‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.’

The radio programme Listen with Mother began each children’s story with the above quotation. When I was a child, my mum used to utter the same words before she read to me. In a way, this question became the opening line to every story we read together. As I got older, and started to read by myself, my mum introduced me to some of literature’s most iconic opening lines. I was fourteen when I read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, at my mum’s recommendation. Its beginning is as haunting as the rest of the novel: ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’.

The ‘again’ is crucial. This line is the start of a story that has already happened; we are really at the end, rather than the beginning. In a single sentence, du Maurier introduces us to two pasts: the recent past and the dream Mrs de Winter had ‘last night’, together with the more distant past when she was at Manderley. I suppose the ‘again’ takes on yet another meaning if you reread the novel.

To begin a book again is almost a contradiction in terms. What happens to opening lines when we already know the ending? Take the beginning of Plath’s The Bell Jar: ‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’ It’s difficult to explain how the feeling of this line changes once you’ve read the rest of the novel. It’s possible, of course, that Plath’s novel is one many of us may have begun before we reach the opening line, given the well-documented details of her life.

There’s a difference, then, between opening lines and beginnings. Opening lines give us a false sense of beginning, despite the opening of Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love: ‘The beginning is simple to mark.’ Our reading starts before we turn the page to Chapter One. Think of the front cover, the blurb, the dedication, perhaps an epigraph. Nevertheless, we are taken with opening lines. You’ll find plenty of articles listing the best ones, with all the big hits, from ‘Call me Ishmael’ to ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’. If you give me a famous opening line, chances are I’d be able to tell you which novel it comes from. 

Some novels open in the midst of things. Woolf begins Mrs Dalloway with the following: ‘Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.’ There’s little to say about this sentence that critics haven’t already explored, such is its impact, although it appears unassuming. Woolf does not give us time to orient ourselves in her novel’s world. As the best opening lines do, her words generate a series of questions. Who is Mrs Dalloway? To whom is she speaking? What are the flowers for?

I think our interest in opening lines lies in such questions – the proliferation of possibilities that beginnings offer us. Before we get to know the characters or the plot, the possibilities of where a novel may take us seem endless. On the other hand, some opening lines betray significant details. John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany begins this way:

‘I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.’

A Prayer for Owen Meany is, inexplicably, one of the greatest novels I have ever read. For weeks after I read it, I couldn’t start another book because I needed the time to process what I had just finished. It is every bit as bizarre as its opening line suggests, what with the casual way in which Irving embeds the fact that Owen ‘was the instrument of [the narrator’s] mother’s death’. I’ve never recommended the novel to my friends, because I frankly don’t know how to explain what it’s about. It is like nothing I have ever read, and moments from it have haunted me ever since.

Opening lines may draw us in, but the endings often carry the most emotional weight. Despite its strange opening, I cried at the end of A Prayer for Owen Meany. Yōko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor begins in a much simpler way: ‘We called him the Professor.’ Their beginnings may be vastly different, but I’ve never found reading as emotional as I did when I read each of these novels. There are those books you can’t let go of, but I’d wager that this is rarely because of their openings. In Rebecca, it is the novel’s twist and its final moments that stay with me. The Housekeeper and the Professor is the only book that has made me cry before the ending, but I had to look up its opening line. Beginnings can only tell us so much about a novel, and some of the most well-known opening lines are from novels I can’t stand (Moby-Dick, I’m looking at you).

Our interest in opening lines tells us something of the importance of beginnings outside of literature. We have plenty of clichés – with our fresh starts, new chapters and our insistence that tomorrow is a new day. To add another cliché: as one door closes, another door opens. In every ending there is a beginning. The start of each week, month and year is a new beginning of sorts, but we can never start again completely from scratch. As I’ve said, with new chapters come possibilities. Even if the ending is disappointing, there are other opening lines, other options we can try. A new day may not be a completely new start, but with it comes new possibilities.