The novel begins, “Three months ago, his grandmother died, and then they had moved to this house.”
The novel begins with a discussion of how a house is passed from one generation to the next. Right away, property is a key theme.
A man named Joseph Hooper goes to visit his dying father and takes his young son, Edmund Hooper. The boy’s visit is quick and not particularly emotional. Joseph reminds Edmund that he’s the heir to his grandfather’s fortune. Edmund can only think about his grandfather’s pale white skin.
At this stage in the novel, Edmund is unconcerned with property or inheritance—a naïve young child, he’s more struck by the gruesome sight of his dying relative.
After Edmund’s grandfather dies, Joseph moves into the house with Edmund. He tells Edmund that he won’t be able to spend much time around the house, adding that it’s hard to support a child “without a woman beside me.”
Joseph is a lonely, middle-aged man, and not a particularly good father. His life is curiously empty: he doesn’t seem to feel a close bond with his child, and, since he doesn’t have a wife, he is without a companion or even a close friend.
Joseph instructs Edmund never to go into the Red Room, explaining that there are lots of old, valuable things inside. When Edmund suggests that they explore the room, Joseph’s hand hesitates over a small drawer. But then, Joseph suggests that Edmund play cricket instead of looking through the house. When Edmund points out that he doesn’t have anyone to play cricket with, Joseph points out that Edmund may have “a new friend” soon. Now Edmund is sure he knows “where to find the key” to the Red Room.
This novel pays homage to many of the famous English Gothic novels of the 19th century, in which there’s often a big, mysterious house with a room that is off-limits to the main character. In this case, the forbidden room is the Red Room. The passage also foreshadows the arrival of Charles Kingshaw, the second main character of the novel, when Joseph tells Edmund he’ll have a friend soon.
Joseph thinks that Edmund is a lot like Ellen Hooper, Joseph’s wife, who died six years ago. Their marriage was unhappy.
Hill says very little about Joseph’s relationship with Ellen, but gives the impression that even when Joseph’s wife was alive, he was lonely and unhappy. Edmund seems lonely, too, because he must grow up without a mother or an affectionate father.
The Hoopers’ house, which Joseph has now inherited from his father, is called Warings, and it was built by Edmund’s great-grandfather, meaning that “it was not very old.” Back in those days, the Hoopers were a wealthy landowning family. Now, however, the surrounding village is much smaller, and most of their land was sold to fund the construction of the manor. “But,” Joseph thinks, “there was still Warings.”
This is the only part of the book in which Hill discusses the Hoopers’ family’s history. Notably, the Hoopers are not from “old money.” The fact that they’ve had property for just over a century suggests that they only cemented their social position with a manor (a sure symbol of status) a few generations ago. Hill even suggests that the building of Warings was a folly: it cemented the family’s social status but also reduced their actual wealth (since they had to sell off all their land).
Joseph’s ancestor, an ambitious man of the same name (we’ll call him Joseph Hooper Sr.), had poured all his money into Warings. He succeeded, with the result that he had to sell all his other land to afford his new house. Joseph tells Edmund that Edmund should be proud of his family history, but Edmund doesn’t see why. From his perspective, the house is perfectly ordinary, and even rather ugly.
Joseph Hooper Sr. seems to have been an ambitious upper-middle-class man who wanted to be respected by others, and believed that a nice house was the best way to win that respect. Notice that Joseph doesn’t recognize the importance of having a big house at all, because he focuses on the house itself rather than what a large house can bring to its owners—like prestige and the image of success.
The house is tall and made of dark red bricks. It’s surrounded by yew trees, which Joseph Hooper Sr. selected because they were the longest-living trees. Inside, the house has lots of oak doors and staircases, and very little about it has changed since it was built.
The house is designed to be a lasting monument to the Hooper family’s glory. However, while the house itself hasn’t changed, the village surrounding it has—and now, ironically, there’s almost nobody left to recognize the Hoopers’ glory.
Joseph grew up in Warings, and hated it. He’s now fifty-one years old, and he’s proud to be a Hooper and the owner of a large manor house. He knows, deep down, that he’s a dull, “ineffectual man,” and Warings gives him a sense of “both importance and support.”
Like his own son, Joseph despised Warings as a child, but he has come to believe that owning property affords him status and respect. However, Joseph knows he hasn’t done anything to deserve such an impressive house, and that if it were not for his inheritance, he could never have earned it for himself because he lacks his father’s ambition.
Edmund has chosen to sleep in a small, dark room at the back of the house, a choice that surprises his father. One night, just before dawn, Edmund wakes up and sees moonlight shining down on the yew trees. He climbs down the staircase, confident that he won’t run into his father or Mrs. Boland, their housekeeper. He finds the drawer he noticed earlier and opens it. Inside, he finds a long, red key.
Edmund doesn’t seem interested in any of the obvious advantages of living in a big house—like having a big bedroom. Instead, he’s more interested in learning about the house’s mysteries and exploring its various rooms.
Edmund uses the key to enter the Red Room. Inside, he finds shelves of books, mostly “bound volumes of the Banker’s Journal.” He knows that the room was designed as a library, even though nobody ever used it for this purpose. Instead, Edmund’s grandfather began using the Red Room to house his collection of moths and butterflies. The room is full of display cases containing the dead insects. Joseph has shown Edmund the collection before, but Joseph privately believes that he should be able to sell it for a large amount of money.
In many English books about big country houses, the main character doesn’t find a way of sneaking into the “secret room” until the end of the book (for example, Jane Eyre doesn’t learn what’s in the attic until her story is almost done). The fact that Edmund learns what’s in the Red Room before the end of the first chapter suggests that this book is different from its Gothic predecessors. That is, the Red Room is not the story’s central mystery. Rather, in many ways Edmund himself will emerge as the book’s great mystery.
Joseph remembers his own father, Joseph Hooper Sr, taking him to the Red Room to see the butterfly collection. Joseph’s father once told him, “I am an international authority … let me see you make a name for yourself.” Even then, Joseph knew he would never be able to do so. However, Joseph tells Edmund that it was a “splendid thing” that Edmund’s grandfather was so famous. Deep down, Joseph senses that he has failed to “ingratiate himself with Edmund,” even more than Joseph’s own father had failed to ingratiate himself with Joseph.
The novel moves back and forth between various characters’ perspectives: in this part of the chapter, for instance, Hill discusses both Joseph and Edmund’s thoughts at length. By emphasizing Joseph’s alienation from Edmund, yet also exploring Edmund’s inner thoughts in immense detail, the novel creates a frustrated, “paralyzed” tone. The characters are so trapped in their own heads that they can’t understand what other people are thinking and feeling.
Late at night, Edmund walks through the Red Room, looking at the moths in their cases. He knows that there is a small key, kept inside a Bible in the Red Room, which unlocks the cases. He also notices stuffed foxes and weasels, which look exceptionally dusty. Edmund comes to a case at the end of the room. Using the key, he opens the case, revealing a “Death’s Head Hawk Moth.” Edmund touches the moth with his finger, and immediately, the moth, “already years dead,” collapses into dust.
The chapter ends with the macabre image of Edmund destroying an already-dead animal. The image foreshadows Edmund’s eerie, almost preternatural talent for destruction. It’s as if not even Edmund understands how or why he has destroyed the moth—he just does it. The passage also shows Edmund learning his way around Warings and becoming more confident in his new, gloomy home.