In Rebecca, du Maurier explores the relationship between past and present. For Maxim and his second wife, the past and the present are inextricably linked. The wife’s insecure past leads her to feel insecure in her new marriage, and Maxim’s past relationship with Rebecca damages his relationship with his new wife. Manderley, Maxim’s family home, most clearly symbolizes the relationship between the past and present. Because Rebecca made Manderley beautiful, Maxim endured a marriage he hated. Ironically, his obsession with glorifying his heritage leads to Manderley’s destruction. The novel suggests that either clinging to the past or trying to escape it is equally dangerous. As Maxim’s wife learns, one achieves an uneasy truce with time only by remembering the past while living firmly in the present.
The novel also depicts the battle between good, represented by Maxim and his new wife, and evil, embodied by Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers. Good emerges triumphant in the end, but Maxim and his wife carry permanent scars as a result of their encounter with evil. Interestingly, du Maurier shows that passive, naive goodness cannot defeat evil. When the wife is timid and guileless, she unwittingly helps the forces of evil. It is only when she herself becomes strong that she can help Maxim defeat Rebecca. This theme is complicated by the narrator’s motivation. She eagerly helps Maxim defeat Rebecca, not because Rebecca represents evil, but because she discovers that he never loved his first wife.
Rebecca, the title character, is dead before the novel opens; her presence, however, pervades the entire story. She is responsible for Maxim’s disquiet, much of his wife’s insecurity, and Mrs. Danvers’s revenge. While Rebecca is portrayed as completely malevolent, her character remains believable because the reader is given only glimpses of her from the perspectives of other characters. The evil nature of her servant, Mrs. Danvers, is also credible because du Maurier convincingly shows how Mrs. Danvers, a plain woman, could be dazzled by the power and beauty of Rebecca. The narrator is excessively timid and innocent while Maxim is portrayed as sophisticated and jaded. Maxim is also the most elusive of the four major characters, revealing little of himself to anyone. This elusiveness enhances the ambiguities of the novel since the reader never knows for certain whether Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers have completely crushed his spirit.