23 May 2012


James Joyce 
Ulysses (1922)
“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” This is the classic third-person opening to the 20th-century novel that has shaped modern fiction, pro and anti, for almost a hundred years. As a sentence, it is possibly outdone by the strange and lyrical beginning of Joyce’s final and even more experimental novel, Finnegans Wake: “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice (1813)
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” The one everyone knows (and quotes). Parodied, spoofed, and misremembered, Austen’s celebrated zinger remains the archetypal First Line for an archetypal tale. Only Dickens comes close, with the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities: “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 etc…”

Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre (1847)
“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” The polar opposite to Austen and Dickens, this line plunges the reader into the narrative, but in a low-key tone of disappointed expectations that captures Jane Eyre’s dismal circumstances. Brontë nails Jane’s hopeless prospects in 10 words. At the same time, the reader can hardly resist turning the first page. There’s also the intriguing contrast in tone with her sister Emily, who opens Wuthering Heights with: “I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.”

Mark Twain
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
“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. That book was made by a Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.” The influence of this opening reverberates throughout the 20th century, and nowhere more so than in JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye: “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 all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

PG Wodehouse
The Luck of the Bodkins (1935)
“Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.” A classic English comic opening, perfectly constructed to deliver the joke in the final phrase, this virtuoso line also illustrates its author’s uncanny ear for the music of English. Contrast the haunting brevity of Daphne du Maurier in Rebecca, partly situated in the south of France, and also published in the 1930s: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Ten more of the best first lines in fiction according to the Guardian newspaper.

So which is your favourite first line amongst today's books?
OR perhaps you have a suggestion of your own as to which first line you think is worthy of a place in the Top 10 Of First Lines.


anilkurup said...

Typically excellent openings. Difficult to choose from. But perhaps, perhaps I go with Charolete Bronte's.

Kimberly @ On the Wings of Books said...

This is excellent. I can't wait for the other top ten list of best openings.

NRIGirl said...

Twain gets my vote!

Kelly said...

Love this post!! The Wodehouse opener is by far my favorite, followed by the Bronte.

Looking forward to the others!!

When perusing books in a store, I always open them to read the first line. It can make or break a story.

GMR said...

Going with the Jane Austen pick (classic indeed) and A Tale of Two Cities (simply that it is remembered with the length it is alone!).

Great post! ^_^

John McElveen said...

Tough- but Salinger is hard to beat!!! Twain also GRABS ME! Loved this post!


Blond Duck said...

My favorite is from A Wrinkle in Time-- It was a dark and stormy night.

Melissa (Books and Things) said...

I can't pick. It wouldn't be fair. I just loved Jane Eyre too much. :)

I think it's interesting to compare all these first lines. I wonder how they compare to today's books as well.

Melissa (My World...in words and pages) said...

What a list of starters. Very popular ones. :) Thank you

animewookie said...

Very nice, i'm a fan of the Wodehouse opening line..need a bit of humor :D

Jenners said...

I love stuff like this … but I can never think of them on my own.

naida said...

Great post! You know Jane Austen
gets my vote :)

Betty Manousos said...

great list!! great post!
hmmm..difficult to choose from. i think i go with jane austen's :)