A Few Words about First Lines

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!

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10 thoughts on “A Few Words about First Lines

  1. James Joyce, Ulysses: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”

    Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red: “He came after Homer and before Gertrude Stein, a difficult interval for a poet.

    Zhuangzi: “In the darkness of the north there is a fish, whose name is Vast.” (Palmer, trans.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” – classic! Likewise, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
    I’ve tried for something interest-piquing in my own first line: “One day, Lily promised herself, I will walk down the stairs alone.
    Dickens or Austen it ain’t, but at least it’s better than “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” And to think they offered him the crown of Greece!

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  3. Oh, fun. 🙂
    A Chesterton mouthful from his autobiography:
    “Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and baptised according to the formularies of the Church of England in the little church of St. George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge. ”

    “This is the Gododdin, Aneirin sang it,” Rosemary Sutcliff, The Shining Company

    The Great Gatsby – “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”

    And of course “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

    Liked by 1 person

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