World Library  

Famous First Lines

Famous First Lines
  • Pride and Prejudice (by )
  • Moby Dick; Or the Whale (by )
  • Anna Karenina (by )
  • 1984 (by )
  • A Tale Of Two Cities (by )
  • The Good Soldier (by )
  • The story of don Quixote and his squire ... (by )
  • Catch 22 a Novel (by )
  • Fahrenheit 451 (by )
Scroll Left
Scroll Right

The best books hook readers from the very first line, which inspires the reader to read further. Great opening lines go beyond the fairy tale beginning of “Once upon a time” to evoke emotion and grab attention. The opening line sets the stage and establishes the tone of the narrative. In some books, like Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen, the first line establishes the tenor for an entire genre: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Herman Melville began his blockbuster novel, Moby Dick; Or the Whale (1851), with a three-word command: “Call me Ishmael.”

Leo Tolstoy began Anna Karenina (1877) with an evocative discernment of families: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

In his chilling portrayal of a grim, dystopian future, George Orwell’s book 1984 (1949) begins with a jarring non sequitur: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Charles Dickens showcased the gap between the haves and the have-nots of the Industrial Revolution in his book A Tale of Two Cities (1859): “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.”

J. D. Salinger established his iconic character’s sardonic, bitter personality in the first line of The Catcher in the Rye (1951): “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.”
In 1915, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier lured readers into its pages with a simple lament: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”

Miguel de Cervantes began his tale of a mad knight tilting at windmills in a futile effort to fight for noble ideals in Don Quixote (1605) from a storyteller’s perspective: “Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.”

Kurt Vonnegut narrates from an observer’s perspective in Slaughterhouse-Five (1969): “All this happened, more or less.”

Toni Morrison delivers a shock with the first line of Paradise (1998): “They shoot the white girl first.”

Joseph Heller’s notorious book of absurdity, Catch-22 (1961) begins with a tease: “It was love at first sight.”

W. Somerset Maugham intrigues readers with the promise of dark things in The Razor’s Edge (1944): “I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.”
In Middle Passage (1990), Charles Johnson condemns an entire gender: “Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I've come to learn, is women.”

In 1963, Sylvia Plath began her haunting novel, The Bell Jar, with this eerie line: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.”

Ray Bradbury’s modern classic Fahrenheit 451 (1953) begins with a short, chilling sentence: “It was a pleasure to burn.”

The narrator speaks with down-home command in The Color Purple (1981) by Alice Walker: “You better not never tell nobody but God.”

From centuries ago to modern times, the effect of a great first line never ceases to hook readers and draw them into worlds that careen from wonder to despair. Enjoy the ride.

By Karen M. Smith

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from World eBook Library on the Kindle are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.