Thirteen Reasons Why begins at a post office. Clay Jensen, the narrator, is sending a shoebox-sized package to “Jenny,” the next person on Hannah Baker’s list. As he pays the post office cashier, Clay thinks he should have sent the package after school, so Jenny could have one last day of peace. But then he thinks that Jenny doesn’t deserve one more day. He imagines Jenny’s excitement at receiving a package with no return address, and thinks about all the people that came before him. All the people that stood in the same post office and sent the same package to the next person on Hannah’s list.
Clay pays for the package, leaves the post office, and starts to walk towards school. As he walks, his exhaustion and pounding headache make him want to collapse on the ground. He thinks about his school and the classroom of his first period teacher Mr. Porter, where Hannah Baker’s desk sits empty.
It’s an hour after school, and Clay Jensen comes home to find a package addressed to him propped against his family’s front door. Excited, he opens the package and finds seven audiotapes numbered from 1 to 13 with dark blue nail polish. The tapes throw Clay for a loop because no one listens to cassettes anymore. For a moment, he thinks he has no way to play them, but then remembers his dad has a tape-playing stereo in the garage. Clay takes the tapes into the garage, puts Cassette 1 into the stereo, and hits play.
Cassette 1: Side A
The voice of Hannah Baker, Clay's classmate who committed suicide, emanates from the stereo player. As Clay listens in shock and horror, Hannah explains that since he’s listening to these tapes, he is one of the reasons why she decided to commit suicide. If Clay listens to the tapes in full, he will learn his role in Hannah’s suicide. There are only two rules to the tapes: listen to them, and then pass them on.
Just as Hannah lists her rules, Clay’s mother walks into the garage. Clay quickly shuts off the stereo, and lies to his mother when she asks him what he’s listening to. Clay’s mother accepts his lie that he’s listening to a school project, and leaves him alone.
Alone again, Clay struggles to hit play on the stereo. The first time was easy, but now that he knows what the tapes contain, pressing play is one of the most frightening things he’s ever done. Gathering his courage, he hits play. Hannah’s speaks again and explains that once Clay finishes listening to the thirteen sides of her story, he must pass the tapes along to whoever follows his story. If someone in the chain refuses to pass along the tapes, a second set will be released to the public. Although she is already gone, Hannah ensured that someone would watch her classmates and make sure that they didn’t break her rules.
When Hannah says that he is being watched, Clay feels sick. He always liked Hannah from afar and wanted to get to know her better, but never had a chance to. He starts to consider that perhaps this is a mistake, or a terrible joke. Perhaps someone at school sent this to him as a sick joke, and awaits his reaction. Unfortunately for Clay, this possibility is quickly squashed when Hannah says everyone on the list received a map. Clay remembers finding a map in his locker a few days before Hannah committed suicide, which confirms that he is a rightful recipient of Hannah’s tapes.
Hannah explains that the maps are supposed to help her listeners locate the different places in their town, places she mentions in her tapes. She can’t force listeners to go to those places, but strongly advises that they do.
Explanation complete, Hannah begins her story with Justin Foley, a senior at their school and Hannah’s first kiss. She directs her listeners to the first star on her map, the house she lived in briefly when her family first moved to Crestmont. Hannah describes how big of a crush she had on Justin, and admits that while his role in her story may seem small now, by the end of the tapes it will matter significantly. Justin and Hannah met during the summer before Hannah’s freshman year. At the time, he was interested in Hannah’s first Crestmont friend, a girl named Kat who lived next door. One day that summer, Hannah and Kat arranged for Justin to come meet them at Hannah’s house. Justin came with his friend Zach Dempsey, but before the boys reached Hannah’s front door, they slipped and fell in mud. They ran away as Hannah and Kat laughed.
As Hannah begins the story of her and Justin, Clay’s thoughts are a whirlwind. He wonders why he’s putting himself through this process, and realizes it’s because his feelings for Hannah are too strong for him to throw away any connection he may have to her. When Hannah tells the anecdote of Justin and Zach slipping in the mud, Clay remembers Kat telling him about it at her going-away party. This is the party where he first met Hannah. Even then, Clay thought Hannah was pretty but out of his league. He was awkward around her and allowed Zach to insert himself into their conversation.
Kat moved away before school started in the fall, and Hannah began to have feelings for Justin. Before long, Justin reciprocated those feelings. They flirted at school for weeks before Justin asked for Hannah’s number. When Justin first called, Hannah was not at home and he spoke with her mother. He lied to Hannah’s mom and said he was calling her for help in his math class. Hannah also lied to her mother about the nature of Justin’s call. When she called Justin back, they arranged to meet at the bottom of a slide at a local park.
While he listens to the progression of Hannah and Justin’s relationship, Clay finds Hannah’s map crushed at the bottom of his backpack. His mom comes back into the garage and asks if Clay will be joining the family for dinner. He looks down at the map, sees the first star, and decides to go there. He lies to his mother and says he’s going to a friend’s house to work on a project. In actuality, Clay does plan to go to his friend Tony’s house, but only to borrow the other boy’s Walkman so he can listen to Hannah’s tapes on the go.
