory Theme Icon
Feminism and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Coming of Age Theme Icon
Place, Imprisonment, and the Gothic Theme Icon
Power, Control, and Information Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Rebecca, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Memory Theme Icon

From the first sentence, it’s apparent that Rebecca is constructed as a memory. The narrator (never named) remembers her time at Manderley after marrying her husband, the handsome, mysterious Maxim de Winter. As the novel goes on, however, we realize that life at Manderley is dominated by the memory of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca. In essence, the novel Rebecca is about the memory of a memory. In light of memory’s obvious importance to the novel, it’s worth examining this theme a little more closely.

Much of the eerie, uneasy tone of Rebecca derives from the clash between past and present—in other words, from the ambiguous dynamics of memory. By definition, a memory involves the past “replaying” in the present. At Manderley, Rebecca’s past is constantly being replayed in its inhabitants’ memories—the servants mention Rebecca whenever possible, for example. Even Manderley itself is the embodiment of Rebecca’s past, since she designed the gardens, the bedrooms, etc. Simply to walk through Manderley is to relive Rebecca’s life. As the book moves on, we realize that this is exactly what Rebecca intended: sadistically, she filled Manderley with personal mementos, ensuring that Maxim would be cursed to forever remember the wife he hated. As du Maurier sees it, a memory is like a zombie—a dead, vanished being that’s been recalled to life, often with terrifying results.

There’s no doubt that memories can be painful and intimidating. And yet there’s something undeniably comforting about remembering, no matter what the individual memory consists of. Although the narrator spends the majority of the book frightened of Rebecca—a woman she’s never met—she recognizes that the people around her, including her husband, find meaning and even pleasure from memory. The people who worshipped Rebecca, such as Mrs. Danvers, base their entire life around the act of remembering her—at times spending long hours reconstructing her wardrobe and her bedroom. Even Maxim, who, we learn, despised Rebecca, gets an undeniable sense of comfort from his wife’s memory. Though Maxim hated Rebecca’s cruelty and manipulation, Rebecca stands for Manderley itself in his mind, so to forget Rebecca would be to forget who he is altogether. Through Maxim’s behavior, du Maurier makes one of her most provocative points about memory: it’s better to have flawed, even horrifying memories of one’s past than to have no memories at all.

But is there any way to escape memory without surrendering one’s identity altogether? At the end of Rebecca, Mrs. Danvers, furious with Maxim for murdering Rebecca, has set Manderley on fire. Symbolically, this suggests that Rebecca’s past no longer has a stranglehold on the characters’ lives. Not coincidentally, this scene coincides closely with Maxim’s decision to share the sordid details of Rebecca’s past with the narrator. Perhaps the suggestion here is that the only way to move past a painful memory is to share it with someone else. Thus, Maxim escapes the haunting influence of his dead wife by sharing his memories with the narrator. By the same token, the narrator transcends her own haunting experiences at Manderley by passing them on to someone else entirely: the reader.

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Memory Quotes in Rebecca

Below you will find the important quotes in Rebecca related to the theme of Memory.
Chapter 1 Quotes

On and on, now east now west, wound the poor thread that once had been our drive. Sometimes I thought it lost, but it appeared again, beneath a fallen tree perhaps, or struggling on the other side of a muddied ditch created by the winter rains. I had not thought the way so long.

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Manderley
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

In the dreamy opening pages of the novel, the narrator (who's never named) describes Manderley, the vast manor house where she used to live with her husband. She describes the "path"  to Manderley, a path that twists and turns unpredictably. While the narrator is speaking of a literal path--i.e., a road--we understand that she's also alluding to the more metaphorical "path" of memory. Throughout the novel, the narrator will look back on her time at Manderley, as clearly she's still haunted by her experiences there. Sometimes, her memories will seem exaggerated or uncertain, the product of her fear and anxiety. In short, the quotation is a kind of "thesis statement" for the entire book: the narrator will circle back, again and again, to her time at Manderley, lost on the meandering path of that oppressive, unforgettable place.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

But I never dared ask Mrs. Danvers what she did about it. She would have looked at me in scorn, smiling that freezing, superior smile of hers, and I can imagine her saying: “There were never any complaints when Mrs. de Winter was alive.”

Mrs. Danvers. I wonder what she is doing now.

