The terror begins, as far as anyone knows, in the fall of 1957 and does not end for another 28 years. It starts after a paper boat made from newspaper floats into a gutter “swollen with rain.” It has been raining steadily for a week now, and the power has gone out in most sections of Derry. A small boy in a yellow slicker and red galoshes trails after the boat. He is George Denbrough—a six-year-old with a ten-year-old older brother, Bill Denbrough, known at Derry Elementary School as “Stuttering Bill.” Bill currently has the flu and sits in bed while his mother, Sharon Denbrough, plays Für Elise on the piano in the family’s parlor.
The scene that King sets is an idyllic portrait of middle-class American life in the 1950s, as the terror begins within a context of comfort and innocence. The image of the fragility of the paper boat contrasts with the rushing current—a force outside of human control, which threatens disaster. George’s uniquely colorful presence on that gray autumn day alerts the reader to the fact that something will happen to him.
Meanwhile, the Public Works Department, including the Denbrough boys’ father, Zack Denbrough, works to maintain Jackson Street. They remove the sandbags they stacked to prevent the Kenduskeag River from rolling into town. Such a flood occurred once before in 1931. Zack figures that, once the Bangor Hydro dam goes in upstream, the river will cease to be a threat. The important thing now is to get the power back on and forget about the rest. This habit of enduring tragedy, then forgetting about it is characteristic of Derry, which Bill Denbrough will come to learn in time.
King uses the motif of flooding, which has significance in many religious texts because of its potential threat of destroying vast human populations. For now, the people of Derry are as unprepared for this natural disaster as they will be for the impending supernatural disaster that will later overtake the town. Forgetting is Derry’s strategy for withstanding and surviving the aftermath of catastrophe.
George splashes along in the water that carries his paper boat “from one side of Witcham Street to the other.” George is happy to play in the rain, not realizing that, as he sprints to catch the boat, he is also sprinting to his death. He is overwhelmed by love and appreciation for his brother Bill and wishes that Bill could be there with him. He races down toward the intersection to catch up with the boat.
King prepares the reader right away for George’s eventual death. This builds a sense of increasing dread, and could also demonstrate that George’s carefree innocence cannot survive in a town like Derry, in which evil is pervasive in every aspect of life.
The scene flashes back to the moments before George leaves the house to go play. Bill is sitting up in bed and has just finished making the paper boat. He asks George to go to the basement to get him the paraffin wax, a knife, a bowl, and a pack of matches. George’s mother starts playing a piece on the piano that sounds “dry and fussy.” George reluctantly goes down to the cellar, which he does not like. He suspects that something is down there, in the dark. He knows this is silly, for his parents say so—and, more importantly, Bill says so. Still, the cellar has a smell—the smell of It, “a creature which would eat anything but which was especially hungry for boymeat.”
George, like many small children, has a fear of dark places like basements. King demonstrates how children conjure fears through their imaginations, which are often fed by movies and stories. George imagines a creature lurking in an underground space, like a troll. His ability to conjure the fear of monsters makes his fear real.
George goes to switch on the light and remembers that the power is out. He wonders if he should go back and tell Bill that he can’t get the wax because he’s afraid that something will get him. He knows that Bill, who calls after him in the moment that George thinks of him, would call him silly and tell him to grow up. George walks downstairs and becomes overwhelmed by the smell of the cellar, which is worse in the aftermath of the flood. George sifts through the junk on the shelf as fast as he can and finds a can of turtle wax. He stares at the turtle on the lid, transfixed. George comes out of his “hypnotic wonder,” grabs the can, and rushes back upstairs. By the time the door shuts shut behind him, his fear disappears, “as easily as a nightmare slips away from a man who awakes.”
George’s admiration for his brother and his wish not to disappoint Bill give him the courage to continue down into the cellar, facing his fear of the dark. Worse, the cellar smells dank, like dead things. The association of cellars with the dead comes from an instinctual sense of cellars and other underground spaces as places where people put useless or forgotten things. George, for example, “sifts through junk.” He finds not only the wax that he needs but an image that will later serve as an important clue to saving Derry from evil: the turtle.
While George gets the matches and knife from the kitchen and the bowl from the Welsh dresser in the dining room, he continues to think about the turtle. He wonders where he has seen it before. Sharon starts playing Für Elise again—the song that Bill will remember for the rest of his life as the piece that his mother plays on the day that George dies.
George watches as Bill uses the knife to cut off a cube of paraffin wax. Bill puts the cube in the bowl, strikes a match, and puts it on the wax. The boys watch as the cube melts. Bill explains that this will keep the paper boat waterproof. He does not stutter much, if at all, while talking to George. On the other hand, his speech is so stunted when he is in school that Bill’s classmates look elsewhere, embarrassedly, while he clutches the sides of his desk and shuts his eyes, as though to squeeze the stubborn word out of himself. Sharon Denbrough explains the stutter as the result of an accident which occurs when Bill is three, but Bill and Zack Denbrough are not so sure.
Sharon seeks to give Bill’s stutter an origin story, though Bill and his father seem to suspect that it is as natural to his identity as his hair color. Bill probably does not stutter much when talking to George because he is able to confidently inhabit his role as elder brother. Richie Tozier later notes how Bill does not stutter when he assumes another voice or can express another version of himself, as he does later when he speaks French or rides Silver and plays the hero.
