Marian’s roommate, Ainsley, tells Marian about a party she went to the night before as she recovers from a hangover. Marian prepares a hangover cure for Ainsley, giving her tomato juice and an Alka-Seltzer, which gives Marian a feeling of moral superiority. Ainsley tells Marian about the boring men she met at the party, who were mostly dentists. Ainsley is tired of talking about teeth—she works as a tester for defective toothbrushes, although she views this as a temporary job and wishes to work at an art gallery.
Marian realizes she is running late for work and decides to head out. She runs into her landlady, who asks Marian about smoke that was coming out of Marian’s apartment. Marian politely dismisses her concerns and goes down to the bus stop, where she meets back up with Ainsley. In a flashback, Marian recounts how she and Ainsley were questioned by the landlady before moving in. The landlady had been very concerned about creating a good environment for her daughter, since the apartment’s entrance is through the landlady and her daughter’s home. Marian wonders if the landlady notices the bottles of alcohol she and Ainsley bring up to the apartment.
Marian arrives at work late and immediately goes to her desk in the back of the office. Her office is composed of all women, who she feels judge her for her tardiness, although they say nothing. She writes consumer surveys for product test trials at a company called Seymour Surveys, and as soon as she sits down, one of the dieticians at the company asks her to come taste-test various pudding flavors. Marian suggests putting raisins in the pudding, but the dietician rejects her suggestions because they’re too controversial, and people often do not like them. Marian wonders what the future of her career is at Seymour Surveys; it seems like her position will lead to nowhere and there is no room for her to grow or get a promotion.
The company’s accountant, Mrs. Grot, comes over and tells Marian that Marian must sign up for the pension plan. Marian tries to refuse, but Mrs. Whit tells her it is required. Marian then goes out for coffee with three of her coworkers: Emmy, a typist; Lucy, who works in public relations; and Millie, the assistant to the boss, Mrs. Brogue. The girls are all virgins, although for different reasons. Millie wants to wait until marriage to lose her virginity, Lucy is afraid of social shaming, and Emmy, the “office hypochondriac,” is afraid of contracting diseases.
Marian and the three women discuss a recent survey that was canceled. Ainsley, who works at another office, comes and joins the women. Lucy complains that her danish has raisins and picks them off. The women debate why the laxative survey was canceled and Ainsley says that people in Quebec must suffer from constipation because of psychological issues. Ainsley then tells the women about her day at work and mentions how one of the men she interacted with must be “rotten” in bed, which Marian notices makes the other girls uncomfortable, as Ainsley is much more open about sex and the male attention she receives than they are.
When Marian returns from lunch, Mrs. Brogue comes over and tells Marian to look over some surveys and remove a woman who has gotten pregnant from a map that outlines where every employee is located. Mrs. Brogue then asks Marian to work on a survey overtime, which Marian agrees to do because she feels guilty about being late. To check the interview, she has to call the phone line that contains the recorded survey. She listens to the jingle and commercial—it is an advertisement for beer—before reviewing the series of questions at the end of the recorded portion.
Marian receives a call from her boyfriend, Peter, notifying her that he can’t come to dinner that evening because his friend, Trigger, is getting married. Trigger is the last of Peter’s friends to get married, which Marian remarks is tragic for Peter, as he is now the only unmarried one in his friend group. Marian worries that Peter will turn on her and begin seeing her as a “siren” (the wife) like the woman who had “carried off” Trigger.
After finishing her phone call with Peter, Marian works on writing a response letter to a woman who had found a fly in her Raisin Bran and sent in a complaint. She gets a call from her friend, Clara, who invites her to dinner. Marian agrees, but invites Ainsley with her so that she doesn’t have to listen to Clara all by herself. As she leaves work, she goes into the women’s bathroom and sees that Emmy, Millie, and Lucy are all there.
The first three chapters outline many of the themes that begin to define Marian over the course of the novel. Her job writing surveys is menial and fails to engage her, which is made explicit when she expresses doubt about where she could possibly be promoted or what the next goal would be for her position at Seymour Surveys.
This lack of a clear future—or an opportunity for personal development—is also a product of the gendered work culture present at Seymour Surveys, and introduces the overarching theme of gender roles and inequalities that runs throughout the novel. There is no room for Marian to ascend within her position because she isn’t “one of the men upstairs,” and she has no desire to become one of the even more mind-numbing “machine person[s] or questionnaire-marking ladies,” two explicitly female roles within the company that would be a “step down” for Marian.
The futility of Marian’s career is also emphasized by the mention of her college education. She is a college graduate, and yet spends her time tasting pudding (as the dietitian calls her into the kitchen to taste canned rice pudding) and calling garage mechanics. Although she was hired to revise the questionnaires, Marian admits that she doesn’t understand what the “limits” of her job are, since she seems to do a myriad of tasks that have little to do with the original job description.
Alongside the alienation Marian feels at her job, she also experiences alienation from her roommate, landlady, and most importantly, her boyfriend, Peter. Ainsley and Marian have little in common: Ainsley drinks excessively (Marian explains that when she buys scotch for the apartment, Ainsley is often the one consuming most of it), is more sexually promiscuous than both Marian and Marian’s coworkers, and is routinely described as having louder, more assertive behavior. Although Marian and Ainsley are roommates, Marian explicitly states that they “don’t have much in common.”
Similarly, Marian is alienated by her coworkers, Emmy, Millie, and Lucy, who give her judgemental looks when she comes into the bathroom. They don’t explicitly state their judgment, but the silence of their judgment is paralleled by the entire workplace culture of Seymour Surveys, where Marian’s tardiness is not commented on, but rather is something that she feels she must somehow make up for with unspoken actions, like taking on extra work when asked. Marian’s landlady, too, exhibits judgmental behavior towards Marian, questioning her about the fire in their room. Again, this judgment is communicated mostly through behavior, and rarely stated out loud.
The most profound rift between Marian and the other characters in the novel is between her and her boyfriend, Peter. When he calls, he is distressed about the fact that his friend, Trigger, is getting married. Marian is afraid that Peter will exhibit the same anger toward her that he feels toward the women who stole his friends away, and that he will leave her. Peter also pushes her into behaviors she doesn’t enjoy, like the obligation to match him drink for drink when they go out, even though Marian doesn’t enjoy drinking or getting drunk as much as Peter does.