Famous First Lines

by J.D. Roth

On Saturday, our book group met to discuss Ernest Hemingway’s 1941 classic For Whom the Bell Tolls. Most of us thought it was great. I loved the language in the book; I hadn’t read Hemingway since high school, and I’d forgotten that he used to be one of my favorite authors. Here’s how he opens For Whom the Bell Tolls:

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass. There was a stream alongside the road and far down the pass he saw a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam, white in the summer sunlight.


Even lovelier is how he ends the book, bringing everything full circle, returning to the pine-needled floor of the forest:

Robert Jordan lay behind the tree, holding onto himself very carefully and delicately to keep his hands steady. He was waiting until the officer reached the sunlit place where the first trees of the pine forest joined the green slope of the meadow. He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest.

Grammar nerdery: Okay, see how Hemingway used “pine-needled floor of the forest” to start the book? And see how he uses “pine needle floor of the forest” to end it? That’s a lovely circle, and I like it. But why on earth didn’t he (or an editor) keep the same structure. I mean, shouldn’t that be “pine-needled floor of the forest” both times? God, I’m a grammar geek.

Admiring the opening to For Whom the Bell Tolls reminded me a of a contest I ran nearly ten years ago at my old personal blog. Because I doubt any of you were around then — and because I think it’d be fun — I’m going to re-run the exact same contest today.

Below, I’ve collected twenty-four famous first lines from novels. Or, more precisely, first lines from famous (and semi-famous) books that I love. Some are well-known. Others are relatively obscure. How many of them can you name? (Please google only as a last resort.)

I love books

  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.”

I’ve always wondered how important first lines really are. There’s no doubt that some just reel me in. And when I revisit books I love, their openings have real power, which stems from the weight of memory. For instance, reading #17 above just gave me goosebumps. Why? Because it’s the beginning of one of my favorite books, because I know everything that comes after, all the pain and sorrow and struggle and joy. All from this short sentence: “The primroses were over.”

How many of these can you name? And, more to the point, how many of them can I still name? I’m not sure, actually. I’ll go through and try my memory now and then post my results after others have stopped posting theirs. The prize for the person who guesses all of these openings? One brownie point (cash value: 1/20th of a cent).

(Also, what are your favorite first lines from literature?)

Updated: 19 November 2012

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