What are your favorite first lines?

Yesterday, my friend Kori pointed me to a piece in the Atlantic in which authors choose their favorite opening lines, and write little paragraphs about their reasoning, or, in Margaret Atwood’s case, a tweet:

“Call me Ishmael.” 3 words. Power-packed. Why Ishmael? It’s not his real name. Who’s he speaking to? Eh?

That’s my favorite of the lot. My own favorite first line, however, is a tossup between Hamlet and Jane Eyre.

Hamlet begins with Bernardo’s challenge, “Who’s there?” — and the interpretive possibilities are endless. Is he afraid? Full of bravado? Why is a soldier, on duty in his own kingdom, challenging someone else in uniform? Is it nighttime? Is he speaking to us, the audience? Who’s the “who”? How do we define ourselves? How do we answer?

Shakespeare offers at least as many questions in two words as Melville does in three.

Now, on to Jane Eyre: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” Why not? Who was planning on walking? What’s the significance of “that” day?

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

This line has more meaning as you progress through the novel (and if you haven’t, now’s the time to stop reading this post so I don’t ruin the experience for you. And seriously, go read Jane Eyre!).

Of course, “that” day is the day that John Reed throws a book at Jane’s head and Mrs. Reed sends Jane to the Red Room, which precipitates her move to Lowood, and, eventually, Thornfield Hall. And while Jane and her cousins remain inside on account of the rain, in a few short weeks, she and the other unfortunate girls at Lowood will be exposed to all manner of the elements. Jane often walks when others think she ought not to, or when she has no other choice. For instance, it’s on a long walk alone (despite the protestations of Mrs. Fairfax) that she meets Mr. Rochester, and it’s alone again that she makes her way through the fields to the Riverses’ cottage.

But where would Jane have ended up if she had been able to walk that day?

What are your favorite first lines?

6 thoughts on “What are your favorite first lines?

  1. “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo…..

    This is the first line from my MOM’S ancient copy of Little Women, which I read over and over and over again growing up. As a child, Christmas with no presents (even the simplest) was inconceivable to me and the reasons for the March family’s sparse holiday revealed to me the attractiveness and virtue of living in such humble simplicity, where the smallest, most honest gifts mean the most.

    This line also signals that the main character and conflict in the novel is Jo March, with whom I developed an integral relationship as a young girl. She is so much like me in every way and I found in her a character I could claim as a friend — this was a pivotal moment for me as a young reader. The line above sets the entire course of Jo’s journey to conquer her selfishness and willfulness as she learns to do more for others. I love this.

    Great post, Carolyn! And for the record, I love the lines you chose, as well — and the Moby Dick lines, well, they simply teleport you right into the story, don’t they?

    • I love Little Women too! And Jo March is one of my favorites, very much in the same category of strong-willed, good-hearted heroines as Jane Eyre. I’d forgotten that it begins with the March family’s Christmas; maybe I’ll pick it up again this December! Thanks for reminding me of such a lovely story.

  2. Love this! I am fond of the first line of du Maurier’s Rebecca: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” I also like the first line of Pride and Prejudice, and at the risk of butchering it, I’ll warn you that this is a paraphrase. Something like, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man will be in want of a good wife….” I guess I could look it up but I’m too lazy! 🙂

  3. I hate to admit this, but I’ve owned Rebecca for years and haven’t read it . . . but I love the movie. P&P is always a classic — I’ve read it so many times I think I have it down: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Ah, delicious satire.

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