Tommy Wilhelm, the book's protagonist, is descending in an elevator of the Hotel Gloriana, about to meet his father for breakfast. Dr. Adler, a retired doctor and Tommy's father, lives in the hotel. From the novella's opening there is a sense that there is something different about this day. For instance, Tommy and his father usually meet in the elevator, however, on this day, his father is already downstairs when Tommy descends. Also, Tommy claims, "he was aware that his routine was about to break up and he sensed that a huge trouble long presaged but till now formless was due."
The narrator is a third person omniscient narrator, however, the point of view changes and often infiltrates Tommy's thoughts. Moreover, the reader is able learn about the narrator's past. Also, because the narrator is omniscient, one is also able to pick up Tommy's habits and learn about his appearance through the narrative descriptions. Tommy, for instance, is a young man surrounded by the old men of the Gloriana. He is in his mid forties, at age fourty-four. He is somewhat disorderly in appearance, seemingly strong backed but beginning to curve, and he fidgets by swinging back and forth with his hands in his pockets.
On his way to breakfast, in the lobby, Tommy stops at the newsstand and has a conversation with Rubin, the man at the newsstand, who notifies him that his father is already at breakfast. They talk, for a bit, about clothes, and then the narrative follows into Tommy's thoughts. As Tommy stands by the newsstand, the reader follows the narrator in and out of Tommy's thoughts and in and out of tidbits of conversation with Rubin. We discover many aspects of Tommy's life. First of all, he has just lost his job in sales and has just gone into a commodities investment venture with one Dr. Tamkin, a psychologist who claims to know about the market. It also becomes obvious that Tommy is under serious financial strain and that he desperately desires the assistance of his father.
It is in this beginning chapter that through Tommy's thoughts we receive an introduction of Dr. Adler. Dr. Adler seems disappointed in his son. Dr. Adler is, himself, quite successful. He has money and is well respected, and according to Tommy, he is "idolized." Dr. Adler distrusts Dr. Tamkin, as is evidenced by a flashback of a conversation Tommy had with his father on the subject of Tamkin. One also learns about other members of Tommy's family: he has a sister named Catherine who graduated from Bryn Mawr. The reader also gets a brief glance at Tommy's deceased mother, who he also believes to have disappointed.
Among the flashbacks, there is one that takes up the most space and that is the one involving Maurice Venice, the talent scout. While still a sophomore in college, a talent scout had called upon Tommy because of his good looks. The scout had seen his picture on a poster while Tommy was running for office at college. Maurice Venice claims that he sees potential in his looks and asks him to take a screen test. However, when the screen test comes back, Venice refuses to take him on because Tommy proved awkward on film because of varying factors, including a speech impediment that seemed amplified on screen. Nevertheless, Tommy lies to his parents and tells them that Venice has told him he would be cheating himself if he did not give acting a try. He, therefore, against the will of his parents, drops out of college and moves to California where he got no further than being an extra. As it turned out, Maurice Venice had been somewhat of a fraud, in any case, and was hiding a prostitution racket behind the front of a talent agency.
Another important fact learned in this chapter is that, when Tommy moved to California, he changed his name. His birth name is Wilhelm Adler, a name he changed to Tommy Wilhelm. His father, however, continues to call him Wilky, as he has always done. The chapter ends with Tommy's plea to God. He apologizes for the life he has led, for wasted time, and he asks for help for a better life.
This very fist chapter illustrates many important points about the novella itself and about its characters. First of all, the novel's point of view is of great significance because it affects the novels tone, mood, and character studies. The point of view is primarily a third person omniscient narrator. However, when the narration travels into the mind and thoughts of Tommy Wilhelm, it often fluctuates in point of view and often takes on the first person. As a third person, omniscient narrative voice, the narrative also journeys into the minds of other characters but, mostly, everything is seen through Tommy's perspective. This makes it difficult to surmise what is Tommy's imagination and interpretation and what is reality. Moreover, the tone of the novel often verges on an ironic mimesis of Tommy's voice, that is, there are points in which the narrator makes fun of Tommy. This complicates the novel but it is important to keep all of this in mind while reading.
Also in this chapter the symbolism of water and the drowning motif are touched upon, both are devices that will be used throughout the novel. For instance, at the beginning, Tommy is descending in an elevator into what seems to be the billowy ocean depth of the lobby. For instance, the elevator is described as sinking and the carpet of the lobby is described as "billow[ing] toward Wilhelm's feet." The French drapes of the lobby are like sails in the sun. All of this water imagery points to the fact that throughout the novel Tommy will be seen as a drowning man, a man under strain and duress.
Significantly, the conversation that Rubin and Tommy have begins with talking about clothing. This points to the fact that appearances are important in the novel. Clothes point to surface and in a novel that begins with an attempt on Tommy's behalf to "conceal," this conversation, thus, proves symbolic.
Many characteristics of Wilhelm (Tommy) are illustrated early on. One of particular significance is that he cares deeply what his father thinks of him, that he is still a "boy" in this sense. He is very much need of his father's approval and, at this point in his life, of his support. As illustrated above, Tommy is a man who is under a lot of stress. Nevertheless, the reader learns that he tends to "victimize" himself. For instance, when the failing stock venture between Tommy and Dr. Tamkin is mentioned, Tommy becomes stressed that the stock is falling and then says that it was Dr. Tamkin had got him into this." The most important part about this statement is that one realizes immediately that Tommy is quick to play a blame game. He often places his own choices on the shoulders of others. Still, it is important not to simplify this character and say that he is a martyr. For, it is at the end of this self-same chapter that Tommy admits to having made mistakes in his live, in other words, he takes credit for his own failings. "For all the time I have wasted I am very sorry," he says.
The character of Maurice Venice also plays an important role in this opening chapter. It is through him that we see that Tommy was once quite handsome and charming. More importantly, however, one should see Maurice Venice as a double for Tommy, as a picture of the man Tommy has the dangerous potential of becoming. First of all, Venice is described as the "obscure failure of an aggressive and powerful clan." Tommy, just like Venice, is the "failure" of a family in which everyone is educated but him and in which he is the "failed" son of a "successful," money-making father. Also, Venice is a liar. Venice is truly a "pimp," who fronts as a talent scout. Tommy, too, can be a liar. He lies to his parents and tells them that Venice claims that he has undeniable talent. Moreover, and perhaps more subtle, Venice is, just like Tommy, a drowning man. His name, Venice, conjures up canals and water, therefore making them deeper doubles.