Mr. Dombey, the wealthy head of the shipping company Dombey & Son, is delighted with the birth of his son, an event he has long hoped for. He makes it clear that he already prefers his son to his six-year-old daughter, Florence. His sister, Louisa Chick and Louisa’s friend Miss Tox are also very pleased with this event. However, amidst the celebrations of the birth, Mrs. Dombey dies.
With Mrs. Dombey dead, it is necessary to find a woman to nurse the baby. Miss Tox hears good things about a woman named Polly Toodle, whom she and Mrs. Chick bring to meet Mr. Dombey. Mr. Dombey tells her that while she is employed she will go by the name of Richards, and that she will not form any relationship with the baby. Mr. Dombey is suspicious of the motives of the Toodle family, who come from a working class background, but he agrees to hire Polly. Both she and her children are very distressed to be separated, but she will be well paid for her work of nursing little Paul.
A few weeks after Richards comes to live at the Dombey house, she meets Florence for the first time. Richards immediately feels attached to the grieving little girl. She also meets Florence’s maid, Susan Nipper, who explains to her that Florence is neglected by her father and lonely. Richards intervenes, telling Mr. Dombey it would be good for Paul to spend time with his sister. Mr. Dombey agrees, though he feels uncomfortable because he was made to feel guilty when he saw Florence interact with her dying mother and now does not like to see or think of her. Florence clearly longs to express affection to her father, but is shy and awkward in his presence.
Not far from the Dombey house lives Solomon Gills, who sells instruments used for the navigation of ships. He lives with his nephew Walter. Walter has just been hired to work at Dombey & Son, and his uncle is hopeful that this will be a stepping stone to a successful career. Captain Ned Cuttle, a former seaman and friend of Solomon’s, joins them. Cuttle and Gills joke about Walter someday marrying Dombey’s daughter, though Walter mentions he has heard gossip that Dombey doesn’t care about his daughter and is preoccupied with ensuring the prosperity of his business in preparation for his son someday inheriting it.
Paul thrives, and Miss Tox takes an active interest in his growth, endearing herself to Mr. Dombey as a result. Mrs. Chick suggests that Miss Tox be made Paul’s godmother, and Mr. Dombey agrees, although he makes it clear that he does not want anyone to ever act as a rival for Paul’s affection and chooses Miss Tox because she is inoffensive and uninteresting. The night, Miss Tox and Mrs. Chick sit in the nursery and discuss Florence, who they believe will never gain her father’s affection. Waking up and overhearing this, Florence is distressed and asks to be put in bed with her brother, because she clings to the fact that at least Paul loves her. After Miss Tox and Mrs. Chick leave, Miss Nipper expresses her anger at them for so blatantly favoring Paul. Shortly afterwards on a cold and dismal day, Paul’s christening takes place. As part of the celebrations, Mr. Dombey announces that he has paid for Polly’s eldest son to attend a charity school known as the Charitable Grinders. While Polly tries to be grateful, she is saddened to think of her son, whom she has not seen for a long time. Nipper suggests that she, Richards, and Florence go to visit Richards’s family. Richards hesitates, but then agrees.
The next day, Florence, Paul, Nipper, and Richards set off for Stagg’s Garden, a working class neighborhood in Camden Town. Polly is delighted to be reunited with her children, and they all enjoy a pleasant visit. However, because Polly’s eldest son Biler has not yet come home from school, they take a longer route on the walk back hoping to run into him. Other neighborhood children are bullying Biler, and Polly hurries to help him. At the same time, there is a warning cry that a bull is on the loose. Florence panics and runs, only to realize she has lost sight of Nipper and Richards. An old woman who introduces herself as Old Mrs. Brown offers to help her, but takes her instead to a strange, run down house. Mrs. Brown steals all of Florence’s expensive clothing, giving her cheap rags to put on instead, and then leaves her in the street. Florence starts trying to navigate her way to her father’s office. She stops at a loading dock to ask the way; at that time Walter happens to be there, supervising a shipment. Florence explains who she is, and Walter immediately takes charge of her. By this time, it is evening and the offices are closed, so Walter suggests they go to his uncle’s house. As they have this conversation, Walter recognizes Mr. Carker, who also works at the firm. Walter suggests that Carker go tell Mr. Dombey that his daughter has been found, but Carker declines. Walter leaves Florence safely with his uncle and goes to the Dombey house to report that Florence is safe. Nipper brings Florence back to the house where she receives a cool welcome. As punishment, Richards is fired, although Nipper is allowed to stay.
The opening chapters introduce the web of characters whose lives will intersect over the course of the novel. Several of the major themes immediately become clear. A number of different family dynamics are presented and contrasted. Mr. Dombey is able to give his children economic privilege and elevated social standing, but he also sees them as projections of his own ego. He values his infant son because of the potential for continuing a family legacy, and is not only disinterested in, but also actively jealous of Florence. On the other hand, the Toodle family, or Uncle Sol and his nephew Walter, while in much more precarious economic straits, and in fact dependent on the Dombeys for their income, show much more genuine love. The idea of families being created from unlikely combinations of individuals, which will reoccur as eclectic groups of characters form bonds throughout the novel, takes root as it becomes clear that Susan Nipper and Richards are the ones actually providing love to Florence and Paul. At the same time, their position as working-class employees ensures that they are viewed with suspicion: Mr. Dombey insists on isolating Richards from her family, and even renaming her, because he fears what influence she might have on Paul.
Efforts to insulate the Dombey children, however, prove unsuccessful. There is an irony to the impetus for the catastrophic expedition to Stagg's Garden: a misguided belief on Dombey's part that he is benefiting Biler Toodle by providing him with some form of education only makes his mother more aware of the poignancy of him growing up without her. Not only the decision to leave the Dombey mansion, but also to take the children to a working class neighborhood, would be a direct reflection of Dombey's worst fears for his son. And while Florence does indeed have a traumatic experience, her horizon is also permanently broadened by the contact she makes with Walter and his uncle. Without this serendipity, she would almost certainly never have encountered someone from so far outside of her own social position. Despite Dombey's attempts to control his children, just as he controls his business, the complex social and economic web around him will still impact his life.