An unnamed Narrator finds himself standing by the side of the street in a long line for the bus. The Narrator tries to remember what he’s been doing up until now. He recalls walking through dark, dingy streets for hours, vainly hoping to get to a “good part of town.” He’s come to the bus stop because it seems to be the only place where there are people.
The novel begins on a note of sad desperation—the Narrator is trying to find a happier, more inviting part of a dreary, fantastical town. As in the start of many dreams, the Narrator finds himself standing in a strange place with no memory of how he got there.
The Narrator notices the other people standing in line for the bus. Almost everyone seems to be angry, frustrated, or otherwise unhappy. One couple begins fighting, and eventually they both step out of line and walk away. This pleases the Narrator, since he’s now two places closer to boarding the bus. He notices a Short Man grumbling about the unlikable people in line. A Big Man overhears the Short Man and angrily punches him in the face. The Short Man limps away from the line. Finally, the Narrator sees a young, attractive couple leaving the line—clearly, the two lover prefer each other to wherever the bus will take them.
The other people waiting for the bus seem unpleasant in some overt way: they’re violent (the Big Man), arrogant (the Short Man), hedonistic (the couple), and so on. Perhaps most importantly, the people waiting in line are self-interested (with the possible exception of the couple; Lewis will discuss the “selfishness” of lust toward the end of the book). Even the Narrator feels selfish pleasure as he advances in line.
Suddenly, the bus arrives. It’s a beautiful, bright vehicle, driven by a mysterious Driver. The Driver seems “full of light,” and waves his hand in front of his face, as if he’s fanning away steam. The Driver’s behavior irritates many of the people waiting in line—one person grumbles, “Thinks himself too good to look at us.”
The Driver’s mysteriousness and brightness might suggest his holy, angelic qualities. The passage also reinforces the passengers’ irrational, spitefulness meanness—they criticize the Driver for the pettiest reasons.
The passengers board the bus, pushing and shoving to climb aboard. When everyone has taken a seat, only half the seats in the bus are filled. As the Narrator sits down, a Tousle-Headed Poet sits next to him and observes that the “present company” is extremely annoying and unlikable. The Poet explains that many people choose not to ride the bus because they prefer the “grey town.” The Poet tried to survive in the town by forming a “circle” of intellectuals. But he found that other people didn’t care about “intellectual life at all,” and when the Poet tried to show them his writing, they ignored him. The Poet tries to show the Narrator some of his writing—he pulls out a wad of papers. Suddenly, the Narrator notices that the bus is flying above the ground. The Narrator peers out of the window and sees the endless “wet roofs” of the grey town he’s just left.
Here, we learn more about the novel’s setting: the “grey town” is a huge, almost infinitely large place, full of unhappy people. For some reason, only a few people have the resolve to leave the town in search of something better. The passengers push and shove unnecessarily for a seat, reminding us of their greed and selfishness. The Tousle-Headed Poet seems different from the other passengers, since he’s relatively polite and well-behaved. Yet he has a clear flaw: he thinks he’s better than everyone else. The Poet seems like a stereotypical pretentious intellectual—always complaining about how uncultured other people are.