Favorite First Sentences

Emma over at Blue Chicken Ninja just offered a list of her favorite first sentences, and I thought it looked like a delightful exercise. Looking back over them, there are so many framing elements that I missed the first time through. But I won’t get into that, so you don’t have to worry about spoilers!

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.

I’m still not sure about how to express it, but this line was momentous in how I understand narrative. First sentences usually define how I read the particular book, not books in general.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Snowman wakes before dawn.

One sentence gives us the bleak, minimalist, dehumanized world. If you’ve read Atwood’s lovely poetry, don’t be surprised by the bastardized language in this book. It’s all that’s left of Snowman and his world. In some ways, this is a story about reclaiming our role as storyteller.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days.

What I absolutely love about this line is that so much of the narrative is about what occupies the narrator’s mind, namely the qualities of a great butler and a certain Miss Kenton… Oh yeah, and sometimes there’s room for his dad, but only if it furthers his musings on greatness.

Sartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle

Considering our present advanced state of culture, and how the Torch of Science has now been brandished and borne about, with more or less effect, for five thousand years and upwards; how, in these times especially, not only the Torch still burns, and perhaps more fiercely than ever, but innumerable Rush-lights and Sulphur-matches, kindled thereat, are also glancing in every direction, so that not the smallest cranny or doghole in Nature or Art can remain unilluminated,–it might strike the reflective mind with some surprise that hitherto little or nothing of a fundamental character, whether in the way of Philosophy or History, has been written on the subject of Clothes.

Yes, that’s one sentence. And yes, it makes me laugh every time. But it’s not all just Victorian fun and games. What can a philosophy of clothes tell us about injustice…

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

Even though I know how the book ends, even though Julie Fromer has an excellent reading of how the tea ceremony traps women, I still love this sentence. It makes me want to have tea right now.

The Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton

Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and baptised according to the formularies of the Church of England in the little church of St. George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge.

Good ol’ Chesterton, making us see afresh the things we do every day.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Yeah, Eco just did that. I had trouble figuring out what to count as the first line. There’s the introduction to the “manuscript,” then the prologue of that manuscript quoted above, and finally the first sentence of the book proper: “It was a beautiful day at the end of November.”

What are your favorite first sentences?

6 Responses

  1. O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
    The brightest heaven of invention,
    A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
    And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

    -Henry V

    I remember reading this in high school and thinking… Wow, this is gonna be a good play. And it was/is.

  2. Jane Austen was great at first sentences. Aside from the one almost everyone knows from Pride and Prejudice, I’ll offer this from Emma:
    “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” We are perfectly prepared for a naïve and rather spoiled young lady, who only SEEMS to unite some of the best blessings of existence! I enjoyed this piece, Christopher. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

css.php Skip to content