The novel opens with twenty-five-year-old Philip Ashley recounting a childhood memory. When Philip was a boy, criminals were hung at a place called Four Turnings. Philip recalls being seven years old and seeing a dead man named Tom Jenkyn at Four Turnings; Philip’s cousin Ambrose (who was twenty-seven at the time) explained to him that Jenkyn had been hung for murdering his wife. Young Philip was overwhelmed at the sight. Ambrose, sensing this, turned away so that Philip could vomit in privacy. As his cousin walked away, Philip threw a rock Tom’s body, but quickly felt ashamed and ran off after Ambrose.
The novel’s opening chapter is mysterious, even disorienting. Philip doesn’t provide many details about himself, or his relationship to Rachel and Ambrose, the novel’s other two main characters. This gives the opening chapter an intriguing, yet slightly uneasy, tone. In addition, the opening chapter immediately introduces the central theme of guilt. Even as a child, Philip seems aware of how ambiguous the question of guilt is. His feeling of shame at having thrown a rock at Tom suggests that he doesn’t feel entirely certain that Tom is guilty, or that he deserves to be punished. Philip’s confusion over what it means to be guilty or innocent will intensify as the novel unfolds, and the reader will be drawn into this ambiguity through Philip’s first-person narration.
Philip explains that he hasn’t thought of Tom Jenkyn since that day. Now, however, he finds himself wondering about Tom’s life story. Philip is also troubled by something having to do with a woman named Rachel; he says the question of whether Rachel was “innocent or guilty” haunts him every day. Philip muses about Ambrose’s death in “that damned villa,” and about how similar to Ambrose he has become, almost as if he were Ambrose’s “phantom.” Philip thinks that he and Ambrose “would have both survived, had we been other men.” Philip wishes remorsefully that Rachel had not stayed with him. He thinks: “Some instinct should have warned her that to stay with me would bring destruction, not only to the phantom she encountered, but finally to her also.”
Philip does not yet explain to the reader who Rachel is, and what she means to him. Even though Rachel is at the heart of the novel’s plot, she will in many ways continue to be as shadowy a character as she appears to be in these opening pages. This passage also introduces the theme of identity. Philip closely aligns himself with his cousin Ambrose throughout the novel, and his fatalistic tone here suggests that he is desperately searching for any means possible to explain the events he has witnessed, even if that means rejecting the idea of free will and placing belief in the idea of destiny. The comparison of other people to “phantoms” will recur throughout the novel, suggesting that it is impossible to ever actually know another human being. Rather, the understanding we have of others is as insubstantial as a ghost.
This leads Philip to think about two warnings he did receive about Rachel, who is revealed to be his cousin. One warning came from a man called Rainaldi and the other from Nick Kendall, Philip’s godfather. Philip also recalls the night he first met Rachel, as well as the time he stood underneath her window on the eve of his birthday. That man “has gone,” he thinks, “just as the child has gone who threw a stone at a dead man on a gibbet to give himself false courage.” The chapter ends with Philip addressing that man, Tom Jenkyn, saying: “Had I looked back at you, over my shoulder, I should not have seen you swinging in your chains, but my own shadow.”
This passage flags two key conversations (one between Rainaldi and Philip, and one between Philip and Nick Kendall) that the reader will later see in full. The closing image of this first chapter is powerful, because it suggests that Philip feels incredibly guilty about Rachel’s death. By picturing his “own shadow” in place of Tom’s hanging body, Philip seems to be subconsciously admitting that he deserves the blame for Rachel’s death.