It is a truth universally acknowledged that you would need a very long piece of paper if you were to write a list of all the best quotes in literature. If these quotes are reserved to first lines only, then the list gets considerably shorter, but a whole lot more memorable. Reading the first words of this article most people would automatically finish the sentence in their head and a lot could even name the book in came from. (Pride and Prejudice, in case you were you were wondering). But why first lines are like this so ingrained in our brains, to the extent that many people quote the first line of books without realising where they come from. For example, if you asked me which book began “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” it’s very unlikely that I’d have an answer, and yet offer me the start of the quote and I’d be able to finish the rest. The links between first lines and the books they come from have become severed. Obviously, mention a well-known title such as Moby Dick, and many would reel off “call me Ishmael” with little or no effort. Although, I think that a lot of these Moby Dick quoters, myself included, would admit sheepishly that their knowledge doesn’t extend beyond the first line, and actually comes from the film Matilda. However, one could argue that it wouldn’t have been in the film if this first line hadn’t already established its brilliance.
Like with “call me Ishmael”’s rise to fame because of a film, it’s possible that many first lines only became iconic once the books they belonged to entered the canon. Once they were regarded as iconic books, then their first lines were placed onto the first line wall of fame, and subsequently used in films, TV, and other mediums more associated with popular culture than literary prowess. However, this notion really only serves to introduce a chicken and egg type debate: did the text’s fame precede that of the first line or vice versa? However, as someone who has spent hours trawling through books trying to find quotes that are memorable and thematically relevant enough for an exam, I can attest to the fact that not all canonical literature boasts a great first line. It is infinitely helpful for essay research if the opening touches upon some of the themes of the whole book, but more often than not you are forced to skim through many more pages in search of a quotation that does this. Take Jane Eyre for example, the line “Reader, I married him” is quoted far more often than the novel’s first line. But perhaps this just a result of a modern audience finding it interesting because of the questions surrounding feminism and marriage that it raises. Similarly, the opening line to Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, “under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea”, has a different effect on a modern audience than if would have had on the original readers. I laugh every time I read this sentence, it seems to stereotype itself in a joyful and slightly mocking way. Yet, it is difficult to say whether this line would have had an equal effect on readers in the 19th century; even though I personally share this love of afternoon tea.
When you read a novel, the first line undertakes the hard task of convincing you that continuing to read is worth your time. The first line must be enticing and intriguing, revealing enough to interest the reader but not revealing so much that the plot is ruined. Especially now, in the 21st-century, with the rapid increase in the number of books being published, first lines must work even harder to stand out from the crowd. So is there a secret recipe for the perfect first line or is it just the luck of the draw? What is it that separates the great from the mediocre? Orwell’s 1984 begins, “It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen”. At first glance, I didn’t notice anything particularly unique about this sentence, until, a few seconds later, when the word “thirteen” sunk in. Obviously the clocks can’t strike thirteen, and Orwell could have left this bizarre quirk of his dystopian world until later on in the novel. But, by introducing it so nonchalantly into the first line he makes his reader do a double take whilst amusing them with its bizarreness. Other novels use the first line to set up the controversial debate that will shape the story. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea introduces the racial tension and tone of exclusion in “they say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did”. Whereas the balance of “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” really lends itself to being quoted. Like a line of poetry, it has a rhythm that only comes into its own when it is read out loud.
Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a neat formula, you’ve either got it or you haven’t. And perhaps that’s why almost all of the iconic first lines come from books within the literary canon. The authors were skilful enough to grab the reader from the word go and continue to steer and manipulate them through the body of the work.