Great First Lines or “This is just the beginning…”

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."(Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell) 

A friend and I were discussing our favorite writers, those who offered an amazing phrase, art in a sentence. After discussing our mutual admiration for Norman McClean’s masterful, A River Runs Through It, he suggested I read Wallace Stegner starting with Angle of Repose. When I got the novel, I didn’t have time to start the book, but I did want to know what words he chose for his beginning. I opened the cover and read the dedication, For my son, Page. My response was, “Really, you’re an author, and you name your son, Page?” I was stuck. I did move on, and so far, Stegner has delivered as my friend promised. My fixation on first words did lead me to pick my top five first lines of novels, though my list is subject to change without notice.

  1. Call me Ishmael. – Herman Melville, Moby Dick
  2. 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 Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
  3. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
  4. All children, except one, grow up – J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan.
  5. It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen – George Orwell, 1984 .

In the Bible, there is a library’s worth of first lines, sixty-six in all. The classic is from Genesis, In the beginning, God created… Thought the oldest gospel, Mark reflects Genesis in his message about Jesus starting with, This (is just) the beginning of the good news of Jesus the Christ… (my emphasis added). The original ending of Mark has Easter with the women going to the tomb and seeing an angel who tells them, Don’t be afraid. You’re looking in this tomb for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, but he’s not here… He’s going ahead of you, into Galilee… They go away afraid, and that’s it. Mark’s original ending was not left unscathed. Several others were added including a part about handling snakes. These editions miss Mark’s purpose — to let us know that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was …just the beginning. For Mark, Jesus was out of the tomb and off the page and in the world. We can run home like the women afraid, or we can go ahead, out into the world as the angel advises, looking for the one who is already out there, going ahead of you.

Whether in search of your haunting great white whale, whether it is your best of times or your worst of times, whether your family is happy or not, whether you are struggling unsuccessfully to not grow up like Peter Pan, or even if your clock is striking 13 and you’re losing whatever illusions you held before, Mark wants you to know, Jesus is out there. Look for him. Out of the tomb. Off the page. In the world.