100 Best First Lines of Novels

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

The titles range from Don Quixote to Middlesex

The editors of American Book Review selected what they consider the most memorable first lines of novels. The titles on the list span centuries and genres and include classics and contemporary novels that are certain to become classics. Use this list to test your literary knowledge.

1.Call me Ishmael.Herman MelvilleMoby-Dick1851
2.It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.Jane AustenPride and Prejudice1813
3.A screaming comes across the sky.Thomas PynchonGravity's Rainbow1973
4.Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Gregory Rabassa)One Hundred Years of Solitude1967
5.Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.Vladimir NabokovLolita1955
6.Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.Leo Tolstoy (trans. Constance Garnett)Anna Karenina1877
7.riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.James JoyceFinnegans Wake1939
8.It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.George Orwell19841949
9.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 DickensA Tale of Two Cities1859
10.I am an invisible man.Ralph EllisonInvisible Man1952
11.The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard.Nathanael WestMiss Lonelyhearts1933
12.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 TwainAdventures of Huckleberry Finn1885
13.Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.Franz Kafka (trans. Breon Mitchell)The Trial1925
14.You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler.Italo Calvino (trans. William Weaver)If on a winter's night a traveler1979
15.The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.Samuel BeckettMurphy1938
16.If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.J. D. SalingerThe Catcher in the Rye1951
17.Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.James JoyceA Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man1916
18.This is the saddest story I have ever heard.Ford Madox FordThe Good Soldier1915
19.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 considered 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;—and, 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.Laurence SterneTristram Shandy1759–1767
20.Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.Charles DickensDavid Copperfield1850
21.Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.James JoyceUlysses1922
22.It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.Edward George Bulwer-LyttonPaul Clifford1830
23.One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.Thomas PynchonThe Crying of Lot 491966
24.It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.Paul AusterCity of Glass1985
25.Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.William FaulknerThe Sound and the Fury1929
26.124 was spiteful.Toni MorrisonBeloved1987
27.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 (trans. Edith Grossman)Don Quixote1605
28.Mother died today.Albert Camus (trans. Stuart Gilbert)The Stranger1942
29.Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.Ha JinWaiting1999
30.The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.William GibsonNeuromancer1984
31.I am a sick man . . . I am a spiteful man.Fyodor Dostoyevsky (trans. Michael R. Katz)Notes from Underground1864
32.Where now? Who now? When now?Samuel Beckett (trans. Patrick Bowles)The Unnamable1953
33.Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. “Stop!” cried the groaning old man at last, “Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree.”Gertrude SteinThe Making of Americans1925
34.In a sense, I am Jacob Horner.John BarthThe End of the Road1958
35.It was like so, but wasn't.Richard PowersGalatea 2.21995
36.—Money . . . in a voice that rustled.William GaddisJ R1975
37.Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.Virginia WoolfMrs. Dalloway1925
38.All this happened, more or less.Kurt VonnegutSlaughterhouse-Five1969
39.They shoot the white girl first.Toni MorrisonParadise1998
40.For a long time, I went to bed early.Marcel Proust (trans. Lydia Davis)Swann's Way1913
41.The moment one learns English, complications set in.Felipe AlfauChromos1990
42.Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.Anita BrooknerThe Debut1981
43.I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / By the false azure in the windowpane;Vladimir NabokovPale Fire1962
44.Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board.Zora Neale HurstonTheir Eyes Were Watching God1937
45.I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.Edith WhartonEthan Frome1911
46.Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex's admonition, against Allen's angry assertion: another African amusement . . . anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa's antipodal ant annexation.Walter AbishAlphabetical Africa1974
47.There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.C. S. LewisThe Voyage of the Dawn Treader1952
48.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 HemingwayThe Old Man and the Sea1952
49.It was the day my grandmother exploded.Iain M. BanksThe Crow Road1992
50.I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.Jeffrey EugenidesMiddlesex2002
51.Elmer Gantry was drunk.Sinclair LewisElmer Gantry1927
52.We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.Louise ErdrichTracks1988
53.It was a pleasure to burn.Ray BradburyFahrenheit 4511953
54.A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.Graham GreeneThe End of the Affair1951
55.Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes' chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression.Flann O'BrienAt Swim-Two-Birds1939
56.I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good Family, tho' not of that Country, my Father being a Foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull; He got a good Estate by Merchandise, and leaving off his Trade, lived afterward at York, from whence he had married my Mother, whose Relations were named Robinson, a very good Family in that Country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but by the usual Corruption of Words in England, we are now called, nay we call our selves, and write our Name Crusoe, and so my Companions always call'd me.Daniel DefoeRobinson Crusoe1719
57.In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.David MarksonWittgenstein's Mistress1988
58.Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.George EliotMiddlemarch1872
59.It was love at first sight.Joseph HellerCatch-221961
60.What if this young woman, who writes such bad poems, in competition with her husband, whose poems are equally bad, should stretch her remarkably long and well-made legs out before you, so that her skirt slips up to the tops of her stockings?Gilbert SorrentinoImaginative Qualities of Actual Things1971
61.I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.W. Somerset MaughamThe Razor's Edge1944
62.Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.Anne TylerBack When We Were Grownups2001
