A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Friday, 30 April 2010

Beginnings And Endings

Quoting the Prologue from Bertrand Russell's Autobiography on my Turnstone blog the other day, which begins, Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind, made me think about how crucially important a good first (and last) line is in a book (or a poem or a song or a play or a film).

There are plenty of examples, often quoted, of arresting first lines; for instance, Jane Austen's novel Pride And Prejudice memorably begins: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

And the opening to Melville's Moby Dick is immortal in its stark brevity: Call me Ishmael.

L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between evokes right from the start the nostalgic heart of the novel: The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

And the beginning to Tolstoy's wonderful Anna Karenina, one of the greatest novels ever written, remains imprinted in the mind, even if its meaning is a little mysterious: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... Everyone knows these words which launch A Tale Of Two Cities by Charles Dickens; and one of the most famous first sentences of all is the one which sets the scene for George Orwell's classic dystopian novel, 1984: It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. How could you not want to read further after an opening like this?

Striking last lines are probably more difficult to find. They don't stand up as meaningfully on their own like opening lines do, since they rely on a knowledge of what's already gone before. However, there's this well known conclusion to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby: So we went on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

And there's the ending to Margaret Mitchell's romantic blockbuster, Gone With The Wind: After all, tomorow is another day!

I also like the typically doomy last line of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor Of Casterbridge: Happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.

I wonder if anyone has any favourite first or last lines of books (or poems, songs, films etc) they'd like to share? Would love your thoughts on this - suggestions from any readers of this blog who don't usually comment are also very welcome...


BG! said...

"And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap. He drew a deep breath. 'Well, I'm back,' he said."

Tolkien. Return of the King.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I suppose almost the most famous one of all is "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly."

Timecheck said...

Thanks for a momentary diversion, as you inspired me to google first lines, and then last lines. A lot of good stories out there, yet for me to read. One I read again, recently: A Tale of Two Cities: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Tim Shey said...

"April is the cruelest month. . ."

--"The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot


Here is a great line (or lines), but it is in the middle of "Moby Dick":

"Are these thy Mother Carey's chickens, Perth? They are always flying in thy wake. Birds of good omen, too, but not to all. Look here they burn, but thou, thou livedst among them without a scorch?"

And here is Perth's immortal reply:

"Because I am scorched all over," answered Perth resting for a moment on his hammer. "I am past scorching. Not easily canst thou scorch a scar."

I believe this passage comes from the chapter called "The Anvil".

Anonymous said...

A surging, seething, murmuring crowd, of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengenance and of hate. The hour, some little time before sunset, and the place, the West Barricade, at the very spot where, a decade later, a proud tyrant raised an undying monument to the nation's glory and his own vanity.

Orczy - The Scarlet Pimpernel


Dominic Rivron said...

I've always thought the first lines of Marx & Engel's Communist Manifesto to be very effective:

"A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of Communism. All the Powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre..."

Anonymous said...

I think Jhumpa Lahiri, whose short stories I find exceptional, has a real knack for opening lines:

"In the Autumn of 1971 a man used to come to our house, bearing confections in his pocket and hopes of ascertaining the life or death of his family."

from 'When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine'

"For the greater number of her twenty-nine years, Bibi Haldar suffered from an ailment that baffled family, friends, priests, palmists, spinsters, gem therapists, prohpets, and fools."

from 'The Treatment of Bibi Haldar.'

Anonymous said...

There's something about the last lines that you don't want to quote for fear of spoiling the book. Not so much whodunnits (although these are fun) as those sentences which sum up the book. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News is one such.


George said...

Nice posting,SW,and one line is particularly appropriate while I am away from home at a class reunion -- Hartley's line about the past being a foriegn country where they do things differently.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks all - an interesting selection!

Yes, fireweed, I think short stories can often have great opening and closing lines - more than in novels, every single word has to pull its weight.

One of my own favourites is the first line of 'Earthly Powers' by Anthony Burgess: 'It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.' Though, in my opinion, not everything in this long, ambitious novel lives up to the promise of the killer first sentence.

Anonymous said...

I was going to add songs and poems would be an interesting post but notice you did actually mention songs and poems.

I've always loved this song's opening lines. For me its also a brilliant book to song interpretation.

Out on the wiley, windy moors
We'd roll and fall in green...

Kate Bush, Wuthering Heights

Anonymous said...

Oops hit the publish button to quick...the last post with the lines from Wuthering Heights was me!


steve said...

"In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar."

===Richard Brautigan--In Watermelon Sugar