In addition to catching a reader’s attention, first sentences often serve an alternate, less obvious function: they act as a microcosm of the book itself.
Here we look at examples from classic and contemporary fiction in which the whole of a novel is summed up in its first few words.
. . . . .
1. “We wanted more.”
From We the Animals by Justin Torres.
These simple three words speak volumes about Justin Torres’ powerful debut, which itself speaks volumes about a range of topics, including boyhood, brotherhood, poverty, and gay identity. Hunger for more—more food, money, love, experience—is a consistent theme throughout the book, as is suggested, poetically, in its first line.
What We're Reading This WeekGet recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.
2. “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”
From Murphy by Samuel Beckett.
While the first sentence of Beckett’s novel is bleak, it carries an important wit and humor. This contradiction proves crucial to this novel, and to Beckett’s oeuvre more generally. We’re doomed to pitiful, pointless existences, says Beckett, but redemption may still be yet to come, in the form of laughter.
3. “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.”
From As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner.
Faulkner’s classic novel takes on, among other themes, the limitedness of self—the way in which our own desires and prerogatives alter our view of the world and prevent us from imaging the worldviews of others. This sentence captures beautifully the distorting perspective that selfhood affords.
4. “Cranes keep landing as night falls.”
From The Echo Maker by Richard Powers.
Powers’ breathtaking novel centers on a character with a rare brain disorder and raises the question of whether we remain ourselves even when we’ve lost our memories and our grasp on our own identities has weakened. The perseverance of the human spirit in the face of catastrophe is contained, beautifully and succinctly, in this line.
5. “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
From Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.
This line is sometimes read as a feminist sentiment, but I think it’s more about class. Mrs. Dalloway is a wealthy Londoner who will ultimately find solace in the story of a destitute man with whom she feels a kinship. This famous “flowers” line predicts her foray outside her constricting social orbit.
6. “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.”
From Middlemarch by George Eliot
Over the course of this capacious, compelling novel, Dorothea Brooke, Eliot’s heroine, will transform from a devout, doting wife to a self-empowered woman in charge of her own feelings. The difficult though rewarding evolution in store for her is summed up here, to perfection.
7. “Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet, and so does Mindy Metalman, Lenore notices, all of a sudden.”
From The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace.
Like David Lynch, who opened his film Blue Velvet with a close-up of insects moving beneath a pastoral American suburb, Wallace is concerned with the corruption and malevolence underlying appealing surfaces. This line announces the book’s theme to great effect.
8. “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.”
From Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler.
How easy it is to relate to this sentiment? And how much do we wish (as Tyler’s character surely does) that such a predicament could be summed in such succinct fairy-tale prose?
9. “The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.”
From The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.
The first line of this classic novel begins with a series of dreamy, animated images, and ends on a sharp, almost violent note. Careful readers will be correct in guessing that Dorian Grey’s path will follow much the same trajectory.
10. “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be a heroine.”
From Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen.
Austen has a knack for opening her novels with misleading first sentences; the famous one that begins Pride and Prejudice predicts a conventional novel about love and marriage, which that book most certainly is not. Northanger Abbey is no exception. It’s true that Catherine Morland isn’t very heroine-like, and the humbling humor evidenced in this line will carry through to the end of the story. But the book is also about how imagination—in this case of Catherine, imagining that one is a heroine in a Gothic fiction—can have reverberance in reality.