After being discharged from the army, Hazel Motes boards a train to Taulkinham, Tennessee. While he stares out the window, the woman sitting across from him in the train car, Mrs. Wally Bee Hitchcock, takes an interest in him and begins to pester him with questions and unsolicited talk about her family. Eventually the two go to the dining car for dinner, but Hazel is forced to wait and then is seated with three young women. Spontaneously, he confronts his dining companions with his peculiar religious views, quickly finishes his meal, and then heads to the sleeping berth.
Upon meeting a black porter with whom he had tried to talk earlier, Hazel presses him to admit that he is also from his hometown Eastrod, which the porter denies. Falling asleep in the half light with the curtains drawn in his berth, Hazel feels as though he is lying in a coffin. He recalls the death of his father and two brothers - one in infancy, and the other in an accident when he was 7. This prompts him to think of his grandfather, a fiery preacher who instilled in Hazel a distinct fear of Jesus. To Hazel, Jesus was something to be avoided, thus, he planned to avoid sin altogether.
In his berth, Hazel reflects on his time in the army. He considered the war (WWII) "a trick to lead him into temptation" (17). But Hazel was confident he could not be swayed. When drafted, he intended to give the army no more than four months, planning to shoot his foot and return to Eastrod; after all, a preacher doesn't need two good feet. Hazel remained in the army for four years, not even returning home for a visit. In the army, Hazel took with him a black Bible and his mother's reading glasses. When invited out to a brothel, Hazel tried to preach at his fellow soldiers, who tell him he doesn't have a soul. Hazel sees "the opportunity here to get rid of [his soul] without corruption, to be converted to nothing instead of to evil" (18).
Hazel recalls being wounded in service. The army removed the shrapnel from his chest, though Hazel believes it still rusts inside of him, and discharged him 300 miles away from home. He stopped off at a dry goods store and purchased a blue suit and dark hat, throwing his uniform in a trashcan. He then walked for hours to Eastrod, finding the town deserted and his old house overgrown with weeds. He fell asleep in the kitchen, but then awakened by a board hitting him in the face. The only thing that remained in the house is his mother's chifforobe, and he wrote a note promising to hunt down and kill anyone who steals it.
On the train, Hazel dreams about his mother, imagining her coffin, and he awakes in cold sweat in his berth feeling suffocated.
Hazel arrives in Taulkinham and is immediately disoriented by the urban environment with all of its electric lights and signs. In a bathroom he sees a scrawled message with the address of a local prostitute and decides to take a taxi to her. The taxi driver remarks that Hazel looks like a preacher because of his suit, hat and general demeanor. The driver muses that preachers could be more effective in telling others to stay away from sin if they had "personal experience." Hazel denies again that he is a preacher, telling the man, "I don't believe in anything" (28).
Hazel enters Mrs. Leora Watts' room and dawdles, disoriented. After he sits down on her bed, the large woman grabs him by the arm; he tells her that he has come for the usual business and that he is not a preacher. She tells him, "Momma don't mind if you ain't a preacher" (30).
Even the novel's first line clues us in to the primary struggle of the protagonist: "Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car" (3). The 22 year-old Hazel Motes, although seemingly doing nothing but sitting on a train, is presented as straining with the kind of energy that will animate and torture him for the rest of the novel. We learn later that this "forward angle" is a position that he carries primarily in his neck, as though he is always trying to look closer at something. Indeed, his lack of movement in this opening scene makes it all the more apparent just what a crucial role sight plays in the novel; not only is Hazel always perceiving the world and people around him by looking at them, but people, such as Mrs. Wally Bee Hitchcock in this chapter, tend to notice him for his conspicuously powerful eyes. The setting of the train car emphasizes the unique ability of Hazel's eyes, because the double image created by the landscape passing outside and Hazel's own reflection in the window is a concrete way of showing how he sees more than one thing at a time, perhaps one image inside or behind the usually seen image.
