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.