Monday, March 30, 2009

Opening lines

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith is said, by many people, to have the most striking and memorable opening line:

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog's blanket and the tea cosy.

I think I first read I Capture the Castle when I was about sixteen; reading it again 45 years later, I realise that I was far too young to appreciate its wit and charm the first time around. I had often wondered why it appears on so many lists of favourites and all time greats. Now I know.

I will refrain from writing a review of a book that everyone has read. However, if you haven't read it since you were very young, I recommend that you do so again. Perhaps we should re-visit all of that supposed Young Adult Fiction.

Instead of a review, I thought I might use that famous opening line as a challenge to find other memorable first lines. I'll start with a couple of my favourites and invite you to add to the list.

I cannot imagine any author making a more stunning entrance than Franz Kafka in Metamorphosis:

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

Jane Austen certainly knew how to catch the attention of her readers and choosing just one memorable opening is difficult. I settle for this from Pride and Prejudice:

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.

And I must have one Dickens novel in my list. Great Expectations offers a choice of endings but the opening lines are always the same:

My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

I look forward to reading your favourites.


  1. ooooh this sounds fun!
    I'll be back when I've had a search!

  2. I Capture the Castle is one of my favorites. I have a nice, old copy that sits on my bookshelf. Perhaps it's time to come down for a little bit! Here are three opening paragraphs from books I love:
    "A column of smoke rose thin and straight from the cabin chimney. The smoke was blue where it left the red of the clay. It trailed into the blue of the April sky and was no longer blue but gray. The boy Jody watched it, speculating. The fire on the kitchen hearth was dying down. His mother was hanging up pots and pans after the noon dinner. The day was Friday. She would sweep the floor with a broom of ti-ti and after that, if he were lucky, she would scrub it with the corn shucks scrub. If she scrubbed the floor she would not miss him until he had reached the Glen. He stood a minute, balancing the hoe on his shoulder." - The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
    "Old Mrs. Quin died in her sleep in the early hours of an August morning.
    The sound of the bell came into the house but did not disturb it; it was quite used to death, and birth, and life." China Court by Rumer Godden
    "There was a time once when the earth was still very young, a time some call the oldest days. This was long before there were any people about to dig parts of it up and cut parts of it off. People came along much later, building their towns and castles (which nearly always fell down after a while) and plaguing each other with quarrels and supper parties. The creatures who lived on the earth in that early time stayed each in his own place and kept it beautiful. There were dwarfs in the mountains, woldwellers in the forests, mermaids in the lakes and, of course, winds in the air."- The Searcg for Delicious by Natalie Babbit.
    There you have some of my favorite opening paragraphs. Really, none of them are outstanding but they all drew me into the book and kept me there. I'd say that was a job well done. :)

  3. Karin, they are all outstanding and have made me want to read more. The only one that I have read from that selection is the Rumer Godden; I shall put the others on my list of books to be read.

    Val - I can't wait to see your selection.

  4. Oh dear, M, I should be packing but . . . the one that has always grabbed me by the throat (metaphorically speaking, of course) is another Dickens - 'A Tale of Two Cities'. Not only because of my interest in the French Revolution but it is incredibly powerful, almost Biblical in its resonance:
    "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."

    And I'm going to cheat here; these are the closing lines from James Cameron's 'An Indian Summer':
    "Far away in India it is now sundown, the cow-dust hour. Their feet will be raising the blue-grey haze among the trees and against the dusk, the haze from a hundred supper-fires filling the air with the smell of coming night. Half of me is still there." I have only to read those lines and part of me is back there too.

  5. D, I think that paragraph from A Tale of Two Cities is possibly the most powerful in English literature.

    I must read 'An Indian summer' - it sounds wonderful and I think you could start a whole new thread on closing lines!

  6. I read 'I Capture the Castle' last year - for the first time. I'm sure it would be 'wasted' on a teenager!


  7. Yes, Ali, it is hard to appreciate a coming-of-age book when in the throes of coming-of-age.

  8. Opening to Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy: All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

    I don't agree with this opinion, for it implies that happy families are boring in their similarity. AK is, nevertheless, one of the most powerful portraits of marriage and romantic partnerships in all of fiction, in my opinion.

  9. I agree with you on all points, Carolyn. AK is a great book but happiness is not at all boring or banal.

  10. Became obsessed by this today, - results in the usual place!
    Hope you are feeling bettter.


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