Saturday, February 14, 2009

In the Beginning...

In a recent post I said that a novel written by Thomas H. Cook, Breakheart Hill, had a first line that reminded me of the first line of a favorite novel of mine, Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier. Ford began his novel with "This is the saddest story I have ever heard," while Cross started with "This is the darkest story that I ever heard."

Several days later, I turned to the first page of another novel and found awaiting me the following: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness..." Of course, Dickens' Tale of Two Cities is a unique novel in that it is the only one that I am aware of that not only has one of the most famous opening sentences in literature, but also one of the most famous endings in literature: it is Sidney Carton's soliloquy that ends the novel: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

This set me off thinking about well-known beginnings; just hearing them brings back memories of the works involved. I suspect many of them would be recognized even by people who had never read the texts.

Part of the popularity of these openings is the relationship to the novel. For example, Ford's narrator, Dowell, and Cook's narrator, Ben, tell us that this story is one that they heard. It's as if they also are readers, and not participants as we would expect. What's intriguing about this is the puzzle creates for the reader--just why do Dowell and Ben tell us this is a story they heard?

Another well-known opening, perhaps, some might argue, the most famous in English literature, is "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." I suspect this is more "universally acknowledged" among mothers of marriageable young ladies than it is among single men with good fortunes. And, in Austen's Pride and Prejudice, we see how this works out, with three marriages taking place between the covers of the book. A careful reading will show that actually only one of the single men involved was in want of a wife, and he was the one without a fortune. Perhaps Bingley and Darcy didn't know they were wanting a wife, in the beginning anyway.

Melville's Moby Dick is longer than any of the novels I've mentioned so far, so it is only fitting that it has one of the shortest opening sentences: "Call me Ishmael!" He's being bit evasive here as he says to call him Ishmael, not that his name is Ishmael. In the Bible, Ishmael is the son of Abraham and his wife's servant Hagar. Abraham disowned him and drove both Ishmael and Hagar out into the wilderness when his wife, Sarah, gave birth to Issac. Ishmael now has the meaning of a exile or outcast. Who is Melville's Ishmael?

A opening to a work that I suspect is the most widely read and recognized would be from Genesis--

"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
2. And the earth was without form, and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
3. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light."

Along with being one of the most widely-known opening lines, it is no doubt one of the most influential opening lines.

Novels aren't alone in producing memorable opening statements. Beethoven's opening to his Fifth Symphony is recognized by many who have never heard the entire symphony. And, I wouldn't be surprised if hundreds of people could identify and finish the following opening to a TV show that ran more than forty years ago: "Space. The Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the ..." George Lucas was also well aware of the importance of the opening statement when he began the "Star Wars" series, not with an opening action scene, but with a text message that slowly scrolled its way from the bottom to the top of the screen: "A long time ago in a galaxy far away..." That evoked memories of an opening statement that is almost a cliche: "Once upon a time...," surely the most common opening, in English anyway, for a fantasy tale.

I have a few personal favorites too:

"Whose woods these are I think I know,
His house is in the village though.
He won't see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow."


"Awake! For Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that put the stars to flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light."

How about you?

Any favorite openers?

Or, ones that I've forgotten?


  1. Great post, Fred! I don't have any samples for you, but I find the start of a book to be extremely important. Unfortunately, I've passed my 'great novels' stage of life and read little more than science fiction these days. But as a book-lover, I enjoy posts like this.

    One note: Starting a book with a narrator, or indicating that it was discovered as a manuscript or in a letter, was just the style back then, don't you think? There was no pretense than the book was anything but fiction, but it was still given that kind of... realistic wrapper.

    These days, authors generally don't bother. They just go directly to the story. Partly, that's just the modern style, I suppose. But we've also seen that putting the story inside a wrapper (that supposedly explains how we have the story to read) is simply unnecessary. I don't think there's any more to it than that. Do you?

  2. WCG,

    Thanks for the kind words. They are appreciated.

    I think the "discovered" or "uncovered" manuscript or letter serves two purposes. One is the point you made--to give a sense of verisimilitude to the work. This isn't something "made up" but an actual account of an event or series of events.

    The second relates to the "don't kill the messenger" issue. It's a disclaimer that the writer is not responsible for the text or anything in the text. The writer is simply faithfully reporting what was in the manuscript or letter--"Don't blame me for whatever you find that you don't like."

    This goes back a long way. Chaucer, in his General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, says we shouldn't blame him for what follows because he's only trying to faithfully report what each of the pilgrims said, and in their own way of speaking.

    I had one more example that I didn't bring up. I took a writing course many decades ago, during which the instructor discussed the need of a "grabber" for short stories. He quoted what he considered to be one of the best grabbers he had read, and I was surprised to find it a very familiar example, a opening sentence that had stayed with me for many years.

    "On and on Coeurl prowled. The black, moonless, almost starless night yielded reluctantly before a grim reddish dawn that crept up from his left. It was a vague light that gave no sense of approaching warmth. It slowly revealed a nightmare landscape."

    This is the opening of AE van Vogt's excellent short story, "The Black Destroyer." which later became the first part of his novel, _The Voyage of the Space Beagle_.