The novel opens with a description of "large, proud, rose-colored" Gausse's Hotel on the French Riviera. It has only recently become a coveted resort of the "notable and fashionable people" (p. 3). The hotel's sprawling beach is mostly quiet until 10 a.m., when visitors and sunbathers arrive. Rosemary Hoyt (a beautiful eighteen-year-old American actress known for her role in the film Daddy's Girl) arrives with her twice-widowed mother, Mrs. Speers, on a June morning in 1925. The two women are disappointed by the hotel and decide to stay only three days.
Rosemary ventures onto the crowded beach and enters the water. As she swims away from shore, she notices Luis Campion staring at her. When she returns to shore from her swim out to the raft, he warns her of the sharks that lurk just beyond the raft.
Rosemary spreads her peignoir and lays down between two groups of people, one of which is white-skinned and seemingly American (the McKiscos). She surveys her surroundings, noticing a young woman, Nicole, sitting under umbrellas and writing a list, uninvolved in the conversations around her. Campion introduces himself and indicates a lady who, having seen Rosemary in Sorrento the previous week, wants to meet her. Rosemary is introduced to Mrs. Abrams, Mr. and Mrs. McKisco, and Mr. Dumphry. They identify Rosemary as a "perfrectly marvelous" (p. 7) American actress.
Mrs. McKisco explains to Rosemary that the group of beachgoers believed that she was "in the plot" (p. 7). Rosemary, uncomfortable with the conversation, wishes that her mother were there to tactfully extricate them from the situation. Rosemary joins the McKiscos for a swim in the Mediterranean. The three swim to a raft where Abe North, looking sad, helps Mrs. McKisco onto the raft before swimming away to surprise one of the children of the woman wearing the pearls.
The McKiscos agree that Abe is a "rotten Musician" (p. 9). Mrs. McKisco then brags that her husband wrote the first criticism of James Joyce's Ulysses to appear in the United States and that the couple met all of the greatest French writers and artists in Paris. She also announces that Mr. McKisco is completing his first novel, which will expand upon Joyce's idea by writing a story that takes place over one hundred years (instead of the single-day narrative that Ulysses employs). Mr. McKisco is annoyed; he wants the idea to remain private until the book is published.
Rosemary returns to shore and covers herself with her peignoir. She notices Dick Diver distributing glasses and a bottle when Campion passes and Rosemary feigns sleep. She actually drifts off to sleep until Dick wakes her, warns her about getting too burnt right away, and leaves carrying the rest of his beach equipment. Mesmerized by his eyes, Rosemary walks back to the hotel at half past one.
In the dining hall, Rosemary tells her mother, who is her best friend, that she fell in love twice on the beach: once with a group of people "who looked nice" (p. 12) and once with a married man with reddish hair (Dick Diver). Mrs. Speers encourages Rosemary, recognizing that despite being simple and sheltered, Rosemary is a great idealist and deserves every opportunity. Mrs. Speers is patient with her daughter's egotism and urges her to seek greater independence by visiting Earl Brady unaccompanied. Rosemary protests, wanting her mother's company.
After lunch, Rosemary and Mrs. Speers become bored and restless in the afternoon quiet. Rosemary rides a bus to the train station and gets off at Cannes. She notices Nicole Diver exiting a drug store with coconut oil. Rosemary misses American life.
The next day, Rosemary's shoulders are still too burnt to go to the beach, so she and her mother drive to the Riviera and back. In the evening, Rosemary can hear a lively dance going on behind the hotel. She hopes to see the Divers the next day and vows not to spend the last two mornings with the McKiscos.
On the beach the next day, Dick and Abe approach Rosemary and ask her to join their group. Dick seems charming and full of promise, and the whole group welcomes her courteously. Nicole (who, Rosemary notes, is exceptionally beautiful) looks up from the recipe she is reading to ask how long Rosemary will be at Gausse's. Rosemary, now considering staying another week, provides only a vague answer. Abe North and the Divers explain that the Divers were responsible for Gausse's being made a hotel during the summer and that the Divers are staying in a house that they bought at Tarmes.
From their luxurious spread of beach accessories, it is apparent to Rosemary that these people are very wealthy and fashionable, but they still strike her as purposeful, and though she is mainly concerned with their attitudes toward her, she still perceives their "web of some pleasant interrelation" (p. 19). These three men are all more personable and delicate than the male actors and directors she knows, moreso than the college boys she met at Yale. Dick Diver seems a complete man to Rosemary, and Nicole notices the infatuation.
