“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” It is also a truth universally acknowledged that we’ve all heard the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice approximately a million times. And there’s a reason for that. The opening lines of classic novels have a tendency to become iconic, gaining lives of their own beyond the fame of the novel itself. There are certain opening lines that just work, especially when looking back at them after reading the novel. Lists such as these exist all over the internet, but of course everyone has certain openings they’re particularly partial to. Here is a list of some of my personal favorites, hopefully without too much of that David Copperfield kind of crap.
1. Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
“Though brilliantly sunny, Saturday morning was overcoat weather again, not just topcoat weather, as it had been all week and as everyone had hoped it would stay for the big weekend – the weekend of the Yale game. Of the twenty-some young men who were waiting at the station for their dates to arrive on the ten-fifty-two no more than six or seven were out on the cold, open platform. The rest were standing around in hatless, smoky little groups of twos and threes and fours inside the heated waiting room, talking in voices that, almost without exception, sounded collegiately dogmatic, as though each young man, in his strident, conversational turn, was clearing up, once and for all, some highly controversial issue, one that the outside, non-matriculating world had been bungling, provocatively or not, for centuries.”
Franny and Zooey is one of my favorite books, and this scene that J.D. Salinger sets right in the beginning makes me laugh every time. Straight away he gives us a peek at the haughty “elite” college students that are the main point of frustration for Franny. They sound insufferable and ridiculous, and we begin immersed among them. No one is innocent from this, even the main characters. Everyone in this book is a jerk in their own way. Everyone. And it’s great.
2. Beloved by Toni Morrison
“124 was spiteful.”
This first sentence incites that careful blend of creeped out and confused that lingers around for the rest of the novel. We soon come to find out that 124 Bluestone Road is the house where most of the supernatural-ish events of the novel take place. The house itself becomes a character in the story, and this opening sentence treats it as so, giving it a life of its own.
3. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
“Call me Jonas. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.”
I love this one on so many levels. For one thing, we have a parody of one of the most clichéd opening lines of literature ever: “Call me Ishmael” from Moby Dick, substituting one biblical name for another. In that novel, we never know for sure if the narrator’s name actually is Ishmael. So we can tell that John’s not the most reliable narrator, but the thing is, he gives up the act right away. The result is comedic but also revealing. He lets us know that he’s a liar both here and in the epigraph, which begins, “Nothing in this book is true.” We can trust him to be unreliable, which is somehow more comforting to me than a narrator I’m not sure about.
4. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time.”
Out of context, these opening sentences are a lovely metaphor for ambition. It is for this simple reason that I love them. In context, what follows essentially says that all women are better at achieving their goals than men, which is a bold generalization true to the attitudes of the main character Janie, but let’s just stick with appreciating the eloquent metaphor.
5. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
“First the colors.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try.
HERE IS A SMALL FACT
You are going to die.”
This opening thrusts you into the style of the novel, making you wonder at first what the heck is going on. We later find out that the narrator of the story is death, an aspect of this novel that I find amazing. The bold, centered declarations from like the one above that appear through the novel are some of my favorite parts about it. Basically, the opening is consistent with the rest of the book but enticing at first introduction.