The twentieth century was a time of massive change, upheaval, and innovation in a multiplicity of fields—and writing was no exception. The following are ten of the greatest opening lines to surface in writing and literature during the twentieth century.
10. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
Although Plath’s poetry is arguably better than her fiction, her iconic, semi-autobiographical novel opens with an unforgettable sentence. The trinity of unlikely details—weather, death, and twenty-something aimlessness—form the perfect concoction of unease and search for identity that The Bell Jar is all about.
9. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five (1969)
“All this happened, more or less.”
The first line of Vonnegut’s popular war satire masterfully embodies the novel’s deceptively casual, noncommittal tone. The addition of the “more or less” at the end of the sentence makes the little opener not only colloquial, but also a subversively powerful statement about narratorial reliability.
8. J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan and Wendy (1911)
“All children, except one, grow up.”
Like Vonnegut’s line, this one inserts a grammatical caveat that does heavy lifting using very few words. The tiny sentence creates a powerful hook (no pun intended) that has drawn readers into one of the twentieth century’s most beloved fairy tales for generations.
7. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925)
“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
With this grammatically and descriptively simple sentence, Virginia Woolf foreshadows many of the themes and stylistic motifs of her masterpiece. Not only does the sentence prime the page for the stream of consciousness style that plays such a big role in the novel, it also sets the tone for the feminist themes running throughout the text.
6. Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942; trans. Stuart Gilbert)
“Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.”
Representing some of the important themes of the twentieth century, Camus’ lines are similar in strategy to Vonnegut’s and Barrie’s. Here, though, the poster child of existentialism does what he does best and prepares us for some grade A existential angst.
5. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
This show-off of an opener makes sure that no one reading Nabokov’s controversial masterwork will ever forget it. Nabokov’s sensuous prose is turned up to full power, starting his unsettling book with saccharine sweetness.
4. James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”
The first sentence to arguably the best piece of writing that came out of the twentieth century is not flashy, but it’s all the better for that. Joyce’s opening line is quietly complex, and its aural elements are perfectly balanced. This line is like a good scotch: if savored, its complex notes and tones will not disappoint.
3. T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land (1922)
“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”
Eliot’s pastiche portrait of post-World War II life begins simply. For a poem over 400 lines long—and packed with esoteric allusions and strange imagery—the opening stanza is surprisingly tame. But the beginning lines to Eliot’s hallmark of twentieth century poetry are beloved for a reason: they tap into archetypal imagery and illustrate the paradox of growth. April showers may bring May flowers, but the process of rebirth is painful as well as beautiful.
2. Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (1915; trans. Joachim Neugroschel)
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”
Kafka’s strange and sad little masterpiece opens with a sentence that is both of those things. The line is at once absurdist, human, detached, surreal, and empathetic. These things aside, Kafka does a fantastic job at creating one heck of a hook. What does he mean transformed? Is this literal? What is the vermin, exactly? These are questions Kafka’s line leaves us needing to have answered.
1. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa)
“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.”
The opening line to Marquez’s tour-de-force of a book is almost too good to write about. The novel hits the floor running, with the first character to whom the readers are introduced dying, but then comes to a screeching halt as it sets the stage for a slow and beautiful flashback. The sentence shifts tenses, tone, style, conveys a lot of information, and all the while remains concise and unified. Marquez’s line is personal, exciting, and infused with the curious magic that only he can create.
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