Famous First Lines

by J.D. Roth

The following block of text contains twenty-four famous first lines from novels. Or, more precisely, first lines from famous (and semi-famous) novels, novels that I’ve read in the past decade.

Most of you have some idea of what I like to read. I’ve simply scanned my fiction section, have pulled down some of my favorites, and have reproduced their opening lines below. Some are well-known. Others are relatively obscure. How many of them can you name? (Please google only as a last resort.)

  1. This is not a conventional cookbook.
  2. I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.
  3. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
  4. My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and I was born.
  5. Call me Ishmael.
  6. Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
  7. In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
  8. The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum!
  9. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
  10. She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance.
  11. Jewel and I came up from the field, following the path in single file.
  12. It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination for some days.
  13. The British are frequently criticized by other nations for their dislike of change, and indeed we love England for those aspects of nature and life which change the least.
  14. In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.
  15. Except for the Marabar Caves — and they are twenty miles off — the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.
  16. The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry.
  17. The primroses were over.
  18. The music-room in the Governor’s House at Port Mahon, a tall, handsome, pillared octagon, was filled with the triumphant first movement of Locatelli’s C-major quartet.
  19. For a long time I used to go to be early.
  20. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again.
  21. At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring.
  22. Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.
  23. You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.
  24. “Sleep well, dear.”

Too difficult? If so, what are some of your favorite first lines?

Maybe in the future I’ll do this with my science fiction and fantasy novels. Somehow, I suspect their first lines are more revealing: “When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced´┐Ż” — difficult, that.


On 12 July 2003 (12:28 PM),
Aimee said:

JD …

I was looking at your “like to read” link and noticed that you listed Nine Parts of Desire as a book group re-read … I was under the impression that at the time I chose the book it had just been published??? Did Powell’s play me false? Or, are you thinking of a different book? Clarify, please … Books are an obsession, aren’t they?

1. The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook?
4. Angle of Repose?
5. Duh.
6. P&P? Other Austen? Or perhaps Dickens?

That’s as far as I’ve gotten using memory and process of elimination. You must publish a key or offer a prize, my good man!


On 12 July 2003 (12:37 PM),
J.D. said:

Now it’s a contest!

As per Aimee’s suggestion, I will offer a prize.

The first person to post, in the comments, the correct book and author for all twenty-four of these first lines will receive a lovely book of their own.

No guarantees as to the title (it’ll probably depend on the person; if Jeremy G. wins, he’s not going to want Proust, for example, and if Dana wins the book’s going to be some sort of speculative fiction), but it’ll likely be a book I hold in high esteem.

Post your guesses in the comments section. It’s a group-participation thing, where each guess builds on the ones before. Can you get all twenty-four?

On 12 July 2003 (01:16 PM),
Joel said:

How about we stipulate (honor code, of course) no Googling? Research to be done, at the most, in a library?

On 12 July 2003 (04:11 PM),
Joel said:

Okay, here goes.
1) Thai Food by David Thompson
2) No Fucking Clue by J. Gingerich
3) Anna Karenina by Tolstoy
4) Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
5) Moby Dick (Or, “The Whiteness of the Whale and How it is Pale”) by Herman Melville
6) David Copperfield by Darle’s Chickens
7) The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
8) The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
9) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
10) The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
11) As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
12) The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishigiro
13) Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and friends
14) A Farewell to Arms by Earnest Hemingway
15) Passage to India by E.M. Forster
16) Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
17) Watership Down by Richard Adams
18) Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian
19) Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust
20) Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
21) Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
22) Fight Club by Chuck Pahlaniuk
23) Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
24) The Sailor Who Fell From Grace Into the Sea by Yukio Mishima

Congratulations, JD, this may be the first time in history that a weblog has made someone leave work early in order to go stalking around the library muttering “Tyler… Gun in my Face… FIGHT CLUB!”

On 12 July 2003 (04:38 PM),
Aimee said:

In three hours time, too … Your effort is utterly impressive, Love.


On 13 July 2003 (10:56 AM),
Rich said:

Congrats, Joel. The real question is who many you answered off the top of your head.

My 3 favorite opening lines:

1. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

2. Amerigo Bonasera sat in New York Criminal Court Number 3 and waited for justice; vengence on the men who had so cruelly hurt his daughter, who had tried to dishonor her.

3. 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 the David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like getting into it, if you want to know the truth.

On 13 July 2003 (03:52 PM),
J.D. said:

Sorry for the delay responding; I’ve been out clamdigging. More on that later.

Joel is close, but he hasn’t quite won the prize. The race is on!

I must say I’m impressed with how close Joel has come, though. I’ll bet his methodology consisted of the following: look at J.D.’s recently read list, and the list of book group books, and that should do the trick. For the most part, it did.

I’m particularly impressed that he managed the Kundera, the Ondaatje, the Hemingway, and the Mishima.

