At half-past ten in the morning, Adolf Verloc leaves his shop in Soho, a slum neighborhood of London with a large immigrant population.
The narrator gives descriptions of Verloc, his shop, and his family – Winnie Verloc (his wife), her mother, and her brother Stevie. Mr. Verloc, a corpulent man, has an indolent and slovenly air about corresponding to the shadiness of the business he runs; men come to his shop discreetly to buy contraceptives and pornographic publications. Mrs. Verloc is an attractive young woman who shares some of her husband’s disengaged attitude. Mrs. Verloc’s mother used to run a boarding house until her daughter married Mr. Verloc. Stevie is a mentally challenged young man whose sensitivity and erratic behavior have prevented him from keeping gainful employment; Mrs. Verloc shields and cares for him as a mother. Mrs. Verloc’s mother is glad that Stevie is provided for in the Verloc household.
The novel appears to begin with the scene of Mr. Verloc on his way to the embassy, but the narrator, in one of Conrad’s characteristic distortions of conventional narrative order, immediately switches to an exposition of the Verloc household and the backgrounds of the characters. Though this kind of description would itself seem to follow a certain trope of nineteenth-century realist narrative, it often spins off into unexpected directions, such as a discursus on Mrs. Verloc’s and her mother’s French ancestry, or an anecdote about Stevie setting off rockets in the office where he worked. Along with the detailed, highly realistic presentation of Mr. Verloc’s shady shop and its shady customers, these diversions, coupled with many concealments, deprive the reader of a sense of secure knowledge and plunge her into a confusion that is at once amusing and anxious. The infamous London fog that Conrad has Mr. Verloc think about in later chapters already seems to hold an ineluctable presence in this first chapter – not as an actual entity but rather as the overall atmosphere of the narrative, as established by narrative distortions.
The first chapter also includes several more concrete instances of foreshadowing and associations, such as Stevie’s prankish barrage of rockets in his office. “Stevie did not seem to derive any personal gratification from what he had done. His motives for this stroke of originality were difficult to discover” (7). It turns out that the unusually sensitive and sympathetic Stevie had been set off by stories told by his fellow office-boys of injustices, making him, on a smaller and comic scale, a semblance of the bomb-throwing anarchist. The seeming absence or purity of his motive, as opposed to the bombastic rhetoric of the Red Committee members and the mendicancy of Mr. Verloc, makes him (surprisingly enough) something of a close compatriot of the ruthless Mr. Vladimir’s.