Best Opening Lines: Literature Edition

Susan last year did a great post on opening lines. It was all music though. So let’s switch it. What are your thoughts on the best opening lines in literature? There are some I love even when I’ve never read the book. (i.e. the classic, “it was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly a shot rang out.”)

So, in no particular order. Here are a few of mine.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. (Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)

I can’t stand to read Dickens. But I love that opening. It really sets the novel up. And let’s face it. If you hear those few few words you immediately recognize it.

Call me Ishmael. (Melville, Moby Dick)

Moby Dick, like Ulysses, is one of those books I’ve tried to read dozens of times but never quite made it far. Both also are not about what they appear to be about. They are odd musings on the nature of man and metaphysics told in quite an unique way. One day I hope to read them.

To break the pretentiousness of that paragraph let me say that the funniest thing I ever heard was someone doing a Gilbert Gottfried impersonation of Gottfried reading the first page of Moby Dick. I still laugh when I think about it.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. (Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)

An other classic I’ve never read although with perhaps fewer excuses than Melville and Joyce. But what a great line. If somewhat depressing. But then it is Russian literature.

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. (Lytton, Paul Clifford)

Never read it. Never will. I know it purely because of Snoopy. But it’s a classic opening line. See the wiki if you’re interested.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. (Tolkien, The Hobbit)

I just love this opening. There are a lot of great books with bad openings. But this really sets the stage for the book and Tolkien’s frankly extremely unique story telling style.

I’ll leave it there so you can add your own.

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47 thoughts on “Best Opening Lines: Literature Edition

  1. “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.”

    –Stephen King, “The Gunslinger.”

  2. Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler

    You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice–they won’t hear you otherwise–”I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell; “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.

    Gariel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

    Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

  3. I was also going to say One Hundred Years of Solitude, but Norbert beat me to it.

    A Wrinkle in Time also begins “It was a dark and stormy night…”

  4. 1. Kafka — Die Verwandlung:

    Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt.

    This is, of course, one of the most famous opening lines in all of literature and also one of the best.

    2. Henry James — The Portrait of a Lady:

    Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

    Not as obvious a great opening line, but it perfectly captures the essence of James — his work, and thisnovel, is very much an exploration of what the precise circumstances of “under certain circumstances” lead to the agreeableness or more likely disagreeableness of the small ceremonies of genteel, esp. English, life.

    3. Wilkie Collins — the Women in White:

    This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.

    What’s amazing about this opening line is that it explicitly states yet doesn’t fully capture the incredibly sinister nature of the story.

    4. Gabriel Garcia Marquez — The Autumn of the Patriarch:

    Over the weekend the vultures got into the presidential palace by pecking through the screens on the balcony windows and the flapping of their wings stirred up the stagnant time inside, and at dawn on Monday the city awoke out of its lethargy of centuries with the warm, soft breeze of a great man dead and rotting grandeur.

  5. I think Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice deserves a mention: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Sets the tone for the whole book. And yes, I’m an Austen apologist.

  6. “A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy ballon of a head.”

    After that you know it’s going to be good (A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole)

    “My wife Norma had run off with Guy Dupree and I was waiting around for the credit card billings to come in so I could see where they had gone.”

    (The Dog of the South – Charles Portis)

    “People were already beginning to forget we were veterans after the Second World War and that the government no longer owed us a living. Face-lifting, hair replacement, and breast enhancement hadn’t yet come into vogue and people still believed there were other kinds of contentment. Especially when television was just beginning to pleasantly paralyze the nation. The forces of commercialism and survival were hard at work doing a lot of us down, and I was at the time at a loose emotional end, as you might say, when she came into my life in the cold blue winter before Christmas.”

    (Wrong Information is being Given Out at Princeton – J. P. Donleavy)

    “I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that somber city – and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.”