Sight, both clear and muddied, is a powerful theme in the novel, evidenced even by the main character's name. Hazel is often shortened to "Haze", indicating a compromised sense of sight. His last name, Motes, is an allusion to the Sermon on the Mount speech in the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible's New Testament:
1 Judge not, that ye be not judged.
2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
5 Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)
"Christ in...compared those who fail to notice their own faults yet see and magnify the faults of others, to someone ignoring the roof beam in their own eye while pointing to the mote in the eye of another." (Sparrow) Sight in this case refers not only to the act of seeing, but also religious sight. Hazel Motes contends he sees truth clearer than the scriptures, and sets forth on a journey to discover and, reluctantly, preach his own gospel.
Another important theme introduced in this first chapter is that of home, homesickness, and memory. Hazel knows that his home is no more and therefore sees traveling to a new city, Taulkinham, as a way to start over. However, the black porter whom he apparently recognizes as a man from Eastrod and that porter's repeated denials when Hazel presses him to admit that put Hazel in an unsettled state. The rude and demeaning way that Hazel acts towards the porter also must make us consider the conditions of racism in the South in the mid-twentieth century; just like the protagonist of "The Geranium," Flannery O'Connor's first published short story, Hazel expects as a white man to be able to command black men and is therefore frustrated and left feeling somewhat impotent when the porter does not accede. Hazel is grasping for home, and is upset when the porter will not reflect his community back to him.
The reminiscences and dreams that Hazel have when he falls asleep in his berth reveal much of the qualities that will determine his journey, and which he will struggle against, for the rest of the novel. His grandfather is obviously the most direct influence on Hazel's religiosity and sense of vocation; it is almost as a traumatic reversal that Hazel equivocates the redemption that his grandfather spoke of as something that Jesus gave even the young Hazel - whether Hazel wanted it or not - with its very opposite, unredeemable sin. It is also through this experience that Hazel gains his sense of the sharp dichotomy between truth and falsehood, light and dark; he associates the religion of his grandfather and most preachers with the latter and resolves himself to pursue the former through clear-sightedness. However, we shall see that this divide does not stay as neat as Hazel supposes it is.
In Chapter 2, we see Hazel in his first traumatic confrontation with Taulkinham, a very unfriendly city, as Enoch will later describe it. Insofar as Hazel's unique identity as a preacher is invested in his hat, the fact that it is almost blown off at a junction stop on the way to Taulkinham may appear to us a foreshadowing of the way that the city will destroy him. Indeed, this is Hazel's first instinct when he sees the message written in the bathroom stall about Mrs. Leora Watts; having not gone with his army friends to the brothel earlier, he has finally decided to abandon himself into what others would call sin.
However, as he thought in going into the army, which he also considered a temptation to evil, he must have gone to Mrs. Watts with the feeling that although outwardly he was sinning, he was resisting evil inwardly. It is this contradictory situation that gives the story its disturbing and maddening character. In denying he is a preacher to the taxi driver, Hazel articulates his worldview - as a child frightened by Jesus, he decided that the best way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin. Now, he has accepted the notion that he has no soul and is "converted to nothing" (18). Free from the confines of sin, Hazel decides he can start doing what he had never done before. However, it becomes clear that he lacks the courage of his convictions.
As for Mrs. Leora Watts, O'Connor does not spare any detail to depict her as grotesque. The way that Hazel interacts with her is, not surprisingly, highly visual. When he looks in through the window of her house, he, and we the readers, are bluntly presented "a large white knee," which frankly stands for the whole person herself (28). Further, when Hazel enters her room, she confronts him with a powerful and unsettling stare that makes him only capable of looking at her in the reflection of her mirror rather than to her directly.
One particularly important detail is how Mrs. Watts grabs and holds Hazel by the arm. "If she had not had him so firmly by the arm, he might have leaped out the window" (30). This should remind us immediately of the first sentence of the novel, in which Hazel looks as though he is about to leap out of the train window he is looking out. Hazel is ardent in his rhetoric about believing in nothing, but he is still timid when it comes down to acting on his beliefs. Moreover, we will find increasingly through the rest of the novel that the hand and its grasp is yet another important body part, alongside the eye, that embodies a certain way of being in and interacting with the world.