In this short, introductory chapter we are introduced to Alice, a young girl, who is sitting on the bank of a river with her older sister. Alice is bored and a bit sleepy, but she is startled awake by a talking White Rabbit who hops by with a pocket watch.
Alice follows the rabbit down his rabbit hole, but loses him almost immediately. The hole is quite deep and Alice falls for a relatively long time. During the fall she notices that the hole is lined with cupboards filled with things. She also talks to herself as she falls. Upon reaching the bottom of the rabbit hole Alice catches up with the rabbit just long enough to see him scurry off, complaining about how late he is.
Upon turning a corner after the rabbit, Alice finds herself alone in a room of locked doors. On a glass table in the middle of the room she found a very small key which did not fit any of the doors. After some searching she discovers a very small door behind a curtain. She opens that door with the key and sees that the door leads out into a beautiful garden she wishes she could get to. However, the doorway is too small, preventing Alice from passing out into the garden. This problem is resolved when Alice turns back to the table and finds a vial of liquid on it that says "DRINK ME." The potion shrinks Alice to ten inches in height and she heads to the door only to find that it is still locked, and the key remains on the glass table now out of reach. Disappointed, Alice almost cries, but then she scolds herself as an adult might, and in effect, pulls herself together. It is at this point that Alice finds a piece of cake in a box marked "EAT ME" on the floor. Concluding that the cake will probably make her grow big, Alice eats the whole thing.
The most important thing introduced in this chapter is Alice's fluctuating sense of self. Alice, meant to be a girl of about eleven or so, is on the cusp of adolescence. But what does she want to be? If she shrinks to a child-like size to get through the doorway into what seems to be the garden of childhood, then she is too small to reach the key to open that door. She is trapped in a kind of paradox. Throughout the chapter Alice is "trying on" her adult self. She speaks in a learned manner, even when she isn't quite sure what she is speaking about, and she often creates in her own mind an adult personality to check her childish impulses.
This split personality of Alice's will become the core problem of the book. Is it more important to enjoy the nonsense of childhood unaware, or should order be imposed on one's life at the expense of some of that joy?
Ultimately, in the very opening of the book, Alice is already asking herself: "Do I want to grow up, or do I want to stay small?"