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker), Rebecca de Winter , Mrs. Danvers
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the narrator recalls her former housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, for the first time. Right away she describes Mrs. Danvers as a severe, intimidating woman. Furthermore, Mrs. Danvers like to compare the narrator with her predecessor--Rebecca de Winter (the narrator's husband's former wife). Danver's constant, silent judgment of the narrator makes the narrator feel anxious and uncertain: everything the narrator does is being "weighed" against Rebecca's memory.

And yet the narrator doesn't seem the least bit anxious about Mrs. Danvers, in the present. On the contrary, she seems calm and collected, wondering offhandedly what ever happened to her former tormenter. The fact that Mrs. Danvers--a veritable institution at Manderley--is gone suggests that something has happened to Manderley itself. The narrator's former life as a resident of Manderley, alongside her husband, is over--but it'll take 300 pages before we understand what has happened to it.

Chapter 5 Quotes

“When we climbed the hills and looked down over the precipice. I was there some years ago, with my wife. You asked me if it was still the same, if it had changed at all. It was just the same, but—I was thankful to realize—oddly impersonal. There was no suggestion of the other time. She and I had left no record. It may have been because you were with me. You have blotted out the past for me, you know, far more effectively than all the bright lights of Monte Carlo.”

Related Characters: Maximilian de Winter (speaker), Rebecca de Winter , The narrator
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the narrator--at this point a young, shy, unmarried woman--gets to know Maxim de Winter, the man who will one day become her husband. Maxim explains to the narrator that he was once married. He and his former wife traveled all over Monte Carlo, and once visited the very hill where he and the narrator are currently standing.

As Maxim goes on to explain, he likes the narrator because she helps him forget the pain of his former wife. Maxim doesn't go into any detail about what his marriage to Rebecca was like (we the readers don't understand the marriage until the end of the novel). And yet it's clear that Maxim is looking to forget his past: the narrator is a kind of "medicine," helping Maxim move on with his life. By 21st century standards, Maxim's speech is rather sexist: he treats the narrator as a means to the end of his own happiness, and seems to have little interest in the narrator's personality. In this sense, the quotation is confusing: we're not sure if we're meant to pity Maxim for his loss, reject his narrow-minded sexism, or both.

How many times she must have written to him thus, in how many varied moods. Little notes, scrawled on half-sheets of paper, and letters, when he was away, page after page, intimate, their news. Her voice, echoing through the house, and down the garden, careless and familiar like the writing in the book.

And I had to call him Maxim.

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker), Rebecca de Winter , Maximilian de Winter
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator begins to enter into a strange competition with Rebecca, Maxim de Winter's dead wife. Rebecca and Maxim seem to have enjoyed a close marriage for many years--hence Rebecca's habit of calling Maxim "Max." The narrator, by contrast, has been instructed to refer to Mr. de Winter as "Maxim." As the narrator interprets things, she's more removed from Maxim's thoughts and feelings. Even after the narrator marries Maxim, she's not really close with him--she begins to sense that Maxim is still in love with Rebecca, hence the distance implied by "Maxim."

It's strange to think that the narrator is "competing" with Rebecca for Maxim's affections. Throughout the novel, though, Rebecca will exert a powerful influence over the characters, albeit from beyond the grave. Rebecca could also be considered a strong maternal presence, against whom the narrator must rebel in an Oedipal sense. (See Themes.)

Chapter 11 Quotes

I heard myself saying boldly, brazenly, “Rebecca must have been a wonderful person.”
I could not believe that I had said the name at last. I waited, wondering what would happen. I had said the name. I had said the word Rebecca aloud. It was a tremendous relief. It was as though I had taken a purge and rid myself of an intolerable pain. Rebecca. I had said it aloud.

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker), Rebecca de Winter
Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the narrator takes a leap and speaks the name of Maxim de Winter's former wife, Rebecca. The narrator is in the middle of a visit to the wife of the local bishop--one of her many duties as the wife of an English aristocrat. Away from her husband--who refuses to hear the name Rebecca at any time--the narrator takes the opportunity to vent some of her pent-up frustrations, and speaks Rebecca's name in a kind of cathartic release.

The narrator has been frightened of Rebecca for a long time now, even though Rebecca has been dead for more than a year. She feels that she's an incompetent, childish young woman, whereas Rebecca must have been an impressive, beloved wife to Maxim. After repressing her guilt and fear for so long, it's enormously satisfying for the narrator to name the source of her frustrations. The quotation is important because it signals that the narrator is beginning to explore the mysteries of Manderley, starting with the mysteries' source, Rebecca herself.