The McKiscos arrive with Mrs. Abrams, Mr. Dumphry, and Campion at noon and set up, throwing side glances at the Divers. Mary North arrives, and she and Nicole poke fun at the McKiscos. Nicole also demeans British beachgoers, and Rosemary notes that she would not want Nicole for an enemy. Nicole recounts a ludicrous fight between the McKiscos a few days before and protests when Dick decides to invite them to dinner. As the party prepares to swim, Dick puts on the garment that Nicole was sewing: seemingly transparent black lace drawers that are actually lined with flesh-colored cloth. Mr. McKisco, watching, calls this a "pansy's trick" (p. 21), but Rosemary is delighted. She naively admires the expensive simplicity of the Divers and is entirely unaware of the bargains and struggles that have brought them here. Dick tells her that she looks like "something blooming" (p. 22). Later, Rosemary cries in her mother's lap, professing that she loves Dick and that the situation is hopeless.
The opening chapters immediately establish the theme of youth and childhood. The middle-aged Dick Diver is unquestionably attracted to youthful beauty, and the description of Rosemary upon her arrival at Gausse's hotel portrays her as being still very much in a state of physical and emotional girlhood despite her Hollywood glamor. She has "magic in her pink palms" and flushed cheeks "like the thrilling flush of children after their cold baths in the evening" (p. 3). "Her body hovered delicately on the last edge of childhood," and "the dew was still on her" (p. 4). Rosemary is a wellspring of youth, a bursting bud of human potential. To look at her, one sees a future that has not yet unraveled and which promises all of the success of radiant beauty.
In addition, Rosemary does not only look like a child, but she also behaves like one. Rosemary's mother, Mrs. Speers, recognizes that her daughter is naÃ¯ve and simple. She does not want to make any decisions or go on any excursions without her mother at her side. When she wants to escape the conversation with the McKiscos, she longs for her mother, who would be able to handle the situation gracefully. She depends on Mrs. Speers, revealing the childishness that lingers behind her tender eighteen years.
Because the novel does not proceed in chronological order (the middle section shows a flashback to the beginning of the Divers' relationship), we are cleverly introduced to the novel's leading characters in much the same way that Rosemary is. We see the McKiscos and the Divers through fresh, unknowing eyes, as well as through Rosemary's biased lens. We trace the characters in the opening chapters by certain characteristic objects or behaviors (such as Luis Campion's monocle, Dick Diver's jockey cap, and Nicole's pearls), and an immediate distinction is drawn between the world of the Divers and the world of the McKiscos before we are truly introduced to the characters. Rosemary is attracted to the tanned skin and apparent gaiety of the Divers and their friends. She is not as impressed with the McKiscos, whose skin is pale and who intrusively connive to meet Rosemary. We meet the characters as Rosemary does, without knowledge of or bias regarding their histories, and we are thus inducted into the patterns of apparent class distinction and petty judgment that pervade the novel.
The opening chapters also subtly hint at the theme of abnormal sexuality that afflicts many characters. Rosemary feels uncomfortable with the effeminate Mr. Dumphry and Luis Campion, and she avoids speaking to them. Fitzgerald insinuates that the two men are romantically involved and that their relationship is somewhat discomforting. The scene where Dick emerges from a dressing tent wearing flesh-colored black lace trousers that appear to be transparent (either made or mended by Nicole) is also unsettling. He causes a commotion, and the item requires "close inspection" (p. 21) to reveal that Dick is not, in fact, exposing himself on the beach. Though Rosemary is delighted at the "expensive simplicity of the Divers" (p. 21), Mr. McKisco calls this a "pansy's trick" (p. 21) before turning and apologizing to Campion and Dumphry, thereby implicitly characterizing Dick as a homosexual. Regardless of any attributions of sexual preferences, this performance is unexpected and incongruous, leaving the reader feeling that there is something troubling about sexuality (Dick's as well as others') in the novel.
Mr. McKisco's analysis of Ulysses emphasizes the importance of odyssey, traveling far from home and encountering challenges on the way back. It also gives Fitzgerald a chance to pay homage to Joyce, even as it marks Joyce's work as expressive of something already in the past. More than ten years after Ulysses, Fitzgerald is now on to something new in Tender is the Night.