Thursday, November 29, 2007
Yesterday I gave the students in my Touchstones of Western Literature class an impromptu assignment: List 10 Opening Lines. From novels, not movies. I'm playing gander to their goose here, and adding three more into the bargain, plus a theme/boundary (the "from novels I have read" part). Here goes!
1. "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, by Jane Austen
2. "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. " (typed exactly, in ONE sentence, as per my copy of the novel). A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens
3. "When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake -- not a very big one. " Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry
4. "In the seventh year of his reign, two days before his sixty-fifth birthday, in the presence of a full consistory of Cardinals, Jean Marie Barette, Pope Gregory XVII, signed an instrument of abdication, took off the Fisherman's ring, handed his seal to the Cardinal Camerlengo and made a curt speech of farewell." Clowns of God, by Morris West
5. "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 that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth." Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
6. "Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem , a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream." Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck
7. "Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast." Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White
8. "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
9. "Marley was dead: to begin with." A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
10. "When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow." To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
11. "It wasn't a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance." Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon
12. " Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin." Winnie the Pooh, by A. A. Milne
13. "Every Who down in Who-ville liked Christmas a lot...but the Grinch, who lived just north of Who-ville did NOT!" How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss
Not only have I read these books, but I own copies. The lines are in no particular order, but I do profess to love some of these more than others. Some are merely nostalgic. For example, Charlotte's Web, Pooh, and the Grinch. However, you must admit, that opening line from the Grinch heralds the season better than any bell ringer huddling over a red tin pot in front of the local Walmart.
Perhaps opening lines are not so important? What moves a reader into and through a novel? Are modern readers jaded? Do they have a short attention span? Must writers grab them by the lapels and chain their wrists to the book via car chases and hair-raising adventure in the first paragraph? Or might a writer develop a story in a methodical, deliberate manner? Or am I hopelessly Victorian -- a Vermonter without time constraints, who looks forward to long winter nights tucked into a good book and a warm blanket?
I'm not sure. Who wouldn't want a first line on a list of The Best? To write words that drip off the tongue like amber honey from a warm silver spoon? Yes, that would be divine. Certainly my idea of immortality.
I love how EB White begins with the ax and death. He ends in the same place, doesn't he? Or nearly so. Anyone desiring a course in writing -- read that book and learn.
Scarlett O'Hara. Number one heroine in all commercial literature? Memorable to say the least. That opening line gives her away in a twink: charming and deceitful.
Oh, and I have read Moby Dick. Three times, for three different classes. But "Call me Ishmael" was left on the cutting room floor. Top of everyone's list. Bother. Am I always going to be bucking tradition? Probably. Typing that first line from Catcher in the Rye made me laugh in fond remembrance and want to read the little rust red book again. I wonder if it holds the magic now that I'm no longer 17? Hell. I'll always be 17.
And my number one line? Jane can write, can't she? She sums up her entire satirical jaunt into society in that one simple, thoroughly memorable, opening line. Dripping with sarcasm, waiting for readers to fall into the net. Masterful. Which reminds me....
Pride and Prejudice is the current (and final) novel in my Touchstones of Western Literature class. My students are busy reading (ha ha ha) and so must I.