Chapter 13 Quotes

I dreaded his going. When I saw the car disappear round the sweep in the drive I felt exactly as though it were to be a final parting and I should never see him again. There would be an accident of course and later on in the afternoon, when I came back from my walk, I should find Frith white and frightened waiting for me with a message. The doctor would have rung up from some cottage hospital. “You must be very brave,” he would say, “I'm afraid you must be prepared for a great shock.”

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker), Maximilian de Winter , Frith
Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:

Here the narrator talks about the fear she feels whenever her husband leaves Manderley to drive into London. The narrator feels a powerful fear that Maxim is going to get in a car accident and die, leaving the narrator alone at Manderley forever.

The passage is notable in that it shows the narrator's fantasy life in full-swing: the narrator seems to hallucinate a complex scenario in which a doctor tells her about Maxim's tragic death. Alone in a big house, the narrator has no way to occupy her time other than with elaborate fantasies, even if they're gruesome and depressing. The passage also suggests the narrator's total, slavish devotion to her husband. Alone in a strange, austere world, the narrator has one and only one friend--Maxim himself--meaning that, in a way, she's imprisoned in her new life at Manderley. (As some critics have pointed out, Maxim may be totally aware of the narrator's dependence on him, and using it to his advantage.)

Chapter 15 Quotes

She had relaxed against the pillows, plucking at her shawl, and her mouth began to tremble. “You talk too much, all of you. I don't understand.” Then she looked across at me, a frown on her face, and began shaking her head. “Who are you, my dear, I haven't seen you before? I don't know your face. I don't remember you at Manderley. Bee, who is this child? Why did not Maxim bring Rebecca? I'm so fond of Rebecca. Where is dear Rebecca?”

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker), Gran (speaker)
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the narrator goes with Beatrice to visit Maxim's aging, senile grandmother, "Gran." To the narrator's horror, Gran doesn't realize that Rebecca has died: as far as she's concerned, the narrator is a kind of impostor, "stealing" the role of wife away from Rebecca, the rightful owner.

Gran's behavior in this scene, senile though it might be, literalizes the narrator's own feelings of insecurity at Manderley. True enough, the narrator does feel like an impostor: thanks to the severity of Mrs. Danvers, the narrator thinks of herself as an inadequate replacement for Rebecca. The narrator lacks confidence in her own abilities, to the point where she begins to hate herself simply for not being Rebecca.

Chapter 16 Quotes

He considered me a moment, his eyebrows raised, whistling softly. “Listen, my sweet. When you were a little girl, were you ever forbidden to read certain books, and did your father put those books under lock and key?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, then. A husband is not so very different from a father after all. There is a certain type of knowledge I prefer you not to have. It's better kept under lock and key. So that's that. And now eat up your peaches, and don't ask me any more questions, or I shall put you in the corner.”
“I wish you would not treat me as if I was six,” I said.

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker), Maximilian de Winter (speaker)
Page Number: 205
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator has brought up the issue of Rebecca to Maxim de Winter himself. But instead of opening up about the issue to his wife, Maxim clams up, condescendingly claiming that the narrator is too young and childish to understand Maxim's feelings. As Maxim explains it, the narrator is like a young child, who needs to be kept out of a library for her own good.

As the narrator readily points out, Maxim is treating her like a tiny child. Moreover, Maxim is obtusely implying that the narrator is the problem--i.e., that she's curious about things that should be left alone--when in fact it's Maxim himself who's to blame for being too cowardly to discuss the truth with another person. The narrator has felt that she's being treated condescendingly for some time now, but it's not until this scene that she tells Maxim how she's feeling--a sure sign that the narrator is becoming stronger and more assertive.

“What the hell do you think you are doing?” he asked. His eyes blazed in anger. His face was still ashen white.
I could not move, I went on standing there, my hand on the banister.
“It's the picture,” I said, terrified at his eyes, at his voice. “It's the picture, the one in the gallery.”
There was a long silence. We went on staring at each other. Nobody moved in the hall. I swallowed, my hand moved to my throat. “What is it?” I said. “What have I done?”

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker), Maximilian de Winter (speaker)
Related Symbols: The White Dress
Page Number: 217
Explanation and Analysis:

In this uncomfortable scene, the narrator prepares to enter the Manderley summer ball, a fixture of social life in the community. With Mrs. Danvers's help, the narrator has chosen for her costume a beautiful white dress. To her horror, though, the narrator discovers--as she enters the party itself--that the dress is identical to one worn by Rebecca years before. Mrs. Danvers has tricked the narrator into humiliating herself in front of her guests and her husband.

