9 Famous Opening Lines of Novels – and Why We Love Them
One of the hardest things on the long list of ‘hard things a novelist has to do’ is writing the opening line.
It’s the line that sets the tone for the rest of the novel. It’s the line that must capture the reader’s interest so that they continue to read (or buy the book having read the opening line). And it’s the line that, if done well, has the potential to be the one that everyone remembers and quotes. It takes great skill to craft the perfect opening to a novel, and doing so is one of the hallmarks of a brilliant writer. A bad opening line can be the downfall of a writer, too – thanks to his famously terrible opening to Paul Clifford, ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’, Edward Bulwer-Lytton now has a fiction contest for terrible first lines named after him! Thankfully, other writers have had more success; here are some of our favourites and what makes them so memorable.
1. “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”
– The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka (1915)
The genius of this opening line is that it’s unsettling and shocking, but it’s written in such an essentially run-of-the-mill way that the reader feels that this is a perfectly ordinary predicament that could befall anyone. This lulls us into believing that the story could really happen, and in doing so, we feel sympathy with Gregor right from the start. The Metamorphosis was written in German, so this is in translation; “monstrous vermin” is a literal translation of “ungeheures Ungeziefer”. It’s never made clear what kind of vermin poor Gregor has turned into, but it’s popularly interpreted as a giant insect of some kind. The opening line summarises the premise of the novel, at the same time as forcing the reader to recall the times they too have awoken from uneasy dreams; it’s uncomfortably realistic in spite of its improbability. The rest of the story is told in a similarly ordinary style, dealing largely with the hardships Gregor must undergo in his new state – particularly emotionally, because he endures social isolation as he’s pushed away by his repulsed family. The subject matter may be quite horrific, but it’s a tale that manages to tug at the reader’s heartstrings all the same.
2. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
– The Hobbit, Tolkien (1932)
This matter-of-fact opening line marks the beginning not just of The Hobbit, but of a vast swathe of literature set in a mythological fantasy world of Tolkien’s own creation: Middle Earth. Its simplicity is what makes it work so well as an opening line; its style is akin to the opening of a children’s fairytale (“Once upon a time there was a prince”), but it’s twisted into something unexpected; what is a hobbit? Why does he live in the ground, and in what sort of hole? Tolkien’s unassuming opening immediately captures the reader’s imagination and makes one want to learn more. Equally, however, the story behind this famous first line is a major part of its enduring appeal. Writing to the poet W.H. Auden in 1955, Tolkien revealed that he’d been marking School Certificate papers in his role as Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford in the early 1930s, when he was hit by sudden inspiration and wrote down on a blank sheet of paper, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” By 1932 the story was finished and Middle Earth was introduced to the public, to such great acclaim that a sequel was requested – the commission that would become the mighty Lord of the Rings epic.
3. “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”
– Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1985)
In an opening characteristic of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s evocative style and vivid imagination, the author begins Love in the Time of Cholera by setting up the theme of the book: unrequited love. He does so in an interesting way, by unusually pairing a sense (smell) with a concept (unrequited love). The “bitter” almond smell echoes the bitterness of those consigned to the “fate” of unreturned love, but a further surprise awaits the reader just sentences later. Reading on, we find that the smell of bitter almonds comes not from the romantic almond tree setting one could be forgiven for having initially imagined, but from the cyanide vapours someone has used in order to commit suicide and escape the pain of unrequited love. The person we are following is a doctor, Dr Juvenal Urbino, and we’re already hooked. The words “inevitable” and “always” mentioned in this opening line imply that this is something the doctor has experienced a number of times in the past, as if this is the only possible solution for those who’ve been dealt this miserable fate. This dramatic idea – going to the ultimate extremes for love – is one that underpins the novel, and it’s part of the intoxicating mixture of realism and fantasy for which Marquez was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature – for his “richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts”.
4. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
– Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier (1938)
In Daphne du Maurier’s Gothic classic Rebecca, these haunting words begin the narrative of the nameless second wife of Mr. de Winter, owner of a large country estate called Manderley. The poetic sound to this sentence is achieved through the use of meter, specifically iambic hexameter (12 syllables, with the stress on every second syllable). As the opening line suggests, the entire tale is told retrospectively, from a time and place far away from the dramatic and distressing events the second Mrs. de Winter has lived through. This brooding narrative construct immediately raises the question: what happened between then and now? Why is she no longer at Manderley? The gripping tale that unfolds has been so popular that the book has never gone out of print, with readers remembering it as much for the sinister Mrs. Danvers as for its lyrical opening.
5. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
– Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (1813)
Jane Austen’s playful authorial tone of voice is evident right from the beginning of her most famous work. It’s hard to escape the hint of sarcasm in this opening line, which refers not to the book’s famous hero Mr. Darcy, but to his friend Mr. Bingley, whom the Bennet family has just learned is shortly to move into nearby Netherfield Park. Jane Austen’s reputation for being slightly cruel in some of her portrayals of the more ridiculous characters in her novels comes to the fore in her depiction of Mrs. Bennet, a hysterical creature desperate to marry off her six daughters; it’s Mrs. Bennet’s assumptions we see echoed in the opening line. When Austen penned those immortal words in 1813, she could scarcely have imagined that her novel would be enjoying greater success than ever over two hundred years later. Thanks in part to the likes of Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth and other adaptations, Pride and Prejudice has become one of the nation’s favourite novels.
6. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
– Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)
Orwell begins his masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four on an ominous note that continues throughout this dystopian novel, with the unexpected and jarring use of the number thirteen. Considered by many people to be a number that brings ill-fortune, this isn’t the only reason why its inclusion is so unsettling. Clocks don’t strike thirteen; although thirteen is one o’clock in the afternoon on the 24-hour clock, traditional clocks operate on twelve hours, and 1pm is normally a single strike. The mood achieved by this opening line feels off-kilter, making the reader feel uneasy – a feeling only heightened by the words that follow: “Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him. The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats.” The sense is one of oppression – a central theme in this influential novel, which charts the protagonist’s efforts to rebel against ‘the Party’, a totalitarian government that annihilates all opposition.
7. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
– Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (1878)
A generalisation perhaps, but it’s certainly one that rings true during the course of this weighty Russian novel, which is populated by unhappy families each struggling with their own problems. Believed by many to be among the greatest novels ever written, Anna Karenina is the story of an aristocratic woman who has an extra-marital affair. Anna Karenina sees Tolstoy playing around with an older, out-of-fashion genre of Russian literature, one based around the idea of family, to make his own point about family life. He shows that even those families whose lives appear idealised are in fact unhappy, and notably, this opening sentence is written in the present tense – contrasting with the past tense used elsewhere and marking it out as a philosophical statement from the author himself. It’s a statement that makes us ponder over which of these two black-and-white categories we fall into ourselves; do we want to be happy, but with nothing to distinguish us from everyone else? Or are we unhappy in our own special way? It’s not immediately obvious which is better, but it echoes Tolstoy’s belief that to be individual, and human, is to accept that we will be unhappy.
8. “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.”
– A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens (1859)
The contrasts in the opening of Dickens’ historical novel A Tale of Two Cities prepare us for the tensions and conflicts we shall witness during this tale set in London and Paris in the run-up to and during the French Revolution. The author’s use of contrasting sets of clauses, with the second in the pair repeating the wording of the first, suggests the idea of an equally balanced struggle, fundamentally that between good and evil. It also introduces a recurring motif, that of pairs (of which the title’s two cities are the most obvious example); the novel follows the fortunes of – and draws parallels and contrasts between – characters in Paris and in London. It could also be said that the gravity of this long opening sentence prepares us for the fact that this is one of Dickens’ least humorous novels.
9. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
– The Go-Between, L.P. Hartley (1953)
We end this selection of memorable opening lines on a philosophical note with one of the most famous opening lines of all time. This pearl of wisdom sets the reader up for a novel that revolves around retrospection and nostalgia, the loss of innocence and the recollection of painful memories. The cleverness of this famous first line is that it sounds like an oft-cited proverb; indeed, it has since become one thanks to the novel’s great success.
These opening lines have all etched themselves into the hearts and minds of generations of readers, but it’s only when you stop to analyse them that you begin to appreciate just how cleverly crafted these immortal lines really are. Often featuring unexpected twists, always hooking readers from the outset, these fine first lines open equally fine novels that should be high on your reading list if you haven’t already enjoyed them.
Image credits: banner; beetle; ring; Cartagena; Rebecca; Chatsworth; 1984; Garbo; revolution; St Benet’s Abbey.
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