“Firstborn” opens as Charles, the protagonist, is reading from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1886) to his wife, Katherine, who is in labor. She has fallen asleep, but he continues to read. He reads the part in which Pierre, realizing his feelings for Natasha, goes out under the Moscow skies and sees the comet of 1812, “a comet that is supposed to portend all sorts of disasters but for him speaks ’his own softened and uplifted soul, now blossoming into a new life.’” This quotation from War and Peace foreshadows the course of the story.
As Katherine sleeps, Charles thinks about their marriage four months earlier. She had been pregnant by then, and he had assumed that the child was his. Later, she confessed that there had been a relationship with another man but that the child was Charles’s, that she would not have married him if it were not. At first, he considered divorce but could not go through with it. Then followed a period of turmoil in their marriage. Finally, two weeks ago, as they were leaving a party, his anger had risen and he had impulsively kicked her and sent her sprawling on the icy sidewalk.
Now, although she is only seven months along in her pregnancy, Katherine is about to give birth. The contractions become more severe, and they leave for the hospital. The events leading to the birth and subsequent death of Nathaniel, their firstborn, follow. Later, after hearing that the child has died, Charles goes to a bar while Katherine lies alone in her hospital bed. Charles, during a chance meeting with Aggie, an aged prostitute, faces what he had previously avoided: He, too, had been having an affair. He hears “a faint whisper at his ear, Murderer. You’ll never quit paying for this.”
The final section of the story indicates that this incident is being related from the future, from the vantage point of several years and four children. The marriage has survived, but it is only at this point that Charles is finally released from his guilt and “freed into forgiveness, for himself, first, then for her, the rest falling into place.”