Opening Sentences

For my bedtime reading recently, I pulled Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina off my shelf, because I hadn’t read it in many years. Comfy in bed, I opened to the first page, and as I read the very first sentence, the proverbial light bulb flashed in my mind. “Of course!”, I smiled, “I’d know this opening anywhere.” And my second thought was: how about a post pulling out famous first sentences—without revealing their source till the post’s end?

So here it is: a quiz game for Close Reading readers. Below are fifteen famous first lines from famous literary works. The sources (the answers) are given below the line of asterisks after the final quote. But DON’T PEEK; it’ll spoil your fun.

Okay, here we go—

(1) “Whether I shall turnout to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

(2) “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

(3) “April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”

(4) “I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.”

(5) “Call me Ishmael.”

(6) “Anger be now your song, immortal one,
Akhilleus’ anger doomed and ruinous,
that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
leaving so many dead men—carrion
for dogs and birds, and the will of Zeus was done.”

(7) “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

(8) “For a long time I used to go to bed early.”

(9) “Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.”

(10) “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.”

(11) “When Caroline Meeber boarded the afternoon train for Chicago, her total outfit consisted of a small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel, a small lunch in a paper box, and a yellow leather snap purse, containing her ticket, a scrap of paper with her sister’s address in Van Buren Street, and four dollars in money.”

(12) “Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.”

(13) Except for the Marabar Caves—and they are twenty miles off—the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.”

(14) “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drams
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk.”

(15) ”It was the best of time, 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.”


(1) Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

(2)  Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

(3) T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

(4) Laurence Stern, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent.

(5) Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

(6) Homer, The Iliad

(7) Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

(8) Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way (1st volume of Remembrance of Things Past)

(9) Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”

(10) Gabriel Garcia Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

(11) Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie

(12) Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

(13) E. M.  Forster, A Passage to India

(14) John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”

(15) Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities


Peggy Rosenthal has a PhD in English Literature. Her first published book was Words and Values, a close reading of popular language. Since then she has published widely on the spirituality of poetry, in periodicals such as America, The Christian Century, and Image, and in books that can be found here.