Best Beginnings of Novels
Some opening lines raise our curiosity and introduce so many possibilities that it's almost impossible to stop reading.
An opening sentence can plunge us into an unknown world, present a mystery, throw us into a peculiar point of view, or make an assertion that we can mull over among many other things.
Here are a few of the great opening lines from classic novels that have propelled numerous readers into their stories.
I hope you find your favorites, and discover some new ones.
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Best Opening Lines of Novels
Nineteen Eighty-Four: George Orwell
"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. 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."
Citizens are on military time and Winston's inability to outrun the swirl of gritty dust suggests Victory Mansions probably isn't as appealing as it sounds. This is confirmed shortly when we're told that "the hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats." We will soon be introduced to some of the most memorable ideas in fiction such as Thought Police, Doublethink, and BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU. It's a society where the protagonist, Winston Smith, isn't even sure what year it is and any deviation from government sanctioned orthodoxy will get a person "vaporized." Our interest is immediately captured as we wonder if Winston can fight this oppressive system and find allies to help him.
The Stranger: Albert Camus
“Mother died today. Or perhaps yesterday, I don’t know.”
This is one of the best known first lines and one of the most surprising. We know immediately that there’s something really different about this narrator. Is he depressed? Is he antisocial? Is he unbelievably busy?
We have to read on to find out how he sees the world and where it’s going to lead him.
Moby Dick: Herman Melville
"Call me Ishmael."
Not, "My name is Ishmael." What is his real name? Why doesn't he tell us? The pseudonym makes us think of the Biblical Ishmael, Abraham's son, who was exiled. Is the narrator an outcast, or is he isolated?
This opening is perfectly concise. No words can be cut. It can't be rewritten in fewer words. It is rare to read a sentence that packs more meaning into three words.
Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austen
"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."
The reader is aware that this "truth" isn't universally acknowledged. The dramatic irony is felt throughout this entertaining comedy of manners. Full of interesting characters and witty dialogue, this novel is one of the all-time greatest.
Metamorphosis: Franz Kafka
"When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect."
No explanation. It's difficult not to read on after this. We continue with a sense of uncertainty and curiosity to find out what Gregor is going to do with this surprise.
Ethan Frome: Edith Wharton
“I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.”
The narrator has put a lot of work into researching this story so it must have been interesting to him. Knowing that he could only get small bits of it at one time tells us that people weren’t comfortable talking about it. Hearing that not everyone is in agreement makes us wonder which version we are going to get. It might also suggest that the overall message of the story is more important than the exact details.
Middlemarch: George Eliot
“Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.”
Middlemarch begins with a prelude, so this isn’t really the first line of the novel. This elegant sentence opens chapter 1, though, so I’m including it anyway.
The first thing we’re told about the protagonist is that her beauty stands out despite her “poor dress.” Why is that trait given such a prominent position? Does her “poor dress” tell us about her finances, or does she eschew finery for noble reasons?
That her beauty “seems to be thrown into relief” (an artistic term for a projection from the surface) makes her seem like the subject of a painting or sculpture; this is reinforced in the following sentence.
Anna Karenina: Leo Tolstoy
"All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
The unhappy families are more interesting and Tolstoy wastes no time getting into the drama of the story. The next few sentences tell us that everything was upset in the Oblonsky household because Stephen's wife caught him cheating with their governess.
One of the most recognizable first lines in literature begins a novel that addresses death, the contradictions in life, and the many small pleasures that keep us going.
Slaughterhouse Five: Kurt Vonnegut
"All this happened, more or less."
And as the reader, we get to figure out which is which. We know we're listening to an unreliable narrator, but one who knows he might be misleading us.
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