A mysterious man whom the narrator calls the “Pedestrian” walks through the English countryside in a rainstorm, hoping to find a place to stay. After finding that no rooms are open in Nadderby, he walks on to a town noted on his map as Sterk. The Pedestrian has the air of an academic man, and indeed is a philologist (linguist) at Cambridge college. His name is Dr. Ransom. Ransom is disheartened at first to see that Sterk seems to be mostly farmland, until he finally sees a small cottage in the distance where he might ask for lodging.
Lewis begins the novel by giving Ransom a role (the pedestrian) rather than a name, bringing this novel into conversation with books like Pilgrim’s Progress that use symbolic or allegorical names to talk about Christian doctrine. Ransom will stand in for the average human in the book, though also for Lewis himself, who was a professor and linguist as well. Ransom’s desire to explore the countryside immediately shows that he has a curious and open-minded nature.
When Ransom arrives at the small cottage, a woman there explains that there is likely no place to stay in Sterk except for an estate called The Rise. The Rise is where her son, Harry, works for a businessman named Mr. Devine and a professor whose name the woman does not know. The woman seems very upset that her son is not yet home, and Ransom offers to go to The Rise and send Harry home (while hoping to earn a place for himself to stay at The Rise in the process).
Ransom seems to put a high significance on the trappings of civilization, and shows that he would rather stay at a large estate like The Rise than try to ask for lodging at the quaint country cottage. He seems far more interested in talking to men of “his own kind” – that is academics and entrepreneurs – than this English woman.
Ransom follows the woman’s directions to the estate called The Rise, but finds the gate locked. Ransom decides to sneak through the tall hedge surrounding the estate. Once inside the grounds, Ransom notices how cold and unwelcoming the house itself looks, but presses on and rings the bell. There is no answer, but Ransom hears a scuffle and the sound of angry voices around the back of the house. A young child (later revealed as Harry) yells at someone to let him go home.
Civilization, as represented by the estate The Rise, is cold and unwelcoming, and Ransom, must sneak in. Furthermore, the façade of civilization seems to be hiding a brutality at its heart—a struggle that is hurting a vulnerable child—as Lewis starts to show how “civilized” life doesn’t always live up to its reputation. The setting also starts the story off with almost a gothic air—a dark and scary mansion the protagonist stumbles upon at night.
Ransom rushes to the back of the house and sees a child, whom he assumes to be Harry, struggling to escape from the grasp of two men. Ransom interrupts tentatively, muttering about sneaking in through the hedge, and then tells the men that Harry’s mother wants him home. The larger man angrily asks who Ransom is, but the thinner man exclaims that he knows Ransom from Wedenshaw Secondary School. The thinner man reintroduces himself as Devine, and Ransom suddenly recognizes Devine as a schoolmate that he did not like. Devine then tells Ransom that the thicker man is “The Weston,” the great physicist.
Weston’s introduction as “The Weston” immediately sets him up as a pompous man with a high opinion of himself. Mr. Devine puts a high value on making connections with people through his prestigious background at a preparatory school in England. The school system in England is incredibly class based, and Wedenshaw, though not a real school, comes with the air of money and status for families who are able to send their boys to a place like this.
Devine happily explains to Ransom that Harry is prone to fits, and says that he and Weston were simply trying to calm him and give him a bath before they sent Harry home. Devine offers to let Ransom escort Harry home and then come back and stay at the estate for the night. Ransom still distrusts the way that Weston and Devine were treating Harry, but he decides that men of Devine and Weston’s class would not be doing anything suspicious.
Ransom is willing to let go of both Harry’s obvious discomfort and the evidence of his own eyes to excuse the actions of men he considers civilized and high status. Dr. Weston’s position in academia makes him automatically trustworthy in Ransom’s eyes—a very classist assumption.
After a hushed conversation with Weston, Devine tells Harry that he doesn’t need a bath and is free to go. Harry sobs that he knows the men were taking him to the laboratory, not the wash-house. Devine simply laughs at Harry’s fear of Weston’s laboratory and takes Harry into the house for a drink. Ransom follows reluctantly, seeing that Weston does not really want him here, but he is tired enough from his walk that day that he does not want to refuse any refreshment.
This mention of Weston’s laboratory suggests that Weston has been doing possibly unethical experiments on Harry. Ransom is still suspicious of Weston and Devine, but he again ignores his misgivings so he can gain access to the comforts of civilized life that he wants. Harry disappears from the story at this point, and it’s unclear if he actually makes it back home.