I’m still reading Anna Karenina, which, as you may know, contains one of the most famous opening lines in the history of literature:
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
That got me thinking about other opening lines that I especially like, and before long, I had a list. For now, we’ll focus only on works of fiction, and maybe first lines of poetry will be its own post.
William Shakespeare, Hamlet
BERNARDO: “Who’s there?”
For Shakespeare especially, opening lines were extremely important. Because Elizabethan theater typically lacked backdrops, creative lighting, and costuming, it was all up to the actors and the playwright to establish the atmosphere of the play. In this case, we begin with a brief exchange between Bernardo and Francisco, two guards at Elsinore, who, meeting each other in the dead of night, aren’t certain of who the other person is. From the very beginning of the play, there’s a sense of unease, suspicion, and wariness that carries on throughout.
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.
For a story that’s as intense and emotionally-charged as Jane Eyre, I always thought this was a really prosaic way to begin. But like the first lines of Hamlet, this helps set the tone for us: this is the only world that young Jane knew, one that was dark, dreary, and confining. One that, at every turn, tries to stifle her self-determination.
Charles Williams, War in Heaven
The telephone was ringing wildly, but without result, as there was no one in the room except the corpse.
Although Williams can sometimes seem labyrinthine and exclusionary, he does know how to pique a reader’s interest if he wants to, in this case, mixing a shocking crime with a kind of droll, black humor.
C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
There once was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
I’ll confess right now that I haven’t read the whole Narnia series, and that I wasn’t a terribly big fan of the books that I did read. Still, I can’t forget this line, if only because it tells you everything you need to know about the insufferable Eustace Scrubb in the least space possible.
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
It was a pleasure to burn.
Here’s another short and sweet line that cuts to the heart of who this book’s protagonist is, or at least, who he is at the beginning of the story. For Guy Montag, burning books is not just a job or a duty that he performs for the good of his fellow citizens, it’s recreation. It’s fun. This gets to the root not just of Guy’s problems but of the problems of the entire society he lives in: not only have their mind been corrupted, but their hearts have as well. They get joy from the wrong things, they see value in what is senseless and are blind to it where it truly exists.
That’s all for now. How about you? What are some of your favorite first lines from literature? Let me know in the comments!