Great opening lines of great novels



The first line of a novel is important. It introduces the theme, sets the tone, prepares the stage for the story to unfold and invites the reader to participate in the adventure.

There are many novels with good or even great opening lines. Here are some of my favourites, arranged in chronological order.

  • “Once upon a time…” This centuries-old line opens many fairy tales and still has the power to put a sparkle into the eyes of children the world over. It was used by Charles Perrault (French: il était une fois), Hans Christian Andersen (Danish: der var engang), the brothers Grimm (German: es war einmal), as well as many others.
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen, 1813) starts with the sentence that succinctly describes the theme of the novel. It also sets the mercilessly mocking tone with which the authoress treats for the foolish, vain or pompous characters.
  • “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” The little girl growing up in a restrictive and abusive household; the adolescent suffering privations and oppression in a boarding school for poor girls; the intelligent young woman thwarted by lack of opportunities in the 19th century Britain… all of that is summed up in the desolate “there was no possibility…” opening line of Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte, 1847).
  • “Call me Ishmael.” Even people who never read Mobi Dick (Herman Melville, 1851) know this opening line. This “call me Ishmael” immediately establishes a relationship between the narrator and the reader and piques latter’s curiosity. (“Call me…?” And what is his real name?)
  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Even the first of several contrasting clauses that open A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens, 1859) powerfully conveys how great social upheavals bring out the best and the worst in men and women.
  • “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The famous opening line of Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy, 1877) is a sweeping generalisation that invites the reader to agree with it – or to dispute it. And to read the novel in order to find out how this claim will be proven by the story.
  • “One morning Gregor Samsa woke in his bed from uneasy dreams and found he had turned into a large verminous insect.” Told in a matter-of-fact manner, the shocking and disturbing first sentence of The Metamorphosis (Franz Kafka, 1915) plunges the reader into the world of the absurd from the word go.
  • “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.” Of course the reader wants to know why Laura drove off a bridge! The denouement comes only towards the end of The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood, 2000), but there’s never a dull moment in between.

If any of the novels from the list are unfamiliar to you, I hope that their opening lines will prompt you to give them a read. They are waiting for you in the bidorbuy book store!