Jack Gladney, the novel’s narrator, watches as packed station wagons full of returning students arrive at the College-on-the-Hill’s campus. Jack has witnessed this annual event for twenty-one years, continually amazed at the students’ excitement and the mannerisms of their affluent, contented parents. As Jack walks back to his house, he describes the quaint town he lives in, with its old houses, its Gothic and Greek churches, and its local insane asylum. Jack gives a brief history of his affiliation with the College-on-the-Hill. He is the chairman of the department of Hitler studies, a discipline he invented in 1968.
As he arrives at his home, Jack talks about his wife, Babette, a tall, ample woman with dirty blond hair. Jack describes her as disheveled and tousled, which he says gives her the dignified air of being someone with more important things to think about than her appearance. Jack lists Babette’s gifts to the world: she takes care of the children, reads to a blind man named Old Man Treadwell, and teaches a course in adult education. Jack finds great comfort in the open and capable Babette. She isn’t like his former wives, whom Jack describes as a “self-absorbed and high-strung bunch, with ties to the intelligence community.”
Wilder, Denise, and Steffie—three of Jack and Babette’s children, all from different marriages—arrive in the kitchen for lunch. Jacks says that the kitchen, along with the bedrooms, is the center of the house and the Gladney family’s domestic activity. Heinrich, Jack’s eldest son, enters but then disappears without speaking to the rest of the family. Denise chides her mother for buying healthy food and then failing to eat any of what she buys. Jack defends his wife and describes Babette’s exercise routine for the reader. The smoke alarm goes off during lunch, but the family doesn’t seem to react to it.
Jack describes the sweeping, dramatic robes he wears while teaching, then describes his colleagues. Hitler studies shares a building with the Popular Culture department, which is officially known as American environments. The faculty of this department, headed by Alfonse (Fast Food) Stompanato, is mostly comprised of what Jack calls “New York émigrés,” a tough, bitter, media-obsessed crowd of male professors.
Murray Jay Siskind, a former sportswriter turned lecturer, is something of an exception to this characterization. Over lunch, Murray tells Jack about living as a boarder in a rooming house and explains that he has come to the small college town of Blacksmith to get away from the complications of city living. He admires what Jack has done with Hitler studies and wants to do something similar for Elvis Presley.
A few days later, Jack and Murray take a drive into the country to visit the Most Photographed Barn in America. They find a group of tourists there who are all taking notes, setting up their cameras, and snapping photos of the barn. Murray argues that the barn isn’t significant in and of itself. Rather, the magic of this tourist attraction is the fact that so many people have come together to see this building and thus have collected all their energies in one location. The thousands of people who have seen this barn create an aura around the otherwise inconsequential building. It is the aura that is powerful and moving, Murray happily declares, and that aura is impossible to avoid or ignore.