The narrator concludes that she can never return to Manderley, because the past is “too close.” She thinks about looking at her husband, with whom she once lived at Manderley. Currently, they’re living in a hotel. The narrator’s husband once had a premonition that Manderley would go through a disaster—a premonition that’s turned out to be quite true.
In addition to being a work of literature, Rebecca is also a mystery novel, and du Maurier is upfront about the nature of the mystery: something bad happens to Manderley, and it’ll take us the remainder of the novel (right up to the last sentence!) to find out what this is. It’s interesting that, in a sense, Rebecca is a murder mystery where the “victim” is a place, not a person. This is a strong reminder of the thematic importance of place in the novel.
Despite her assuredness that she can’t return to Manderley, the narrator can’t help thinking of it at all times. The smallest details remind her of Manderley life: trees, plants, even newspaper articles. The narrator notes that the caretakers at their hotel, which is located far from England, must dislike them for being so aggressively English, and consuming quintessential English foods like crumpets.
It’s hard to gauge the narrator’s attitude toward Manderley. On one level she seems repelled by it: it’s big, ugly, intimidating, eerie, etc. And yet the narrator is clearly drawn to Manderley, as if by hypnosis (the style of these opening chapter is regularly described as “hypnotic”). This combination of attraction and repulsion characterizes many of the characters’ relationships with one another. It’s also important to note that the characters’ English affect follows them wherever they go. Manderley—the quintessential English manor house—has made a strong impression on the narrator.
The narrator remembers some of the people who lived at Manderley. There was the servant, Mrs. Danvers, who, if the narrator complained about anything, would say that the narrator’s predecessor, Rebecca de Winter, never complained about anything of that kind. Mrs. Danvers disliked the narrator for her “lack of poise.” Rebecca, by contrast, was always perfectly poised. The narrator would dine while being served by Mrs. Danvers.
So far, we’ve gotten the impression that the narrator exemplifies the English, upper-class values of Manderley. Here, we see that this wasn’t always the case. When the narrator arrives at Manderley, she lacks aristocratic poise. This naturally makes us wonder who she was before she came to Manderley—leading to another flashback.
The narrator also remembers Mrs. Van Hopper, a woman she worked for long ago. One evening, the narrator was dining with Van Hopper at a restaurant, when they both noticed a handsome man, Maxim de Winter. Van Hopper explained to the narrator that de Winter owned Manderley, and that his wife had died recently.
This chapter has unfolded like a hazy memory—we’re not clear exactly where we are, or what the relationship between the characters is, but there’s a powerful, eerie atmosphere of something sinister and mysterious. Du Maurier follows many conventions of the “Gothic” novel in her book—including the young heroine falling in love with a wealthy, handsome man with a mysterious and tragic past.