Idea of First Lines in Literature

The idea of first lines in literature has always intrigued me, they are like the opening notes of a raga, a teaser of an ad campaign, or a movie trailer. First lines set the tone for what readers can anticipate, serving as gateways to the rich imaginative worlds – a promise of the journey ahead that entices the readers to immerse themselves in the stories that have stood the test of time.

  • One of my all-time favourite opening lines in literature is also one of the most famous lines – “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

The line humorously encapsulates the societal expectations of pre-Victorian England – which were quite similar to those in India during that period – arranging marriages for their daughters to eligible bachelors was considered a matter of utmost importance for financial stability and social standing. By hinting at the themes of marriage and social status, the line sets the theme for the novel which is essentially a satirical social commentary within the backdrop of Bennett family’s story, featuring  5 young daughters and their mother’s quest to find suitable boys for them. The opening line also reflects the novel’s tone, which combines comedy and wit in its story-telling.

  • This brings me to an another beloved book – Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Taking a cue from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, A Suitable Boy begins with the line “You too will marry a boy I choose.“.

The line introduces the central theme and drives the narrative forward. The owner of this opening line is Mrs. Mehra the matriarch, addressing her younger daughter on the day of her older daughter’s wedding,  which was also arranged by her. This forceful declaration foreshadows the story’s theme but also encapsulates Mrs. Mehra’s character, portraying her as someone accustomed to getting her way. While this succinct opening line may not fully convey the magnitude of the book in terms of its length and the vastness of its subject matter, it echoes the traditions and family expectations that were the bedrock of Indian society during the novel’s time period. This seemingly simple beginning serves as a clever literary device employed by the author.

  • “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” – opens Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird.

This line welcomes readers into the young lives  of Scout Finch and her brother, offering a memory that does not initially indicates the tumultuous times the novel is set in. However, it piques curiosity about the incident and hints at the theme of  innocent childhood, while setting the stage for the prejudices and discrimination that shape the narrative. The subtle humour concealed within the first sentence, the first paragraph and in the entire novel brings relief in an otherwise serious story.

  • One of the most renowned series in recent times, the Harry Potter series, the first book opens with “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number 4, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

JK Rowling’s enchanting journey into the wizarding world commences with this humorous description of the ordinary Dursley family, establishing the backdrop for the adventures of young wizard Harry Potter. By using the word “normal”, Rowling like a skilled magician, casts a spell that promises magical wonders and extraordinary quests that Harry Potter and his friends will embark on. This opening line serves as a perfect example of how an innocuous start can transport the readers into a fantastical realm that captured the imagination of not only children but also adults, creating a global brand with a whole universe of activities around Harry Potter.

  • The opening line from Dan Brown’s book Origin, which states, “Historically, the most dangerous men on earth were men of God,” is thought-provoking. It serves as a poignant reminder of the complex relationship between religion and power throughout history. 

This quote resonates not only with global events but also with the societal and historical dynamics in India and elsewhere. It emphasises that while religion can be a source of solace, morality, and inspiration for many, it has also been used as a tool to justify conflicts, oppression, and violence.

In India, a nation with a rich tapestry of religious diversity, the line’s relevance becomes especially significant. The country has witnessed periods of religious tensions and conflicts, underscoring the potential for misuse of religious authority.

Ultimately, the power of literature lies in its ability to provoke introspection and discussion, and this quote from “Origin” does precisely that, encouraging us readers to contemplate the complex interplay between faith, power, and history in our world.

The idea of first lines in literature holds the power to draw the readers into the world of the novel, evoking emotions that resonate until the last line. Many of these famous first lines provide a glimpse into timeless narratives that continue to enchant generations of readers.

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