What is your favorite opening line in a literary work? Why?

Expert Answers
mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This question calls for a decision that is almost impossible to make; perhaps, it can be likened to asking a mother, "Which of your children do you love the most?" For, while most mothers love all their children because they are theirs, of course, like readers, however, they hold some qualities in each child especially endearing.

Many of us readers enjoy different genres and different styles of writing; for instance, we delight in the lyrical style of writers such as Thomas Hardy and F. Scott Fitzgerald--

On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about halfway between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a proud, rose-colored hotel. -Tender is the Night

or the crisp, no-nonsense interest-grabbing style of Ernest Hemingway--

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
                                                         -The Old Man and the Sea

or the delightfully ironic, piquant humor of Jane Austen--

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
                                                         -Pride and Prejudice

or the tumultuous passion and brooding, philosophical energy of the intriguing Fyodor Dostovesky--

Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a landowner well known in our district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his mysterious and tragic death, was a strange type, despicable and vicious and at the same time absurd.   -The Brothers Karamazov

or first sentences of beautifully balanced incongruity and irony, such as that of that great storyteller, Robert Louis Stevenson,

Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow lovable.
                              -The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Yet, many of us find ourselves returning over and over to the perfectly orchestrated sentence, so finely tuned in its balance that even though it has become somewhat trite, we still marvel at its musical and syntactic perfection, its encompassing ideas, its profound significance, and its supreme timelessness make it #1,

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.

How can this sentence be challenged by any other? Only if we eliminate it for being too long. 

In that case, first place is a tie between the lyrical painting of images in Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night: 

On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about halfway between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a proud, rose-colored hotel. 

and Stevenson's balanced and lyrical incongruity in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde:

Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow lovable.


aespinoza71 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Great question.  The grand effect of the first line of a work is also complementary to the work itself, so in response, I will answer through both lenses.  Here is a favorite of mine to share:

"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."

- One Hundred Years of Solitude by G. G. Marquez

There is a richness to this line that instantly grabs my attention.  So many things packed together (the course of time, both forward and backward, that the sentence promises; the drama of death, juxtaposed to the tenderness of a family memory; and just enough quirkiness given to the concept of something as plain as ice), that I felt compelled to continue reading more.  I had to know: why was the Colonel being executed? what effect did his father have on the Colonel's journey in life? why is ice so important to "discover"?

And the book delivered.  I discovered that the Colonel would come not to be necessarily the most important figure in the book, but rather a member of a compelling ensemble of characters, each with their quirks that both entertained and touched me.  I discovered that the journey of time was central to the book's expression of a fatalistic culture, in which people are powerless to the world around them, and yet this world has a structure and purpose to it that may not necessarily be comprehensible to us.  

When I read the book a second time (of course), the opening line grabbed me again, in spite of my knowledge of the book itself.  Good opening lines do that, I suppose; they heighten your awareness of what may come, and provide subtle messages as to the author's intentions.

William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

My favorite opening line has been translated from the Russian in several ways. It is the opening sentence of "The Lady with a Pet Dog" by Anton Chekhov. I don't know Russian and will paraphrase it as I like to remember it.

They were saying that a new visitor had appeared on the promenade, a lady with a pet dog.

What I like about it is that is establishes the setting, which Russians would recognize as being Yalta, and because it suggests that the place is so boring that all the people have to talk about is a new visitor, a lady with a pet dog. It also suggests that the protagonist, Dmitri Gurov, is bored along with all the others, and his boredom will lead to his starting up an affair with this new visitor, Anna Sergeyevna. The fact that she has this pet dog helps him make her acquaintance by getting the little dog to bark at him. The opening sentence is very low-key, but that seems characteristic of Chekhov.

I would also like to say that the opening sentence of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, quoted by mwestwood above, is very close to being my favorite opening line as well. Not only is it beautifully composed, but it is full of wisdom. It says a great deal about the French Revolution and its aftermath in a single sentence. 

William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The most attention-grabbing opening line I have ever read is the opening of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis. It has been translated from the German in various ways, but, without knowing German, I have tinkered with it a little because I would like it to read as follows:

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a giant cockroach.

How's that for an opening? I first heard that line quoted in a movie, and I had to get a copy of The Metamorphosis. I was young and had never heard of Franz Kafka before. Then when I read the opening line I was totally hooked-- not only on that story, but on Kafka.

I changed "vermin" to "cockroach" and "troubled sleep" to "uneasy dreams," but I think "cockroach" and "uneasy dreams," or "troubled dreams," were used in the first translation I read.

missbc | Student

I love the opening sentence of Mr. Vertigo by Paul Auster: 

I was twelve years old the first time I walked on water. The man in the black clothes taught me how to do it, and I'm not going to pretend I learned that trick overnight.

Simply because it immediately grabbed my attention, and after that I couldn't stop reading.

eli468 | Student

I will give a couple of my favorite "First Line's."

For starters, I will begin with Alice in Wonderland. I read this book as a child and the first line really made me want to read the book because right from the start I immediately connected to Alice. I was around 11, or so, at the time. 

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,' though Alice 'without pictures or conversations?'

When I was younger I would feel this same way. I enjoyed reading books very much but I was also still very into something simple, fun, and illustrated. Everything else seemed so boring without it. Because of this I was able to connect with the main character and head off on an adventure throughout the story! It also helped that this book had illustrations of all kinds of strange things.

As I got a little older and hit my teenage angst phase of course Catcher in the Rye was another intriguing first line to me.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all the David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

At this point in my life I had read enough teen novels to see that most had the same opening story of 'here I am and here's my back-story.' Despite it seeming such a low mood from the start, it was a different change of pace that I enjoyed.

zahraa27 | Student

" why should i carry that small thing in my heart when i can throw it deep in the highest sea and with my choose i live alone or with unlimited freedom " 
this is my all times words that i always say it to everyone that tells me marriage is everything and life without love is nothing . 
i read this book when i was 13 and it still get me now as when it was back then i loved every single word since it was true . it was not fantasy or science fiction or romantic or action but it was simple dairy for someone who find the true meaning behind live you life the way you want it to be .
when he was 10 till the very end he was the same no one change him and not one was able to control him that's what i liked about him . always simple yet strong . 

hermy27 | Student

What a difficult question to answer!  Here are a few off the top of my head, but I'm sure I'll be thinking about this far into the night.

The simple...

     "In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit." - The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

The slightly bizarre...

     "The beet is the most intense of vegetables." - Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins

The intriguing...

     "Many years later she remembered how her parents had looked to her when she was a small child: her father as tall as a tree, and merry and bright and golden, with her beautiful black-haired mother at his side." - Deerskin by Robin McKinley