This chapter records the development of Amory Blaine, the protagonist of the novel, up to his arrival at Princeton. It begins with a brief description of his mother, Beatrice, who was a wealthy and pretty girl from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, educated with all the advantages of her family's wealth, including stints in Europe. She is a refined and charming woman who married the unimportant Stephen Blaine out of weariness.
Beatrice loves her only son deeply, both as a friend and a mother. She, along with home tutors, passes on to him much of the elegance of her education as they travel through the country together, enjoying high society. We learn that she has a true love of the clergy, which includes a man named Monsignor Darcy (an aborted love affair with Beatrice impelled him to become a priest). After Beatrice suffers a nervous breakdown, Amory spends two years with an aunt and uncle in Minneapolis.
Amory's sophisticated education sets him apart from his peers: he has too good a French accent and behaves like a grown man already. At thirteen, he attends a party of a girl in his class, Myra St. Claire, and arrives fashionably late, somewhat spoiling the party. The two ride out together to the stately Minnehaha Club, where Amory plays up his romantic charms and inspires Myra to kiss him--an act that repulses the young boy.
Further sketches of the young Amory follow, showing him falling in love often, reading voraciously, and both being changed by and hating organized schooling. But when he returns to his mother in Lake Geneva, he announces he has become "conventional" and wants to go to boarding school. They decide on St. Regis, and Amory leaves for New England to enroll and to meet Monsignor Darcy, with whom he forms an instant bond.
Amory struggles socially and academically at St. Regis; other boys think he is conceited, and his teachers consider him lacking in discipline, though quite bright. But he improves, applying himself to football and becoming a star of the team and somewhat of a hero on campus. Amory and a friend go to New York to see a show, where they fall in love with the leading actress.
Always concerned with social politics, Amory and a friend devise a method of distinguishing between "The Big Man" on campus and "The Slicker," a word coined by Amory. The former is a somewhat romantic portrait of a boy who cares little for his appearance or standing, participates in activities out of a sense of duty, and has a problematic time in college without his prep school friends. The latter, identified by his slicked back hair, is more socially conscious and succeeds at college "in a worldly way." Amory places himself among the Big Men.