In the first chapter of Rebecca, Du Murier describes the dream of her main character. The dream is returning to Manderley and in this first chapter she lays down the foundation of themes that are to come. Fear is the primary one, fear and foreboding.
In the dream, nature has overwhelmed the stately and manicured mansion and threatens it. The reader is left with a sense of unease, a sense of turmoil overrunning order. Manderley is identified as at the center of the dream and of the story and the reader is told very clearly that the couple can never go back to Manderley. Manderley is the source of fear.
In Chapter 1, the primary contrast is between the turmoil of nature and the stately mansion that used to be immaculate, organized. In Chapter 2, the contrast is between the softness of remembered nature in England and the “glaring” sun of the country where they are in self-imposed “exile.”
The task in exile is to banish memories of the past, of Manderley, to banish fear. But, at the same time, the central character talks about being afraid of fear itself. She says that she is afraid that fear may come back and become a “living companion” for them again.
In the first chapter, nature is threatening Manderley. In the second chapter, nature is no longer threatening, but a large part of the fond memory, the soft nature of an English spring. But, in the adopted country, the sun is always glaring and there are no shadows.
There is an unease even in the shifting descriptions. Nature is threatening, menacing and also nature is comforting and the subject of wistful dreams and memories. The adopted country is a haven, but also a place where boredom reigns and the light is always glaring.
Even in exile, there is always a “devil who rides us and torments...” The central character claims that they have given battle and conquered that devil, but then adds: “or so we believe.” The reader is never allowed to look firmly on anything – nature, light, shadows, glare.
Boredom in the adopted country is only a “pleasing antidote to fear.”
In this chapter also, du Maurier introduces a human source of that fear: Mrs. Danvers.
In another presentation of contrast, du Maruier leads us through a description of the delicious food at Manderley and its abundance. This is a comforting, pleasing thought. But, once again, the reader is not allowed to enjoy the image. The character starts remembering her concern about the waste of it all, about what happened to the food that was uneaten. Then, she adds that even though she wondered about the waste, she never “dared” to ask Mrs. Danvers about it. She describes herself as being afraid of that “freezing, superior smile of hers.”
So the reader is led down another rabbit hole of unease – from food, to waste, to fear, to distain.
And so, du Maurier introduces one of the central and probably most memorable characters in the novel, Mrs. Danvers, who will be like a mirror, holding up a reflection to the central character of herself, always wanting. Mrs. Danvers is also the central character’s introduction to something every woman is taught to fear 1) the evaluation of other women, and 2) being compared to other women.
From the first time she sees Mrs. Danvers, she thinks: “She is comparing me to Rebecca; and sharp as a sword the shadow came between us.”
And, not only is the character relentlessly compared to the supposed perfect Rebecca, she is also repeatedly compared to her social superiors. In the hotel in Monte, she is treated badly even by the servants. They sense her social inferiority and use it as an excuse to mistreat her. She doesn’t have the confidence to challenge them.