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The opening chapter of the novel underlines the basic insecurity and self-deception of Tommy Wilhelm, the protagonist. He is "out of place" among the old inmates of Hotel Gloriana where he lives. He "was used to an active life and liked to go out energetically in the morning" whereas after breakfast the old guests "had nothing to do but wait out the day". Tommy asserts his differences from the old men and women among whom he lives; yet his condition is no better than theirs. Still he tries to conceal the crisis, which threatens to overwhelm him. Later he realizes "that he was no more capable than the next fellow when it came to concealing his troubles. They were clearly written out upon his face".
Although the main action of the novel is confined to a single day, there are several flashbacks into Wilhelm's past. These flashbacks capture crucial moments or choices that help to explain Wilhelm's present crisis. While he is at the newsstand, prolonging going into the dining room to face his father, Wilhelm's memories are triggered by Rubin's casual remarks.
The reflection on Tamkin leads into a reflection on his father, Dr. Adler, who shows no affection for his son. More than anything, Wilhelm yearns to be loved by this man; but he has no comprehension of how to reach his father. As a result, he feels like he is drowning in life. It is appropriate, therefore, that he remembers a line of poetry from Milton's Lycidas: "Sunk though he be beneath the wat'ry floor."
Wilhelm then recalls another element in his personal history that might account for his father's attitude towards him. In spite of his parents' objections, Wilhelm dropped out of college to go to Hollywood and seek a career as an actor. Certain he was going to make it and needing a better stage name, he officially changed his from Wilhelm Adler to Tommy Wilhelm. Ironically, "Wilhelm had always had a great longing to be Tommy. He had never, however, succeeded in feeling like Tommy, and had always remained Wilky." Wilhelm, therefore, has always longed for a normal, successful life (the life of a winner - a Tommy), but he has always been a failure (the life of a loser - a Wilky). Unfortunately, Wilhelm rarely sees and accepts things as they are until it is much too late. As a result, he seldom makes normal, sensible decisions based upon facts.
Wilhelm's decision to go to Hollywood proved to be disastrous. He misread some comments made by Maurice Venice, supposedly an agent for Kaskaskia films, and based upon those comments he left college to pursue an acting career. Although he goes to Hollywood without Venice's backing, he assumes the agent will help him; he is also sure he can make it on his own. The naïveté that Wilhelm has about being a Hollywood star borders on being pathetic. As expected by everyone, Wilhelm flunks his screen test, confirming his status as a loser. He has no choice but to return home to New York and face the disappointment and disapproval of his father. Although Wilhelm feels betrayed by Venice, he takes no pleasure in later learning later that the man has been arrested for pandering or that Venice's lover, Nita Christenberry, has been sentenced to three years for prostitution.
Having reviewed in his mind some of his major mistakes of the past, Wilhelm summarizes them in a kind of self-flagellation, which only makes him more depressed and anxious. The chapter ends with Wilhelm saying a silent prayer to God; it is a drowning man's appeal for help from the only source that he has left available to him. The anguished prayer is a result of his acknowledging his past mistakes and his father's rejection of him.
Although only a short period of time passes in this first chapter, much is learned about Wilhelm and some of the people who surround him. From the time he steps onto the elevator and "sinks" to the bottom floor until the moment of his silent, anguished prayer, Bellow successfully captures the loser image of his protagonist and the pathetic plight of his current situation. The tragic mood of the novel is also clearly captured.