Famous First Lines of Novels

Romeo and Juliet books open

 Getty Images / Andrew Howe

The first lines of novels set the tone for the story to come. And when the story becomes a classic, the first line can sometimes become as famous as the novel itself, as the quotes below demonstrate.

First-Person Introductions

Some of the greatest novelists set the stage by having their protagonists describe themselves in pithy -- but powerful -- sentences.

"Call me Ishmael." - Herman Melville, "Moby Dick" (1851)

"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids -- and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me." - Ralph Ellison, "Invisible Man" (1952)

"You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter." - Mark Twain, ​"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn " (1885)

Third-Person Descriptions

Some novelists start by describing their protagonists in the third person, but they do it in such a telling way, that the story grips you and makes you want to read further to see what happens to the hero.

"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." - Ernest Hemingway, ​"The Old Man and the Sea" (1952)

"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." - Gabriel Garcia Marquez, "One Hundred Years of Solitude"​

"Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing." - Miguel de Cervantes, ​"Don Quixote"

"When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton." - J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Lord of the Rings" (1954-1955)

Starting With "It"

Some novels start out with such original wording, that you feel compelled to read on, though you remember that first line until you finish the book -- and long thereafter.

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." - George Orwell, ​"1984" (1949)

"It was a dark and stormy night ... ." - Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, "Paul Clifford "(1830)

"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." - Charles Dickens, ​"A Tale of Two Cities" (1859)

Unusual Settings

And, some novelists open their works with brief, but memorable, descriptions of the setting for their stories.

"The sun shone, having no alternative." - Samuel Beckett, "Murphy" (1938),

"There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it." - Alan Paton, ​"Cry, the Beloved Country" (1948)

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." - ​William Gibson, "Neuromancer" (1984)

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Lombardi, Esther. "Famous First Lines of Novels." ThoughtCo, Sep. 7, 2021, thoughtco.com/famous-first-lines-of-novels-740908. Lombardi, Esther. (2021, September 7). Famous First Lines of Novels. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/famous-first-lines-of-novels-740908 Lombardi, Esther. "Famous First Lines of Novels." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/famous-first-lines-of-novels-740908 (accessed March 31, 2023).