In the days leading up to her meeting with Justin, Hannah dreamed and fantasized about her first kiss. When the day finally arrived, she and Justin met at the bottom of the rocket slide and shared a simple kiss. They played on the swings, kissed one more time, and then went their separate ways. Hannah reiterates again and again that this was all that happened, and then aggressively asks her listeners if they heard something different. She knows that numerous rumors about this moment between her and Justin circulated through their school, rumors that say Justin touched her breasts or that she put her hands down his pants. Of course, these are all lies, and now the listeners know it.
After hearing Hannah’s side of what happened between her and Justin at the park, Clay realizes it was ridiculous for people to believe that Hannah would allow Justin to touch her breasts in the middle of a park. He thinks back to a time he saw Justin and his friends laugh at Hannah as she walked past them, and realizes that’s the moment he began to think that Hannah was too experienced to consider him romantically.
Hannah thanks Justin for her wonderful first kiss, but then criticizes him for bragging and lying about how far they went. She acknowledges that it may seem extreme for her to place such importance on a rumor based on a kiss, but argues that Justin’s lies started the chain reaction that led to her death. This is just the beginning.
At the end of Justin’s story, Clay packs up a few tapes and heads over to Tony’s house. Tony and his dad are repairing Tony’s beloved Mustang. When Tony sees Clay, he stares at him, making Clay wonder if Tony knows about the tapes. Tony’s dad asks Clay to help them start the car. From the driver’s seat, Clay sees Tony’s Walkman lying on the floor and steals it while Tony and his father are distracted.
The car starts, and Tony’s father goes back inside. Tony and Clay chitchat some more, with Clay dodging Tony’s questions about why he came by and where he’s headed now. Tony offers to give Clay a ride to Rosie’s, the local diner, but Clay declines, saying that he’s only walking a few more blocks. As the boys talk, Clay is plagued with questions about whether or not Tony knows, if he already received the tapes, or if Tony will receive the tapes after him.
Eventually, Clay escapes from Tony and his penetrating stare. As he walks in the direction of the first star, he slips the B-side of Cassette 1 into Tony’s Walkman.
Cassette 1: Side B
The second person on Hannah’s list is Alex Standall, a classmate of Hannah and Clay. Alex is on the list because during their freshman year he voted Hannah "Best Ass in the Freshman Class." Hannah admits that Alex perhaps thought he was doing her a favor, but argues that his list caused numerous unforeseen repercussions. She describes the day in class when she first found out about the list. A boy named Jimmy Long, nicknamed "Jackass Jimmy," looked over the back of Hannah’s chair and whispered, “You bet it is” (58). This, paired with the whispers in the classroom, clued Hannah in that something was going on. Before their teacher took the list away, Hannah saw that her name was on the "Who’s Hot" side of the list, and that Jessica Davis was listed across from her on the "Who’s Not" side of the category of "Best Ass." When Hannah looked across the room at Jessica, she saw that the other girl was incredibly angry. Hannah was not surprised, because she knew the real reason the list featured Jessica was revenge.
Sitting on a curb a few blocks from the location of the first star, Clay remembers seeing Alex’s list and finding it funny at the time. He saw Hannah’s name and agreed wholeheartedly with Alex’s inclusion of her on the list, but also thought that Hannah was creating quite a reputation for herself. Now, he realizes that this reputation began in Justin’s imagination. Clay stands up and starts walking again towards Hannah’s first house in Crestmont.
Though Alex’s motivation for the list is highly significant to Hannah’s overall story, she says that his motivation is not the main point of this tape. Rather, the focus of this tape is the way people began to treat Hannah differently in reaction to Alex’s list. According to Hannah, if Alex hadn’t included her on his list, every subsequent story and incident that contributed to Hannah’s choice to commit suicide may not have occurred.
Clay begins to sympathize with Alex, and reasons that the other boy could not have known how big of an impact his list would have on Hannah and her life. He wonders about his own role in Hannah’s death and how Hannah will claim that he scarred her. He has no idea, and wonders if his classmates see him differently for whatever he must have done.
Clay finally arrives at Hannah’s old house, and is shocked to realize that this is the same house he had to visit a few months ago after a fatal car accident. An old man driving hit another car and killed its driver, a senior from the school. The old man asked Clay to go to his house and tell his wife that he was okay. That house is the same house Hannah lived in the summer before their freshman year. Standing in front of the house now, Clay wonders how things would be different if Justin and Zach hadn’t slipped in the mud all those years ago. Would Hannah have met Zach and fallen for him instead of Justin? Would the rumors about Hannah never have begun?
Hannah goes on to explain the repercussions of Alex’s list. She knows that it was intended as a joke, but because of the list some people began to treat her as if she was nothing but her "Best Ass." She directs her listeners to B-3 on the map, which is a store named "Blue Spot Liquor." This is the store where Hannah went everyday to get her chocolate fix. Usually it was deserted except for Hannah and Wally, the salesman behind the counter. The day Alex released his list however, there was another person in the store. This person, who Hannah doesn’t name now because he has a tape to himself later on, smacked Hannah on her butt and told Wally she has the best butt in the freshman class.