    (The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow)

  7. I really want to read One Hundred Years of Solitude.

    I just went to my shelves and pulled out a few of my favorite books to see if any had good opening lines. Does a poem count? Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself has one of my faves:

    I celebrate myself;
    And what I assume you shall assume;
    For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you.

    Of course it’s even better when you read the final lines of the poem:

    Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
    Missing me one place, search another;
    I stop somewhere, waiting for you.

    Ordinary People by Judith Guest:

    To have a reson to get up in the morning, it is necessary to possess a guiding principle. A belief of some kind. A bumper sticker, if you will. People in cars on busy freeways call to each other Boycott Grapes, comfort each other Honk if You Love Jesus, joke with each other Be Kind to Animals, Kiss a Beaver. They identify, they summarize, they antagonize with statements of faith: I Have a Dream, Too—Law and Order; Jesus Saves at Chicage Fed, Rod McKuen for President.

    Lying on his back in bed, he gazes around the walls of his room, musing about what has happened to his collection of statements. They had been discreetly mounted on cardboard, and fastened up with push pins so as to not deface the walls. Gone now. Probably tossed out with the rest of the junk—all those eight by ten colorprints of the Cubs, White Sox, and Bears, junior high mementos. Too bad. It would be comforting to have something to look up to. Instead the walls are bare. They have been freshly painted. Pale blue. An anxious color. Anxiety is blue, failure grey. He knows those shades.

    A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry:

    It was Molly who drew the line.

    This is a young adult book I read as a kid and loved. I recently picked it up and re-read it to see if it was as good as I remembered. It is. It’s a really sad story. Molly and Meg are sisters, and Molly is the cheerleader, the popular one. Meg is quiet and shy and feels inferior. Molly dies.

    Catch 22 by Joseph Heller:

    It was love at first sight.

    The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.

    My favorite book, so funny and serious at the same time.

    Little Women by Louisa May Alcott:

    “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

    “It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

    “I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.

    “We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.

    Amazing how she establishes all four girl’s personalities in the first four sentences.

    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon:

    It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs Shears’ house. Its eyes were closed.

    The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy:

    My wound is geography.

    If you can’t tell, I love depressing books.

  8. Nice, Susan. Catch 22 and Curious Incident are fantastic. Here are my additions:
    Kenzaburo Oe, The Silent Cry:

    Awakening in the predawn darkness, I grope among the anguished remnants of dreams that linger in my consciousness, in search of some ardent sense of expectation. Seeking in the tremulous hope of finding eager expectancy reviving in the innermost recesses of my being — unequivocally, with the impact of whisky setting one’s guts afire as it goes down — still I find an endless nothing.

    Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red:

    I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well. Though I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what’s happened to me. As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below. As I fell, my head, which he’d smashed with a stone, broke apart; my face, my forehead and cheeks, were crushed; my bones shattered, and my mouth filled with blood.

    Irving Welsh, Trainspotting:

    The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling. Ah wis jist sitting thair, focusing oan the telly, tryin no tae notice the c**t. He wis bringing me doon. Ah tried tae keep ma attention oan the Jean-Claude Van Damme video.

    John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces:

    A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the gren visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D. H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste and dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.

  9. Tolstoy, Anna Karenina:

    Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

    Melville, Moby Dick:

    Call me Ishmael.

    They’re called classics for a reason.

  10. “Louie pulled off his bra and threw it down upon the casket.”

    –Nick Tosches, In the Hand of Dante

  11. Yeah, that King one is great. The first edition (before he rewrote it to blend with the rest of the series) is King’s best work ever. And it was all oriented around that opening line.

  12. “All children, except one, grow up.”

    - Peter Pan

    “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

    - Neuromancer

    “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”

    - The Call of Cthulu

  13. “Where’s Pa going with that ax?”, said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

    -Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White

    Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it once caught by her charms…

    -Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

    Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.

    -Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

    I am the vampire Lestat. I am immortal. More or less.

    -The Vampire Lestat, Anne Rice

  14. Clark:

    Good call on King. I completely agree. I’m still bitter about how that series fell to pieces (about half way through Wolves of Calla).

