The first chapter begins with a description of the neighborhood of “The Bottoms,” the miners’ dwellings in which the Morels live. We get a small amount of description of Mrs. Morel and learn that her husband is a miner. At this point in the story, the Morel family consists of Mr. Morel and Mrs. Morel (expecting her third child), William (age seven), and Annie (age five). The first action of the novel begins three weeks after the Morels have moved into their new home, on the day of the wakes (a kind of fair). William goes off to the wakes in the morning and comes back at mid-day for dinner, telling his mother to hurry so that he can return by the time the wakes begin again. He runs off quickly when he hears the music of the merry-go-round, and Mrs. Morel takes Annie later in the afternoon. They run into William and he shows his mother two egg-cups he has won as a present for her. The three of them spend some time together at the fair, and William decides to stay after his mother and sister leave. However, we learn later that he does not enjoy himself after his mother has gone.
After the children go to bed, Mrs. Morel waits for her husband to return from the bar where he is working and reflects on her situation. She cannot afford and does not want her coming child, and she “despises” her husband because of his drinking. Her only solace is in her two children. She wonders if her life will ever change, and reflects that the events in her life seem to take place without her approval. She cleans the house and sits down to sew, and her husband finally comes home. They argue about whether or not he is drunk, he shows her that he has brought gingerbread and a coconut for the children, and she goes to bed.
The next part of the chapter fills in the background to the Morels’ marriage. It begins by describing Mrs. Morel, previously Gertrude Coppard, her upbringing in a poor family, and her friendship with a man named John Field, who gave her a Bible when she was nineteen, which she still keeps. The flashback shows her encouraging John Field to stand up for himself and go into the ministry, even though his father wants him to continue the family business. She claims that if she were a man, she would do as she liked. He tells her that being a man isn’t everything, and she has finally learned that lesson.
The next part of the flashback describes the meeting between Gertrude Coppard and Walter Morel at a Christmas party when she was twenty-three and he was twenty-seven. It seems the main attraction he holds for her is that he is different from her father. At the party he asks her to dance, she refuses, and he sits down and talks with her instead. The next Christmas they marry, and their early married life seems very happy.
However, after they have been married for seven months, Gertrude finds the unpaid bills for the household furniture in her husband’s coat pocket. She confronts him to ask about the bills and he brushes her off, so the next day she goes to see his mother. She tells Gertrude that her husband still owes a good deal of money, and that the house they live in belongs to her. This information changes the way Gertrude feels toward her husband: she becomes colder and more condescending toward him. She begins to feel isolated from her husband, and this causes her to turn toward her child instead.
A key incident happens when Morel cuts William’s hair while Mrs. Morel is sleeping. This is one of the major factors in her estrangement from her husband, as the betrayal she feels when she discovers William’s haircut remains with her throughout the coming years.
The next important incident, at which the narrative appears to have caught up to the present, occurs on another wakes holiday when Morel goes out with his friend, Jerry Purdy. Jerry is Morel’s good friend, but Mrs. Morel does not like him. Jerry and Morel walk to Nottingham, which is ten miles away, and stop at all the pubs along the way. After a nap in a field, Morel does not feel so well. When he finally returns home, he has become irritable and has a fight with his wife, each calling the other a liar. He locks her outside in his anger and then falls asleep at the kitchen table. Mrs. Morel wanders in the yard for a while and eventually, after an hour of knocking at the door, succeeds in waking up her husband.
The novel thus far is told from a third person perspective, but the narrator is closest to Mrs. Morel. The narrator is partially omniscient; he can narrate the thoughts of Mrs. Morel, but not of the other characters. Throughout the novel the perspective of the narrator changes, so the best description of the narrative mode of the novel is probably third person omniscient.
This chapter sets up the importance of the relationship between William and his mother. Through the present of the egg-cups and the way that William acts when his mother is with him, we can see that he is proud of and loves his mother very much. We also see that she contributes to his enjoyment of the fair, as he is miserable after she leaves.
The hair-cutting incident also illustrates the way that William is the most important person to Mrs. Morel, since she is willing to throw over her husband in favor of her son.
When the narrator describes why Gertrude likes Morel, we see the importance of Morel’s difference from her father. This theme will come up again later when we see that William’s fiancee is very different from his mother.
In the flashback section of this chapter we see the first hint of the declining happiness of the Morels’ marriage: “for three months she was perfectly happy: for six months she was very happy.” This suggests that Mrs. Morel’s level of happiness declines steadily over the course of their marriage.
This chapter contains many elements of foreshadowing. For example, we are told that Mrs. Morel thinks she lives in a house owned by her husband. The ambiguity provides a clue that her suspicion is incorrect and that the house they live in does not actually belong to Mr. Morel.
This chapters temporal organization is quite noteworthy. The flashback in the middle of the present-time narration confuses the time reference; past and present blend since it becomes difficult to tell when the flashback ends, or when the present resumes.