Top Five First Sentences in English-Language Literature
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
The first sentence of a novel is held in very high regard. Its importance can be crucial to the success of earning a readership. In the first Harry Potter book, J.K. Rowling opens with an incredible first line that holds a lot of mystery yet perfectly sets the tone for the chapter ahead. Here is a list of the top five first sentences in English literature, besides Harry Potter, that perfectly introduce their novels.
- Pride and Prejudice by 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.”
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a list of famous first lines of English literature must include Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Commonly called the best first line of all time, this sentence succeeds on multiple levels. College courses that focus on this text will dedicate an entire lecture to the study of this one single sentence. It has had that much of an impact on the literary world. It beautifully sets up the plot of the novel in that the reader is about to embark on a journey of a single man finding a wife. Austen is giving her readers a very clear picture of the world she is depicting, which includes the societal norm of this “universal” truth. This is the first sentence many writers only dream of accomplishing.
2. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
The first line of the third (or fifth, depending on how you look at it) novel in the Chronicles of Narnia series introduces the character Eustace Scrubb, and this first line literally gives the reader all they need to know about his character. Author C.S. Lewis is telling his readers, “Here is my main character. Do you think he has an ugly name? Yeah, he does. Does his personality match it? Almost.” Right away, without revealing anything, Lewis is subtly telling his readers that his main character is a bit of a jerk, but he will move past that by the end of the book. It helps that the line is also very funny.
3. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered.”
What makes the first line of Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel so brilliant is the innocence behind the disturbing subject matter presented to the reader. Right away, it is clear what this novel is going to be about, yet at the same time, the reader has no idea where they are about to be taken. The main character’s innocence shows as she simplistically phrases the fact that she was murdered. This matter-of-fact opening perfectly sets up the story and the tension in one straight shot. It creates suspense, and immediately the reader wonders how this character died and how she is telling this story afterward.
4. Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
All children, except one, grow up.”
We all know the story of the boy who never grows up. The first sentence of Peter Pan holds a lot of mystery. For people reading the book for the first time when it was originally published, they had no idea what was in store. All they could tell was that they were about to read a fantasy story about a child who never grows up. The first line carries a lot of weight in this instance. Peter Pan’s attribute of everlasting youth can be comparable to Harry’s scar and his position as a wizard among Muggles. In other words, the first sentence is telling the reader that they are about to read about someone very special and different from everyone else.
5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
What has unified each of these opening lines is that they all share the common trait of telling the reader exactly what they need to know to understand this story in one sentence. A lot of books will have paragraphs of exposition. The greats don’t need to do any of that. F. Scott Fitzgerald immediately sets up the idea that there is going to be a character that we can’t judge right away and that our main character is going to be very thoughtful based on the fact that he has pondered his father’s words many times.
There are a ton of books that weren’t on this list, so now it is your turn! What books have amazing first lines? Let us know in the comments below!