    And that Kafka opening line is from a short story (or novelette) — Metamorphosis.

    One of the best closing lines ever is from the Kafka short story “Ein Landarzt” (A Country Doctor):

    “Einmal dem Fehlläuten der Nachtglocke gefolgt – es ist niemals gutzumachen.” (Once a false alarm in the night is answered — it can never be made right. Never. [translation mine] )

  15. And I am of the opinion that it’s much easier to write a good opening line than a great closing one and that, on average, short stories usually have stonger opening and closing lines than novels. Of course, they have to.

  16. John, three great choices.

    William, I consider the Metamorphisis a novella myself. I really, really like his shorter works. Although I like the Metamorphisis as well. (Can you tell I don’t read German?) For some reason I assumed it was the opening to The Trial which is what so many quote for opening lines.

    Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.

    Regarding the Gunslinger series. He’d go to pot and then come back several times. The first two books were great. I really liked the fourth as well. But yeah, he definitely lost it towards the end.

  17. Salinger: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

    Nabakov: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”

    Orwell: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

    Twain: “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”

  18. An other one. While I loved Edgar Rice Burroughs as a kid (and even managed to collect several first editions of the early works) I have to admit that as an adult he’s hard to read. Still the opening to Tarzan of the Apes is great.

    I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other.

    Here’s an other good one. You’ll think it’s Ann Rice but it’s not. I’ll give you the book in a subsequent post.

    I am a very old man; how old I do not know. Possibly I am a hundred, possibly more; but I cannot tell because I have never aged as other men, nor do I remember any childhood. So far as I can recollect I have always been a man, a man of about thirty. I appear today as I did forty years and more ago, and yet I feel that I cannot go on living forever; that some day I shall die the real death from which there is no resurrection. I do not know why I should fear death, I who have died twice and am still alive; but yet I have the same horror of it as you who have never died, and it is because of this terror of death, I believe, that I am so convinced of my mortality.

    See if any of you can guess. (No googling…)

    BTW William. I think you’re right about opening lines vs. closing lines. But there are lots of great novels with so-so openings. And lots of great openings that don’t go far. But closing is hard in both novels and movies. Maybe next week I’ll do great closings. (Hint, the above book has an equally great closing)

    BTW2. Someone mentioned Lovecraft. He has both great openings and closings. I’ll see if I can’t post some of his great openings when I get home.

  19. I love that Confederacy of Dunces opening. Here’s a few others:

    Paul Auster, City of Glass

    It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.

    JG Ballard, Empire of the Sun

    Wars came early to Shanghai, overtaking each other like tides that raced up the Yangtze and returned to this gaudy city all the coffins cast adrift from the funeral piers of the Chinese Bund.

    Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm

    The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occured in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.

    Tom Robbins has great first lines, too, but I don’t have any in the house.

  20. 10th place of this year’s (2001) Bulwer Lytton contest (run by the English Dept of San Jose State University), wherein one writes only the first line of a bad novel.

    10) “As a scientist, Throckmorton knew that if he were ever to break wind in the echo chamber he would never hear the end of it.”

  21. “All this happened, more or less.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (Also, “Call me Jonah.” – Cat’s Cradle)

    “Who is John Galt?” – Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

    The first one I thought of was A Wrinkle in Time, as already mentioned.

    From a fascinating children’s book I recently read, that gripped me from start to finish:
    “It began as it always did with sweet, solitary notes of music that called to her from somewhere beyond the sky, a single piper’s cry that reached down for her and scooped her over roof tops and streets, office blocks and electric pylons, railway stations, shops, and parks.” – Pauline Fisk, Midnight Blue

    Here’s an interview with Nancy Pearl (you may know her from the librarian action-figure) on NPR about first lines.

