Great Opening Lines in Literature

by |September 5, 2014

“They say you can tell a lot about a book by its first line.”
– Andrew Cattanach, This Blog Post


“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.”
– Albert Camus, The Stranger


“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”
– Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy


“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”
– Jane Austen, Emma


“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.”
– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice


“Dr Iannis had enjoyed a satisfactory day in which none of his patients had died or got any worse.”
– Louis de Bernieres, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin


“It was a pleasure to burn.”
– Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451


“Who’s there?”
– William Shakespeare, Hamlet


“I have just returned from a visit to my landlord–the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with. This is certainly a beautiful country! In all England, I do not believe that I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society.”
– Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights


“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?'”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland


“The drought had lasted now for ten million years, and the reign of the terrible lizards had long since ended. Here on the Equator, in the continent which would one day be known as Africa, the battle for existence had reached a new climax of ferocity, and the victor was not yet in sight.”
– Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey


“Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.”
– Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Inferno


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities


“James Bond, with two double bourbons inside him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami Airport and thought about life and death.”
– Ian Fleming, Goldfinger


“When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.”
– Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd


“It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.”
– Joseph Heller, Catch-22


“A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE, and in a shield, the World State’s motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY.”
– Aldous Huxley, Brave New World


“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
– Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis


“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.”
– George Orwell, 1984


“On they went, singing ‘Eternal Memory’, and whenever they stopped, the sound of their feet, the horses and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing.”
– Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago


“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
– Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar


“I began this disorderly and almost endless collection of scattered thoughts and observations in order to gratify a good mother who knows how to think.”
– Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile


“Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.”
– William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet


“The year 1866 was signalized by a remarkable incident, a mysterious and inexplicable phenomenon, which doubtless no one has yet forgotten.”
– Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea


“The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us.”
– H.G. Wells, The Time Machine


Know a great opening line we’ve missed? Share it in the comments below!

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About the Contributor

Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog. He has been shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize and was named a finalist for the 2015 Young Bookseller of the Year Award. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping, though finds it difficult to do them all at once.

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Comments

  • September 5, 2014 at 12:03 pm

    I love the opening lines in Alison Stuart’s Lord Somerton’s Heir:

    “In the light of the lanterns held up by the stablehands, the glossy hide of the great, black horse reflected fire. The animal shivered, breaking the fire into golden sparks….”

    It’s almost visual – close your eyes and it is not hard at all to imagine the scene unfolding.

  • September 5, 2014 at 12:33 pm

    So many, but from recent novels ‘The Lovely Bones’ always stood out for me.

    “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”

  • Louise Reynolds

    September 5, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    No Australians? I’ll put in a vote for The Hamilton Case by Michelle de Kretser: “A name is the first story that attaches itself to a life. Consider mine: Stanley Alban Marriott Obeysekere. It tells of geography, history, love and uncertainty.”

  • Barbara

    March 24, 2018 at 9:37 am

    From the opening short story ‘Wandering-Standing’ by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, from his collection of short stories ‘The World Goes By’
    “I have to leave this place, because this is not where anyone can be, or where it would be worthwhile to remain, because this is the place-with its intolerable cold, sad,bleak, and deadly weight- from where I must escape, to take my suitcase, before everything else my suitcase…”
    The sentence continues for the entire 5 pages of the short story.

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