The novel is narrated by an unnamed woman recalling past events in her life. Throughout the course of the book, the narrator remembers the time she spent at Manderley, a large, handsome English estate, while married to Maxim de Winter.
As a young woman, the narrator worked for a rich, obnoxious old woman named Mrs. Van Hopper: she was Van Hopper’s travel companion. One summer, the narrator and Van Hopper travel to Monte Carlo. There, Van Hopper makes a point of introducing herself to the charismatic Maxim de Winter, who, it is well-known, has just lost his beloved wife in a tragic boating accident. Although the narrator is shy, Maxim takes an immediate liking to her, and when Mrs. Van Hopper catches the flu, Maxim invites the narrator to drive through Monte Carlo with him. During the course of these drives, the narrator begins to develop feelings for Maxim. At the end of the summer, Maxim asks the narrator to marry him, and she accepts. The narrator senses that something isn’t quite right with Maxim, however—he seems pensive, and refuses to discuss his first wife.
Two months later, the narrator and Maxim return from their honeymoon, and travel back to Manderley, the narrator’s new home. The narrator is initially uncomfortable and nervous at Manderley, since she wasn’t raised in a wealthy household. From the beginning, the narrator clashes with the head servant of Manderley, the elderly, severe Mrs. Danvers. Mrs. Danvers, like many of the other servants, is openly devoted to Maxim’s deceased first wife, Rebecca. The narrator also develops an uneasy relationship with Maxim’s sister, Beatrice, who tells the narrator, “You are so different from Rebecca.” Beatrice tells the narrator that Rebecca drowned in the sea near Manderley. It took two months to find her body, by which point it was difficult for Maxim to identify the body. Finally, the narrator befriends Frank Crawley, the estate manager of Manderley.
During her first months at Manderley, the narrator awkwardly adjusts to her new life. Mrs. Danvers treats her with contempt, sensing that the narrator’s not comfortable with an elite lifestyle, as Rebecca was. As the narrator explores the grounds of Manderley, she meets Ben, a mentally challenged gardener who’s lived at Manderley for many years. Ben warns the narrator to stay out of the cottage on the Manderley grounds.
The narrator clashes with Mrs. Danvers in increasingly serious ways. She accidentally breaks a small china cupid, and because she doesn’t want to displease Mrs. Danvers, she sweeps the pieces into an envelope. A misunderstanding leads to a servant nearly being fired for breaking the cupid—the narrator is forced to confess breaking the object, displeasing both Maxim and Danvers. One day, while Maxim is away from Manderley, the narrator discovers a mysterious visitor walking through the house with Mrs. Danvers. Although he tries to sneak out without being detected, he crosses paths with the narrator, and is forced to introduce himself as Jack Favell. Favell asks the narrator not to mention his visit to Maxim. The narrator agrees, but later asks Beatrice who Favell is—Beatrice explains that Favell is Rebecca’s cousin.
In the summer, Maxim’s friends propose that the narrator host an opulent costume party at Manderley. Although the narrator is at first reluctant to do so—she’s never hosted anything so lavish in her life—Maxim, Beatrice, and Frank convince her. Mrs. Danvers suggests that the narrator base her costume on a portrait that hangs in the house. On the evening of the ball, the narrator puts on her costume—a beautiful white dress, based on the portrait Mrs. Danvers had suggested. When she joins Maxim downstairs, however, Maxim is horrified—tearfully, Beatrice explains that this was the costume Rebecca wore at the last party she organized at Manderley.
The next day, the narrator furiously confronts Mrs. Danvers about her manipulations, and is surprised to find Mrs. Danvers crying. Danvers explains that she’s still utterly devoted to Rebecca, and can feel her presence everywhere in Manderley. As if in a trance state, Danvers tells the narrator to try on Rebecca’s clothes, then opens the second-story window of the house and feverishly orders the narrator to jump out of it.
There is a sudden “boom,” and the narrator sees Maxim running from the sea. The narrator rushes downstairs, where she learns from the servants that a large ship has run aground on the beaches near Manderley. Down at the beach, the narrator learns that the grounded ship’s sailors have inadvertently discovered something in the water: Rebecca’s boat, in which there’s a body. The narrator can’t understand what’s going on: she’d been told that Maxim identified Rebecca’s body months ago. She goes to ask Maxim what’s going on. To her surprise, Maxim reveals the truth: Rebecca didn’t die of drowning at all. When Maxim married Rebecca years ago, he explains, he was enamored with her. But he quickly discovered that she was a liar: although she pretended to be virtuous and perfect, in secret she despised the servants, had affairs with other men, and disobeyed Maxim at all times. Knowing that he could never divorce Rebecca without creating a scandal, Maxim reached a “bargain” with Rebecca: Rebecca would live her life on her own terms, but only during her time in London. As Manderley, she would have to be on good behavior.
Over time, Maxim continues, Rebecca began breaking her own rules. She tried and failed to seduce Frank, and then began an affair with her own cousin, Jack Favell, while staying at Manderley. Knowing about the affair, Maxim armed himself with a gun and went to the cottage on the Manderley grounds, hoping to find Rebecca there with her lover. Instead, he found only Rebecca. After a long, tense conversation, Rebecca told Maxim that he’d be forced to raise any child she bore him, whether he was the father or not. Furious, Maxim shot Rebecca, and then disguised his crime by throwing his wife’s body in a boat and sinking it off the beach.
As the narrator listens to Maxim’s story, she feels herself filing with relief. All along, she’s thought that Maxim was still in love with Rebecca, but now she realizes that he never loved Rebecca at all. She kisses him, as if for the first time.
An investigation begins to determine how Rebecca’s body came to be in the boat the sailors discovered. Maxim goes to meet with the local coroner and the inspector, Colonel Julyan. Horridge discovers that the boat had three holes deliberately drilled in it. After much thought, he rules Rebecca’s death a suicide, throwing Maxim’s reputation as a loving husband into controversy.
After the coroner’s report, Maxim and the narrator receive a visit from Jack Favell. He produces a note from Rebecca, which he received shortly before Rebecca’s death. The note, which tells Jack to come see her immediately, seems to disprove suicide. Jack tries to use the note to blackmail Maxim. When Maxim refuses to play along, Jack calls Colonel Julyan to Manderley. During the long meeting that follows, Jack accuses Maxim of killing Rebecca, and Colonel Julyan begins to believe Jack. Jack calls Ben, who denies having seen any evidence of Maxim killing Rebecca, and then Mrs. Danvers, who is similarly unhelpful. However, Mrs. Danvers produces Rebecca’s diary, which contains the phone number for a Dr. Baker in London.
The next day, Colonel Julyan travels with Maxim, the narrator, and Jack Favell to London to find Dr. Baker. Baker tells Julyan that shortly before Rebecca’s death, a woman calling herself “Danvers” came to visit him, and learned that she had uterine cancer. Julyan deduces that this woman must have been Rebecca. The group leaves Dr. Baker. Jack Favell, still sure that Maxim killed Rebecca, vows to get revenge, but admits that he has no proof of the crime. Colonel Julyan bids Maxim and the narrator goodbye—after he leaves, the narrator and Maxim agree that Julyan suspected Maxim of the murder all along. Maxim points out that Rebecca was trying to send him to jail: knowing that she was dying of cancer, she succeeded in goading Maxim into shooting her, hoping that he’d be sentenced to death for his crime.
Maxim and the narrator drive back to Manderley from London. It’s early morning when they return. As they approach the house, they’re shocked to see that it is engulfed in flames.