Which books are wrong? Only the first two. The first book isn’t a cookbook, it’s a novel. The second book is a potential book club selection in the future. It’s one of Nick’s favorite books. There have been two film versions, though the most recent movie has some gross miscalculations…

Rich, you’ve got some good choices there, too. Your first is 1984, and I suspect your third is Catcher in the Rye, but I’m not sure of that. I don’t know the second. Except for the New York bit, it sounds Kafka-esque. The quote sounds damn familiar, though.

Your choices remind me that I left one of my very favorite books:

“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”

The line isn’t really that great, the book is one of my favorites…

On 13 July 2003 (06:16 PM),
Rich said:

j.d. – you are right on the two you listed. as for the 2nd one, it’s from a book that was made into a movie, and in the movie, that same character (Amerigo Bonasera) speaks the opening line of the movie: “I believe in America…”

your quote is from one of my favorite lawyer books of all time.

On 14 July 2003 (08:22 AM),
joel said:

Rich- That’s “Godfather”, right?
JD- Aimee and I only knew eight of them right off. You’re right, most of the rest I got off this very blog. A few others I remember chatting with you recently. I long to break into the reading room and scurry about, ripping books off the shelves and glancing at the first page before tossing them aside (A vision that patrons of the Mult. Co. Pub. Lib. were recently treated to). But, then again, if someone else winds up the victor, I ‘spose I’ll just have to borrow the book in question, eh?

On 14 July 2003 (08:45 AM),
J. Gingerich said:


Thanks for the credit, but as of yet I have not completed my first novel. However, I have a very good real life basis for one at my work.


On 14 July 2003 (10:30 AM),
Rich said:

Joel – yep, the Godfather it is.

let me explain why i like it so much.

“Amerigo Bonasera sat in New York Criminal Court Number 3 and waited for justice; vengence on the men who had so cruelly hurt his daughter, who had tried to dishonor her.”

“Amerigo Bonasera…”
The first word in the book is the same Italian name from which the word “America” derived. (Amerigo Vespucci), so you have the linking of Italian and American cultures foreshadowed.

“…sat in New York Criminal Court Number 3…”
I don’t know if this is a clunky plot device or an elegant way of demonstrating that this book will take place in the NYC area, the American cradle of the flood of Italian immigrants, but I like it however you think it. Mostly, I like the almost clinical way in which he describes the location of the court, which is very much the style of large portions of the novel. Mario Puzo spends a lot of time going over the real and fictional histories of the various Mafia families that have roles in the book, sometimes in meticulous detail. He also spends a lot of time describing the way all characters look physically, and he reiterates that description often in the book.

“…and waited for justice;…”
By saying that he was *waiting* for justice, it implies that he was not going to get it, but that instead he was just sitting and waiting within the government buraeucracy, and would have to go elsewhere to get it.

“…vengence on the men who had so cruelly hurt his daughter…”
The way that “justice” and “vengence” are arranged so that they butt up against each other is fantastic. To Amerigo, and many like him, justice and vengence are the same thing. That is why they turn to Don Corleone and his world, since the courts and the police do not dole out vengence that appeases that baser side of the heart, but instead a non-emotional and impassionate justice. But since he “believes in America,” he first tries this route, and when he doesn’t get vengence, he goes to the Godfather. And he gets it. Immediately, and fully.

“…who had tried to dishonor her.”
The concept of honor and old-fashioned values plays a large role in the Godfather series, but yet it is juxtaposed againt the fact that the main characters and criminals and murderers. Sex is a main element of the book, though downplayed in the movie. The movie producer who found a horse in his bed (Jack Woltz), the prodigal godson Hollywood entertainer (Johnny Fontaine), and the hothead emotional son (Santino Corleone) all have sex lives that are described in great detail in the book, all for a purpose.

that might be a bit too analytical for some people’s tastes, and for all I know Mario Puzo wrote that sentence in 3 seconds, but to me it is a classic.

On 14 July 2003 (10:44 PM),
Andrew Parker said:

I can’t believe that no one got Debt to Pleasure *or* The Razor’s Edge, which may just be numbers one and two in my own favorites list. Too bad that other Lanchester and Maugham works aren’t all as worthy.

On 14 July 2003 (10:51 PM),
Andrew Parker said:

And with that inspiration, my present numbers three and four:

Sauti the storyteller told this tale to his friend Saunaka in the Naimisha Forest.

Hughes got it wrong, in one important detail.

On 15 July 2003 (08:37 AM),
Joel said:

Hey, Andrew, I just finished reading Flashman a few days ago. Definitely a good time, and an interesting antidote to the Patrick O’Brian that I love so much. I wish I’d read it back when we were hammering the Taliban.

On 02 April 2005 (03:46 PM),
Jess said:


On 02 April 2005 (03:46 PM),
Jess said:


Updated: 12 July 2003

Do what's right. Do your best. Accept the outcome.
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