  22. “Sitting beside the road, watching the wagon mount the hill toward her, Lena thinks, ‘I have come from Alabama: a fur piece’” – William Faulkner, Light in August

  23. I don’t know if Madeleine L’Engle was criticized a lot for her “It was a dark and stormy night” beginning line for “A Wrinkle In Time” … but she more than made up for it in the first line of “A Wind in the Door” … which has one of my favorite opening lines for a book. It reads:

    “There are dragons in the twins vegetable garden.”

    I don’t think it can get much more original or unusual than that one.

  24. What, no love for Dante?

    Midway along the journey of our life
    I woke to find myself in a dark wood

    Also, you have to give props to Brady Udall (The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint) for this:

    If I could tell you only one thing about my life it would be this: when I was seven years old the mailman ran over my head.”

  25. This one (Richard Bausch, Nobody in Hollywood) makes me chuckle too:

    I was pummeled as a teenager. For some reason I had the sort of face that asked to be punched.”

  26. There is an internal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives.

    Those who are lucky enough to find it, ease like water over a stone, on to its fluid contours, and are home.

    Josephine Hart – Damage

  27. “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing”

    Norman MacLean – A River Runs Through It

  28. “The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house all that cold, cold, wet day.” Dr. Seuss – The Cat In The Hat.

  29. No one guess that first line I gave? It’s from the first John Carter of Mars book: A Princess of Mars. I tried to read it last year and it was almost unreadable to my adult eyes. But I loved it as a kid. What’s weird is that there’s this mystic element to the beginning and end that is almost like a vampire novel. But he never does anything with it anywhere else.

  30. You know, I actually read that book when I was a kid too. It was an ancient edition from the 1920s or ’30s with pages gone sepia and woodblock illustrations. Very cool. And very weird, I seem to remember.

  31. All of the good classics have already been taken, so here’s a fantastic opening line from contemporary southern lit:

    “There are gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel’s, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus. I left one back there myself, back in Possett. I kicked it under the kudzu and left it for the roaches.” Joshilyn Jackson, Gods in Alabama

    And here’s another from what will become a classic:

    “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.” Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

  32. I a fan of the muscular writing of Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy. I’m at work and Amazon won’t let me see any excerpts from McCarthy, but here are a couple of good ones from Roth:

    “She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year in school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.”

    Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth

    “Either forswear f—ing or the affair is over… this was the ultimatum, the maddeningly improbable, wholly unforseen ultimatum, that the mistress of fifty-two delivered in tears to her lover of sixty-four on the anniversary of an attachment that had persisted with an amazing licentiousness — and that, no less amazingly, had stayed their secret — for thirteen years.

    Sabbath’s Theatre, by Philip Roth

    “My desert-island, top five most memorable split-ups, in chronological order: 1. Allison Ashworth; 2. Penny Hardwick; 3. Jackie Allen; 4. Charlie Nicholson; 5. Sarah Kendrew.”

    High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby

    John Irving’s work is pretty hit or miss, but A Prayer For Owen Meany has a classic opening line…

    “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice — not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

    A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

    “In the hospital of the orphanage — the boy’s division at St. Cloud’s, Maine — two nurses were in charge of naming the new babies and checking that their little penises were healing from the obligatory circumcision.”

    The Cider House Rules, by John Irving

  33. Sorry if someone already mentioned it, but I think Camus’ The Stranger MUST be on the list…
    “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours. That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.”

  34. “Charlie lived in a place where the illegal was legal, where the immoral was moral, and where some people’s fantasies were other people’s realities. So, he lived every day in anticipation of the fantastic. And why not? It was the night before his birthday, the start of another marvelous year in a place where anything could happen.”

    An Island Away by Daniel Putkowski

  35. The pond on the common froze in the night. Thirteen ducks were caught by their feet. The big dog came along and bit each bird off at the knee. Later, the sight of a stubble of duck stumps poking through the ice like a five o’clock shadow was to fracture Hazel’s morning.

    From: Broken Words by Helen Hodgman

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