Clay realizes that Blue Spot is close to Hannah’s house, and starts to walk there. He quickly arrives and enters the store. Wally isn’t there, and Clay struggles to not picture Hannah in the store buying her daily sugar fix. A pain begins to develop behind his left eye. He grabs a soda and a Butterfinger bar, pays for them, and leaves the store.
After the unnamed boy hit Hannah on her behind, she tried to leave the store but he grabbed her by the wrist and spun her around. The wrist-grabbing move helps Clay identify the culprit. Clay has seen this boy do the same thing to numerous girls; he always wanted to intervene but felt incapable of doing so.
The boy told Hannah to relax because he was just joking. Hannah breaks down the boy’s words and actions, explaining how Alex’s list made the boy view Hannah’s body, specifically her butt, as something he could play with. As Hannah analyzes the boy’s words and actions, Clay begins to understand what Hannah means. He recalls his own fascination with Angela Romero’s lips after the list was released and she was voted "Best Lips."
Hannah finishes this tape by telling Alex that while he may not have intended for his list to have these repercussions, he must take responsibility when other people act on it. He may not have ostensibly held up her name for ridicule, but he did hold up Jessica’s, and that’s where the snowball that wrecked Hannah’s life picks up speed.
Tape over, Clay swaps it for Cassette 2.
This first chunk of chapters from Thirteen Reasons Why serves a slew of rhetorical functions. First, it introduces and establishes the book’s unique structure. Hannah’s story and narration, told via audiotapes, adds a complex layer to the novel. The way the narration flips between Clay in real time, and Hannah in the past, creates a frame-story feel reminiscent of works like Canterbury Tales or The Decameron. The frame story is a literary device whereby a story (or stories) is told within the main narrative. In Thirteen Reasons Why, the stories Hannah tells on her tapes are embedded within Clay’s main narrative. This allows Clay to react and respond to the events in Hannah’s tapes as she relates them. Some of the book’s other literary devices, such as the "desire to change events" motif, or the situational irony between Clay and Hannah, are exposed because of the frame-story structure.
The frame-story structure of Thirteen Reasons Why also allows for the book’s narration to alternate back and forth between Clay and Hannah. The regular changes in point of view throw into great relief the similarities and differences between the two main characters. Clay and Hannah have distinctive personalities and tones, which in turn creates different moods throughout the novel. Besides a few moments of levity, Clay’s tone is horrified, disbelieving, and anxious. At first he cannot believe he’s listening to Hannah’s voice, the voice of someone he knows died. Once the reality of the situation sinks in, he is horrified to hear of the pain Hannah experienced at the hands of their peers, and anxious to know how he may have contributed to her death. So far, all of these emotions have created a melancholic and anxiety-ridden mood during Clay’s narration.
Alternatively, in these beginning chapters, Hannah’s portions have a darkly humorous and almost vengeful tone. She makes cheeky quips about her impeding death by saying things like, “why would a dead girl lie?” (15). She also speaks directly to the people on her list, sometimes taunting them with the secrets she holds, other times flat out saying they are partly responsible for her suicide. This can be viewed as vengeful because by blaming her peers Hannah places the burden of her death on their shoulders. However, though Hannah’s tone might at times be humorous, the mood her tone creates is far from funny. The fact that she can joke about her upcoming suicide demonstrates how desensitized she’s become about death and dying. This fact, coupled with the bitter, vengeful tone Hannah has towards her classmates, creates a tragic and dark mood.
Several of the key themes of Thirteen Reasons Why are also introduced in the first three chapters. The themes of "gossip and reputation," "subjugation of the female body," and "repercussions" all appear in Hannah’s stories about Justin and Alex. Justin starts Hannah’s reputation as a promiscuous girl when he embellishes their first kiss and spreads the story around their school. According to Hannah, Justin’s lies were the impetus for the gossip and negative reputation surrounding her. The "subjugation" and "repercussions" themes are demonstrated when the unnamed boy at Blue Spot Liquor treats Hannah’s body as an object for his benefit. This boy thinks he can subjugate and control Hannah’s body because Alex’s list hoisted her up for public viewing and consumption. In Hannah’s opinion, though Alex was not the one to smack her butt in the store, he is still to blame, because the unnamed boy was acting in response to his list. Alex must take responsibility for the repercussions his actions caused.
Other literary elements present thus far include the motif of stealing, foreshadowing, and the metaphor about a snowball effect. The stealing motif is introduced when Clay steals Tony’s Walkman so he can listen to Hannah’s tapes on the go. For now, this motif is limited to physical, tangible objects. However, some foreshadowing on Hannah’s part suggests that theft of a more intangible form might occur later in the novel. Hannah also uses foreshadowing when she tells Justin to “stick around” because his name will appear on the tapes again in a place he won’t believe (50). Another important use of foreshadowing appears at the end of Alex’s tape, when Hannah says a girl named Jessica causes the snowball to pick up speed (84). The snowball is a metaphor Hannah introduces on Justin’s tape to explain how his rumors led to her decision to commit suicide.