The novel is written exclusively in first-person and in the past tense, as by someone older reflecting back on her life. It begins by commenting on the weather (hot and sultry) and places the narrative in time by saying it is "the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs." The narrator, Esther Greenwood, muses that electrocution is probably the worst way to die. But "New York was bad enough" the narrator says; there's no relief from the heat among the tall buildings.
But the narrator can't get her mind off the Rosenbergs; even when she's thinking of unrelated things, like all the limp clothes in her closet at her hotel room. She's supposed to be having the time of her life, having won an essay contest at a women's fashion magazine. She'd won a paid internship at the magazine, living for a month in New York, working on Madison Avenue. She knows she should be having a great time, but she wasn't.
There are twelve girls at the hotel, all of whom had won this same contest. All their expenses were paid, and they are constantly loaded down with "freebies". The narrator remarks she still has some of these things, makeup and such, and says she had recently "cut the plastic starfish off the sunglasses case for the baby to play with," which again shows the narrator is telling the story retrospectively.
The women-only hotel felt more like a dorm than anything; most of the young women who stayed there seemed to be bored rich girls who had nothing better to do than sit on the roof and sunbathe. The narrator confides she hates these kind of girls and is intensely jealous of them. This is the first time she's been out of New England, and knows what a big opportunity it is for her, but she feels she's letting it slip away.
Then she begins to describe the other girls she's working with. She's been singled out - and clearly feels kind of honored - by a southern belle named Doreen who is beautiful and whose "mouth [is] set in a sort of perpetual sneer." Esther is especially struck by Doreen's description of how the girls at her college coordinate their purses with their clothes; this idea is completely alien and yet alluring to the Esther. Doreen clearly enjoys spending time with Esther, who she's identfied as smart, but does taunt her for taking her work at the magazine so seriously.
Doreen's whole personality seems structured around making snide remarks about others, and she directs some of her venom at the older woman who is their editor at the magazine, Jay Cee. Esther, on the other hand, admires Jay Cee, for though she is unattractive, she's smart and knows many talented writers. Jay Cee had also taken a liking to Esther, and seemed to want to mentor her.
Doreen and Esther are sitting in their room when another girl, Betsy, knocks on their door and asks if they want to go a party later that night; Betsy is from Kansas and Doreen refers to her as "Pollyanna Cowgirl." They agree to go to the party, but decide they'll go in their own cab. Doreen whines the party will probably be boring and filled with Yalies. The narrator is reminded of Buddy Willard, who also goes to Yale. Perhaps, she thinks, the reason she didn't like him was because he was stupid. He didn't have any intuition, which Doreen does, which is why Esther thinks she identifies with her.
On the way to the party, their cab is stuck in the theater-hour rush. Next to Doreen, who is dressed all in white and has a deep tan, Esther feels dowdy and plain. Esther too, had the remnants of a tan, but she looked more yellow than bronze: "yellow as a Chinaman," in fact. But strangely, she feels exhilarated about going out with Doreen.
A tall man in cowboy boots sees them from the sidewalk and strolls over to talk to them; Esther knows he's seen Doreen and come to talk to her. He invites them out for drinks and the two girls immediately abandon the trip to the party (which had been planned by the magazine) for what might be a more interesting evening. The man invites along a friend for Esther - Frankie. Esther immediately dislikes him, "a short, scrunty fellow." Esther informs us she's five feet ten and hates being paired up with short men who only make her feel awkward.
They get to the bar and Esther feels even more eclipsed by Doreen and her perfection. Uncharacteristically, Doreen is silent, and the man just stares at her, as if she were an exotic bird. Finally, Esther asks him what he does for a living, and he says he's a disk jockey and his name is Lenny Shepherd. Frankie asks Esther about herself; she promptly makes up a fake name, Elly Higginbottom, and hometown, Chicago (when she's really from Boston). He asks her to dance and she refuses. Meanwhile, Doreen and Lenny are flirting outrageously. Finally Frankie gives up on Esther and decides to go, but before he does he demands that Lenny repay him some money; Esther finds this public performance a little strange. Lenny invites Doreen back to his place; she agrees, but insists that "Elly" come along.
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