Posted by: Jeanie F | October 3, 2010

Call Me Ishmael and Other Great Openers

In today’s New York Times, Michael Cunningham writes a great piece about the intricacies of translation and the relationship between reader and writer. He begins with the well-known opener of Moby Dick: Call me Ishmael. He breaks down the phonetics – the “music” of the sounds and candence. He points out that “Call me Arthur,” or “Call me Bob” just wouldn’t be the same. He remarks on the confidence and force that the narrator demonstrates in this line.

This got me thinking about other great openers:

– “They shoot the white girl first.” (Paradise, Toni Morrison)

– “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”  (Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf)

– “Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.” (Waiting, Ha Jin)

– “They’re out there. Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them.” (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey)

It’s hard to argue that few first lines can beat “Call me Ishmael,” but they can certainly make or break a reader’s engagement in a novel. All of the openers I’ve quoted above made an impression on me that pulled me into the story immediately. They’ve stayed with me over the years because each contains so much information in so few words.

What are  your favorite openers? What does it take for you to consider an opener “great”?


  1. I have to admit that “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” really sucked me into Pride and Prejudice.

  2. The Fountainhead’s (“Howard Roark laughed”)

    and then, Catcher in the Rye (“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.”)

  3. Last Night I dreamt I went to Manderlay….


    I also agree about Pride and Prejudice.

  4. @Cookie, Holden Caufield is one of my all-time favorites! I just finished reading Skippy Dies, which reminds me in so many ways of Catcher in the Rye. As soon as I sort out my thoughts about it, I’ll post a review. If you liked Catcher, I think you’ll like Skippy!

    @Jo, LOVE Rebecca, and what a great opener. Thanks for the reminder!

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