Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Beginning and the End

Jack Kerouac's Desolation Angels
Linger on the first and last sentences of a book and you will grasp its deepest essence.
The opening and the closing sentences always stand out. They represent the nuclei of the book, whose meaning is itself contained in the universality of these sentences.
They must be true haikus in prose.    

Think of opening lines like, "Call me Ishmael" in Moby Dick, or, "It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen", in  Orwell's 1984. Think of "For a long time I would go to bed early" in Proust's Swann's Way, where a simple word, would, sets the tone of Proust's entire majestic work. The ending of Swann's Way is even more revealing: "The memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years." Proust discloses here the reveries that, at a given stage of our life, inevitably occupy our soul, and he does it just beautifully.
"There was no possibility of taking a walk that day" introduces Jane Eyre, while Dan Brown begins his fast thriller Angels and Demons with, "Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own", revealing the particularly sadistic hues of his novel.
Jack Kerouac begins On the Road with, "I first met Dean when my wife and I broke up", ending it, "I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of old Dean Moriarty, the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty".
Bram Stoker apparently did not charge his opening line with too heavy a responsibility, but listen to the closing words following Count Dracula's death: "And, to our bitter grief, with a smile and in silence, he died, a gallant gentleman", where the last two words, "a gallant gentleman", represent the finest tip of the hat with which one can pay homage to a defeated but honorable enemy.

The opening and closing line of a novel can tell a lot about the skills of the author and the quality of the work itself. This is easily verifiable today by simply setting foot into a bookstore and randomly grabbing fiction books to check out their beginning and end. You will see that only a small percentage out of tens of books you hold in your hands actually deserves being on that shelf.

You certainly cannot judge the quality of a novel by only inspecting a detail of it. Or two. Only by reading the entire book will you be granted certain confirmations. Yet, when a book is a novel and a masterpiece at the same time, the closing and opening line will certainly reveal that. Alone, they will contain the innermost and deepest nature of the book and its author; were you to read them only, that would be enough for you to grasp the beauty, the poetry and the essence of the whole work.

Ever thought about it?
Any opening or closing line from novels, movies, and whatnot you'd like to share?



  1. Thinking of the opening and closing lines for my current manuscript - if they are the essence of the story, then I think I did it right.

  2. I've never really thought about that before. Of course the first and last line are always important but I never considered them together. I will have to pay more attention.

  3. "On the night that Davis Cooper died, coyotes came down from the hills to the town in the desert valley below."

    first line from "The Wood Wife" by Terri Windling

  4. Alex,
    I'm pretty sure your book is going to be just perfect!

    Try it out, will you? You'll see it makes sense.

    Thanks for sharing.
    I know nothing about this author, or the book, but the first line makes it sound like there's a cause-and-effect nexus between Cooper's death and the fact that the coyotes came down from the hill. Which makes it a very intense opening line.

  5. In terms of making you sit up and take notice, the first sentence from Anthony Burgess's "Earthly Powers" takes some beating:

    "It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me."

    He makes the shock value last for 640 pages!

  6. Resistance by Owen Sheers - well worth reading:

    First sentence
    In the months afterwards all of the women, at some point, said they'd known the men were leaving the valley.....

    last sentence:
    These were all that were left now and that was why she walked on along the ridge, blind into the night, clutching her bag tightly to her chest with the accounts book of her letters inside, the last of its pages still unwritten.

  7. I pay a lot of attention to first lines. Sometimes last lines stick with me. I always loved the first line from Harry Potter- it really sucked me right into the book and series.