The scene is designed to show the narrator in a state of total cluelessness: at this point, the narrator has no idea what she's done, or why her behavior has enraged Maxim. And yet we, the readers, can already guess what's going on. The narrator has dared to wear Rebecca's clothes--symbolically, she's attempted to step into Rebecca's role as wife and socialite, and she's utterly failed. In short, the passage confirms the narrator's worst fear: that she's an embarrassing, inadequate substitute for Rebecca de Winter.

Chapter 20 Quotes

“Our marriage was a farce from the very first. She was vicious, damnable, rotten through and through. We never loved each other, never had one moment of happiness together. Rebecca was incapable of love, of tenderness, of decency. She was not even normal.”

Related Characters: Maximilian de Winter (speaker), Rebecca de Winter , The narrator
Page Number: 275
Explanation and Analysis:

Maxim de Winter finally tells the narrator the truth about Rebecca. Contrary to what the narrator has always assumed, Rebecca was not a lovely, glamorous woman; on the contrary, she was a cruel, two-faced villain whom Maxim despised.

After this quotation, Maxim will go into great detail about why, exactly, Rebecca was so bad. But for now, it's crucial to notice that Maxim sums up Rebecca's faults by saying, "She was not even normal." For Maxim, the word "normal" means a few things: being a loving wife, being obedient to one's husband, doing one's duty as a hostess, etc. Many critics of the novel have pointed out that it's Maxim, not Rebecca, who comes across as a villain here. Maxim resents Rebecca, it could be argued, not because she's a particularly awful person, but because she refuses to go along with the sexist norms of society and be subservient to her husband.

Chapter 23 Quotes

“This business has been a shock to me, you know,” he said. “A bloody awful shock. Rebecca was my cousin. I was damn fond of her.”
“Yes,” I said. “I'm very sorry for you.”
“We were brought up together,” he went on. “Always tremendous pals. Liked the same things, the same people. Laughed at the same jokes. I suppose I was fonder of Rebecca than anyone else in the world. And she was fond of me. All this has been a bloody shock.”

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker), Jack Favell (speaker), Rebecca de Winter
Page Number: 329
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the narrator talks to Jack Favell, the cousin of Rebecca. Jack, we've already noticed, is a somewhat sleazy, unpredictable character--not to be trusted in the slightest. After Rebecca's dead body is found in a washed-up boat, there's a renewed inquiry into the manner of her death. (We, and the narrator, know that it was Maxim who killed Rebeca.) The coroner concludes that Rebecca killed herself--a conclusion which satisfies many, but not Jack.

Much like Mrs. Danvers, Jack comes across as a sad, even pathetic character here. Jack continues to love a dead woman--a woman who, furthermore, probably never loved him in return. As the narrator becomes increasingly free of her obsession with Rebecca, the people around her seem to become increasingly obsessed with Rebecca--Jack is the perfect example. The passage also hints at a sexual relationship between Rebecca and Jack (a fact confirmed elsewhere), further reinforcing Rebecca's licentious, transgressive character—or else her confident, liberated personality.

Chapter 27 Quotes

There was no moon. The sky above our heads was inky black. But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all. It was shot with crimson, like a splash of blood. And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.

Related Characters: The narrator (speaker), Maximilian de Winter
Related Symbols: Manderley
Page Number: 386
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the novel, the narrator and Maxim return to Manderley, ready to start a new life with one another. And yet when they approach their manor home, they're shocked to see that it's in flames: someone (Mrs. Danvers, it's implied) has set the building on fire.

What does the destruction of Manderley mean for the narrator? Just as the narrator was getting ready to settle into the role of mistress of Manderley, her home is destroyed. By the same token, the narrator's chances of a stable adult life have disappeared: although she's still married to Maxim, she'll never be entirely respectable--because of the destruction of Manderley, her name will always be tied to some mysterious scandal.

And yet the destruction of Manderley is a beginning as well as an ending. Throughout the novel, the narrator has struggled to liberate herself from Rebecca's memory. In no small part, the narrator's struggle was so great because Rebecca and Manderley were practically synonymous. Now that Rebecca's legacy has finally been buried, it's only fair that Manderley should be "buried," too.