63.The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children's games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up.G. K. ChestertonThe Napoleon of Notting Hill1904
64.In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.F. Scott FitzgeraldThe Great Gatsby1925
65.You better not never tell nobody but God.Alice WalkerThe Color Purple1982
66.“To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.”Salman RushdieThe Satanic Verses1988
67.It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.Sylvia PlathThe Bell Jar1963
68.Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet, and so does Mindy Metalman, Lenore notices, all of a sudden.David Foster WallaceThe Broom of the System1987
69.If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.Saul BellowHerzog1964
70.Francis Marion Tarwater's uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.Flannery O'ConnorThe Violent Bear it Away1960
71.Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there's a peephole in the door, and my keeper's eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.GŸnter Grass (trans. Ralph Manheim)The Tin Drum1959
72.When Dick Gibson was a little boy he was not Dick Gibson.Stanley ElkinThe Dick Gibson Show1971
73.Hiram Clegg, together with his wife Emma and four friends of the faith from Randolph Junction, were summoned by the Spirit and Mrs. Clara Collins, widow of the beloved Nazarene preacher Ely Collins, to West Condon on the weekend of the eighteenth and nineteenth of April, there to await the End of the World.Robert CooverThe Origin of the Brunists1966
74.She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him.Henry JamesThe Wings of the Dove1902
75.In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.Ernest HemingwayA Farewell to Arms1929
76.“Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.Rose MacaulayThe Towers of Trebizon1956
77.He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.Joseph ConradLord Jim1900
78.The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.L. P. HartleyThe Go-Between1953
79.On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.Russell HobanRiddley Walker1980
80.Justice?—You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.William GaddisA Frolic of His Own1994
81.Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash.J. G. BallardCrash1973
82.I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.Dodie SmithI Capture the Castle1948
83.“When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,” Papa would say, “she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.”Katherine DunnGeek Love1983
84.In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point.John BarthThe Sot-Weed Factor1960
85.When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.James CrumleyThe Last Good Kiss1978
86.It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man.William FaulknerIntruder in the Dust1948
87.I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled.Robert GravesI, Claudius1934
88.Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I've come to learn, is women.Charles JohnsonMiddle Passage1990
89.I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.Saul BellowThe Adventures of Augie March1953
90.The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods.Sinclair LewisBabbitt1922
91.I will tell you in a few words who I am: lover of the hummingbird that darts to the flower beyond the rotted sill where my feet are propped; lover of bright needlepoint and the bright stitching fingers of humorless old ladies bent to their sweet and infamous designs; lover of parasols made from the same puffy stuff as a young girl's underdrawers; still lover of that small naval boat which somehow survived the distressing years of my life between her decks or in her pilothouse; and also lover of poor dear black Sonny, my mess boy, fellow victim and confidant, and of my wife and child. But most of all, lover of my harmless and sanguine self.John HawkesSecond Skin1964
92.He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.Raphael SabatiniScaramouche1921
93.Psychics can see the color of time it's blue.Ronald SukenickBlown Away1986
94.In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.Carson McCullersThe Heart is a Lonely Hunter1940
95.Once upon a time two or three weeks ago, a rather stubborn and determined middle-aged man decided to record for posterity, exactly as it happened, word by word and step by step, the story of another man for indeed what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal, a somewhat paranoiac fellow unmarried, unattached, and quite irresponsible, who had decided to lock himself in a room a furnished room with a private bath, cooking facilities, a bed, a table, and at least one chair, in New York City, for a year 365 days to be precise, to write the story of another person—a shy young man about of 19 years old—who, after the war the Second World War, had come to America the land of opportunities from France under the sponsorship of his uncle—a journalist, fluent in five languages—who himself had come to America from Europe Poland it seems, though this was not clearly established sometime during the war after a series of rather gruesome adventures, and who, at the end of the war, wrote to the father his cousin by marriage of the young man whom he considered as a nephew, curious to know if he the father and his family had survived the German occupation, and indeed was deeply saddened to learn, in a letter from the young man—a long and touching letter written in English, not by the young man, however, who did not know a damn word of English, but by a good friend of his who had studied English in school—that his parents both his father and mother and his two sisters one older and the other younger than he had been deported they were Jewish to a German concentration camp Auschwitz probably and never returned, no doubt having been exterminated deliberately X * X * X * X, and that, therefore, the young man who was now an orphan, a displaced person, who, during the war, had managed to escape deportation by working very hard on a farm in Southern France, would be happy and grateful to be given the opportunity to come to America that great country he had heard so much about and yet knew so little about to start a new life, possibly go to school, learn a trade, and become a good, loyal citizen.Raymond FedermanDouble or Nothing1971
96.Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space.Margaret AtwoodCat's Eye1988
97.He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.Virginia WoolfOrlando1928
98.High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour.David LodgeChanging Places1975
99.They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.Jean RhysWide Sargasso Sea1966
100.The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.Stephen CraneThe Red Badge of Courage1895
Source: American Book Review. Web: /node/80738

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