The novel begins with a voice, which announces itself as the “Voice of Fate.” The voice explains that it is November 5, 1997. The voice echoes throughout London: in public spaces, in private rooms, etc. As the voice announces that it will rain from exactly 12:07 am to 1:30 am, two figures—neither of which is identified—dress themselves in front of the mirror.
The first part of V for Vendetta establishes two central themes of the graphic novel: the ubiquity of tyranny, and the importance of symbols, masks, and disguises. The government that controls England dominates all aspects of citizens’ lives, and broadcasts its information everywhere.
The first figure is a young-looking woman, who’s applying her lipstick nervously in a small mirror. The second figure is shadowy, and seems to be standing in a vast hall lined with horror and film noir posters from the 30s and 40s. As the first figure puts on her dress, the second puts on gloves, a long, black cloak, a set of daggers, and a strange mask. The mask shows a pale man’s smiling face. Meanwhile the voice continues to describe news and current events: it stresses that “prospects” are brighter than they’ve been since “the last war,” and adds that it is every man’s duty to make Britain “Great again.”
In the panel with the many film posters, we get our first glimpse of Moore’s tastes for allusions to film and literature (allusions which no LitCharts summary could do justice to). We are immediately introduced to England as a surveillance state, where a government supercomputer named “Fate” seemingly knows everything and sees everything—even the upcoming weather—and promotes nationalism with bland slogans. Moore often creates “parallel actions” to connect scenes and characters in surprising ways.
The first figure leaves her room and walks outside, to an area near a dark alley. She encounters a strange man in a coat, and timidly asks him if he’d like to sleep with her “for money.” The man smirks and says that it must be her first night working as a prostitute. The woman reluctantly admits that it is. Suddenly, the man produces a badge and claims to be a “Fingerman” (law enforcement officer). Two more fingermen step out of hiding. The woman is terrified: clearly, fingerman are trusted with a large amount of power. The head fingerman tells the woman that he and his friends can do whatever they want with her—and then kill her.
The corruption of this futuristic English state is clear. We learn that there is a group called the Fingermen—basically a secret police. Clearly, Fingermen can do as they please: they don’t have to face any consequences for killing a young woman. This essentially limitless power corrupts and makes them hypocritical—they can have sex with a prostitute and then, immediately afterwards, kill her for breaking the law. This scene of violence and desperation is juxtaposed with the comforting, seemingly omniscient voice of “Fate.”
As the woman tries to protest, the second figure, dressed in his cloak and mask, walks toward the fingermen. He quotes from the first act of Macbeth, calling the fingermen wicked. The head fingerman tries to push the figure away, and is surprised to find that he can pull the figure’s hand off. Suddenly, the figure attacks the three fingermen, killing one of them with a strange firebomb. The figure then escapes with the woman, leaving the two remaining fingermen confused.
In contrast to the blandness and violence of the present, the masked figure seems to connect himself to the art and literature of the past: film noir, horror, and now, Shakespeare. The scene in which the Fingermen pull off the figure’s hands alludes to a similar scene in James Whale’s film of The Invisible Man (one of the posters glimpsed in the figure’s home). The meaning of the allusion is clear: the figure is “invisible,” undetectable even to the surveillance state.
The cloaked figure brings the woman to a nearby roof, where she thanks him for saving her life. [NOTE: for the purposes of this summary, we’ll refer to the character as “he,” since his mask is that of a man. Nevertheless, no proof is ever offered that he is, in fact, a “he.”] The woman asks the figure who he is—he replies that he’s the “villain” and “the king of the 20th century.”
The figure’s introduction is endlessly confusing and his cryptic answers to the woman’s questions hardly clear things up. Nevertheless, the figure’s allusions and whimsical phrases suggest that he’s intelligent but not entirely sane.
The man asks the woman if she remembers the old nursery rhyme about the fifth of November—when she replies that she doesn’t, he recites it: “Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot. I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.” As the man falls silent, there is a loud explosion, and the Houses of Parliament explode. Fireworks shoot into the sky, spelling out a “V,” much to the woman’s delight.
One of the key themes of V for Vendetta is the creativity of destruction—itself a vital theme in anarchist thinking. The figure’s destruction of the Houses of Parliament is beautiful to behold. We also continue to see the figure’s fondness for poetry and literature. The Gunpowder Treason is an important part of English history, celebrated on Bonfire Night. (See Background Information.)
The narrative cuts ahead to November 6, in the morning. There is a videoconference between a shadowy authority figure and a panel of experts. The authority figure, addressed as “Leader,” asks each of the men what they can tell him about the explosion of the Houses of Parliament. The first man, Mr. Conrad Heyer, claims to speak for an institution called “The Eye.” He explains that video surveillance has captured some footage of the terrorist responsible for the plot—however, because he is wearing a mask, it’s impossible to identify him. The second man, Mr. Brian Etheridge, speaking for “The Ear,” adds that millions of people are talking about the explosion over the phone, and that all their information is being sent to Mr. Almond, who works for an institution called “The Finger.”
The contrast between the mysterious figure and the Leader couldn’t be clearer. The figure speaks in riddles and literary allusions, while the Leader speaks in bureaucratic jargon. We see that the surveillance state in England is truly all-encompassing: even the other officials in this state are being watched by the Leader (also a symptom of the typical paranoia of tyrants). The government is seemingly divided into different parts, each named for a body part—and each mostly concerned with monitoring English citizens, apparently. The department names introduce the symbol of the government as a body—something with a gigantic, villainous character of its own.
The Leader next asks Mr. Finch to speak for “The Nose.” Finch explains that the terrorist used a set of highly sophisticated explosives to blow up Parliament. The Leader nods and instructs the three men to inform him of any new information.
Mr. Finch will be an important character in the book, but for the time being he is just another official—someone to manipulate the public, and to in turn be manipulated by the Leader.
After turning off his video feed, the Leader turns to Mr. Derek Almond, who is standing next to him. He furiously tells Almond to find the man responsible for the explosion, or he’ll have Almond’s “head.”
The Leader is cruel both to his own people and to the authorities in his government. The guiding principle of the state is fear: everyone is deathly afraid of their commander, who has absolute power over them.
At 7 pm on November 6, a team of media specialists discusses how to control the story of Parliament’s destruction. The “Voice of Fate” will explain that the building was demolished at night to avoid traffic congestion. One man, Dascombe, points out Lewis Prothero, the man who reads the “Voice of Fate” over the radio.
Here we see the hypocrisies and propaganda of the media system. Even though it’s plain that someone has destroyed the Houses of Parliament in opposition to the government, the media spreads a false, comforting story about how the government wanted to destroy Parliament. The notion of a “Voice of Fate” suggests majesty, determinism, and control, while in reality we see the media system always scrambling to “spin” the news in order to make it cohere with the state’s wishes.