The first chapter introduces the frame in which the novel is to take place. The setting is Devon School, a prep school in New Hampshire. Gene Forrester, our narrator, returns to look at the school grounds fifteen years after he was a student there. Since his last year as a student was in 1943, the present time must be 1958. A very important transformation has occured for Gene during the fifteen years since he has last seen Devon: "I could see with great clarity the fear I had lived in, which must mean that in the interval I had succeeded in a very important undertaking: I must have made my escape from it" (2). Gene also admits to experiencing fear's accompaniment, joy, during his days at Devon.
Aside from being shinier, Gene doesn't find the school much different from when he was a student. He, of course, has changed, being now bigger and with "more money and success and 'security'" (3). On his nostalgic trip around the grounds, Gene witnesses the beautiful harmony that still exists at Devon, even on this particular gray and blustery day.
Gene's destination is a particular tree alongside the Devon River that appears to hold a special significance for our narrator. The tree seems smaller to Gene, like "the giants of your childhood, whom you encounter years later and find that they are not merely smaller in relation to your growth, but that they are absolutely smaller, shrunken by age" (6). This sight confirms Gene's belief in the old adage: "So the more things remain the same, the more they change after all. . . Nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence" (6). Changed by this encounter with his past, Gene heads back across the wet fields.
At this point, the narrative jumps back to the summer of 1942, the point from which the rest of the novel will take place, making the entire course of events to come appear as a flashback from Gene's revisitation in 1958-a flashback that starts in the summer of 1942 and ends in the summer of 1943. Gene, sixteen years old, is at the tree again, which is now "tremendous, an irate, steely black steeple beside the river" (6). We learn that Gene is sarcastic and scared and in the process of being dared to climb the tree and jump into the river by his best friend, the daredevil athlete and central focus of the the narration, Phineas (for more character information, see the Character Profile section). Gene and Phineas (called Finny by his friends) are Upper Middlers, one year younger than the seniors. While the seniors are being drafted and preparing to enter World War II, Gene and Finny's class "were still calmly, numbly reading Virgil and playing tag in the river downstream" (7). So it is that Gene and Phineas find themselves in the last year of reprieve and schoolboy freedom before the fearsome responsibility of war claims them, as it did their elder classmen.
But brave Phineas is not content to remain unchallenged simply because he is too young for the war. He suggests the tree jump as practice for jumping out of a military ship that has been torpedoed. Finny climbs and jumps first, successfully, and Gene is forced into following his example. After much fearful hesitation, Gene jumps as well. The two are witnessed by three of their classmates, among them a character who will gain importance only later in the novel-Edwin "Leper" Lepellier. Leper and the other two boys are too frightened to jump, despite Finny's pressuring of them.
The six o'clock bell rings and the boys head back across the common for dinner. Finny says that he "shamed" Gene into jumping and when Gene denies it, Finny responds: "Oh yes I did. I'm good for you that way. You have a tendency to back away from things otherwise" (10). Gene and Finny wrestle playfully on their return to the dining hall and decide to skip dinner. They return to their shared room, study for the remainder of the evening, and prepare for bed with the rest of their schoolmates. Phineas, forever the rebel, doesn't wear pajamas like everyone else because he has heard that they are "unmilitary" (13).