Bill and George dip their fingers into the melted but cooling wax and smear it around the sides of the paper boat. George tells his brother that he wishes that he could come along. Bill agrees and tells George to remember to put on his “rain-stuff” so that he will not get the flu, like Bill. George then leans forward and does something that Bill never forgets: he kisses his elder brother’s cheek. Bill tells George to be careful. George goes out, and it is the last time that Bill sees his little brother.
The kiss is later recognized as a kiss goodbye. A similar kiss will be repeated at the end of the novel when Bill kisses Mike Hanlon’s cheek—that, too, is a kiss goodbye because it is the last time that the two friends see each other. Bill smears wax into the boat to protect its fragility from the elements, but he will later feel guilty about being unable to protect George in a similar way.
George chases his paper boat down Witcham Street. He watches with concern as his boat heads toward the opening of a storm drain. He runs after it and thinks, for a moment, that he will catch it as it speeds along its course. Then, George falls and goes sprawling. He skins one of his knees and cries out in pain. The boat swirls around near the storm drain and disappears. George pounds the wet pavement in anger. He then walks over to the storm drain and peers inside. A pair of yellow eyes stare back at him.
George is angry and disappointed with himself for losing the boat that Bill made for him. He is less concerned with injuring himself than he is with having lost the boat and possibly disappointing Bill, who he so admires. The yellow eyes echo George’s fear of creatures lurking in underground spaces.
George thinks that the eyes belong to an animal, perhaps a housecat that got stuck in the sewer. Still, he is ready to run. Just when he backs away, a pleasant voice calls to him: “Hi, Georgie.” George blinks and looks again. He sees a clown peering back at him from the storm drain. He notices, too, that, in one hand, this clown is holding a bunch of multi-colored balloons, like an offering of ripe fruit. In the other hand, the clown holds George’s paper boat.
George does not realize it, but It has just shifted from an animal form to a clown, which seems more innocuous. The clown holds two items that float—balloons and the boat. Both items foreshadow George’s fate as one of the floating bodies in the sewer.
The clown offers to give George both his paper boat and a balloon, but George is reluctant to take it due to his father’s warning not to take things from strangers. George notices that the clown’s eyes have transformed into a bright, “dancing blue,” like those of his mother, Sharon. The clown introduces himself as “Mr. Bob Gray, also known as Pennywise the Dancing Clown.”
To make himself less of a stranger to George, It transforms Its eyes into those of George’s mother. The purpose is to get George to trust that the clown will not harm him. King uses color to signal fear (yellow) and friendliness (blue).
George asks Pennywise how he ended up in the sewers. The clown explains that he, and the circus from which he comes, got blown away by the storm. Pennywise asks if George can smell the circus and, indeed, the boy can smell the roasted peanuts and the vinegar that one splashes on French fries. He can also “smell cotton candy and frying doughboys and the faint but thunderous odor of wild animal shit.” There is also the smell of something “wet and rotten,” similar to that in his cellar.
The clown tells a story that only a small boy would believe. In getting George to believe this story, Pennywise can also get the boy to conjure up the smells of the circus in his imagination. George, however, still recognizes that the clown is in a sewer and smells the dankness of that underground space.
Pennywise again asks George if he would like to have his paper boat. The clown holds it up, smiling. George can now see his costume, which is “a baggy silk suit with great big orange buttons.” Pennywise also wears a “bright tie, electric-blue,” which “[flops] down his front.” On his hands are “big white gloves, like the kind Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck always wore.” The clown offers one of his floating balloons. As George reaches for it, the clown seizes his arm. He sees the clown’s face change into something terrible as it pulls George down into the darkness. It pulls George with “its thick and wormy grip” and Dave Gardener watches as George gets pulled toward that darkness. Dave runs out of his house to reach the boy but arrives forty-five seconds too late: George’s arm has been ripped from its socket; he dies.
Pennywise wears clothes that are familiar to children. George associates his big white gloves with Disney characters, which make the clown’s hands seem inviting and warm, strongly contrasting with the “thick and wormy” feeling of a snake or sea creature. The offer of the balloon is another trick. It is not an item for George to play with, but an item that George unknowingly takes in acceptance of his death. King is unclear about how Its face transforms, indicating that George does not recognize the form of evil that has seized him.
Somewhere down below, the paper boat continues on. It sweeps “through knighted chambers and long concrete hallways.” While Sharon Denbrough is in the Emergency Room at the Derry Home Hospital being sedated, and Bill Denbrough listens, stunned, while his father, Zack Denbrough, sobs in the parlor, the boat shoots out of the sewer pipes and into the Penobscot River. At this moment, the storm ends. The narrator imagines that the boat has reached the sea. All the same, “it passes out of this tale forever.”
The Denbrough family is in a state of shock and grief over George’s death. The paper boat could be symbolic of George’s spirit of innocence, which continues on, but without George himself. The boat moves through Its domain of the sewers but then escapes Derry and passes out into the sea, into a freer and wider existence—unlike the characters in 1958, who are still trapped in Derry and about to experience even more horrors.