Featured image: Keira Knightley, Anna Karenina, UK Film 2012
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 1 June 2018
One Sentence: a story about great sentences and great first sentences
This article on one sentence may veer in an entirely different direction, or not! I don’t always want to be predictable.
Journalists and newspapers often write articles on the first lines or one sentence of novels in holiday periods and the best of them are marvellous. Jane Austen and Tolstoy are always the first cabs off the rank.
Great opening sentences in fiction
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
— Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, 1813
Comment: This one sentence isn’t a bad summary of the novel. Underlying it is an indictment of late 18th Century inheritance laws and the inability of women to make their own way in the world, of which Jane Austen was painfully aware. She covers this topic in all her books on 18th century county life and manners.
The Story: David Bader’s Haiku barely does a better job than Jane’s sentence.
Single white lass seeks,
landed gent for marriage, whist,
No parsons, thank you.
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
— Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, 1878
Comment: Leo Tolstoy’s one sentence doesn’t summarise the novel but it is a wonderful beginning and sets the atmosphere that permeates the book.
The first sentence, however, doesn’t make the novel and a brilliant first sentence is not necessary to a good novel. Nevertheless, from the two examples, one does want to read on: Find out what happens next!
Other contenders are:
More excellent first sentences in Fiction
The war in Zagreb began over a pack of cigarettes.
— Girl at War by Sara Nović, 2015
Comment: I don’t know this book. It is a first novel. The reviewers on Goodreads in general loved it, with a rating of 4.
Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.
—The Stranger by Albert Camus, 1942
Comment: To some extent the short sentences capture the entire mood of the book. Camus believed in the absurd — life devoid of meaning, and more. Camus and Sartre as writers and philosophers are not as popular today as they once were. Camus won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957 and died at the age of 46 in 1960.
It was a bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
—1984 by George Orwell, 1949
Comment: A trite and clever one sentence. I think it is debateable whether this is a great first sentence or not. It does set the scene for things to come. I’m not sure that George Orwell wasn’t too serious as everyman’s conscience to write great first sentences.
The Story: David Bader’s Haiku is clever but inadequate, I think.
Love is a thoughtcrime.
The Thought Police make Winston
My favourite George Orwell novel Burmese Days has a relatively uninteresting one sentence, but his portrait of the Burmese magistrate U Po Kyin, one of the great villains in literature, in the first few paragraphs, is masterful. In his non-fiction, the first sentence of Homage to Catalonia isn’t inspiring, although the description that follows is; whereas, the first sentence of The Road to Wigan Pier is terrific.
The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we understood the gravity of our situation.
—The Secret History by Donna Tartt, 1992
Comment: The first ‘one sentence’ presents the problem and makes you want to find out more. This is one of those first novels that come along occasionally and sweep you off your feet. We loved it. The only off-putting note was that Donna Tartt was mentored by Brett Easton Ellis. A surprise more than anything.
Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to speak French.
—The Luck of the Bodkins by PG Wodehouse, 1935
Comment: The epitome in one sentence of understated English humour as demonstrated repeatedly in Wodehouse novels.
The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
— The Go-Between by LP Hartley, 1953
Comment: This one sentence sets the reader up for a novel that revolves around retrospection and nostalgia, the loss of innocence and the recollection of painful memories (Oxford Royale Academies).
I don’t remember reading the book but I’ve seen the 1971 movie. Not enough for me to comment.
In case another one sentence quotation immediately leapt to mind: but that was in another country; And besides, the wench is dead. That quote was from The Jew of Malta by Christoper Marlowe, 1589 with much more murder and mayhem than Shakespeare’s equivalent. I’ve mentioned elsewhere the illuminating fact that ‘Big Data’ may help history. It has already demonstrated that Christopher Marlowe did contribute to the three Henry VI plays by Shakespeare.
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’
—The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
Comment: A nice enough first one sentence (or rather two) but does it epitomise The Great Gatsby or is it somewhat obscure. I don’t remember this opening line, though I’ve read the book about three times. Although, perhaps making you want to read more, I don’t think it captures anything of the essence of the book. And, as such, I personally don’t think it deserves a place in the hierarchy. However, others do!
The Story: David Bader’s Haiku is perhaps the equivalent of the first sentence.
Beauty to weep for —
coral, azure, apple green.
His custom made shirts.
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous insect.
—The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, 1915
Comment: A strange and disturbing one sentence beginning that does exemplify Kafka’s writing and is the premise for all that follows, but the path of the story one couldn’t predict.
The Story: David Bader’s Haiku does a superb job.
‘What have I become?’
Uncertain, Gregor Samsa
puts out some feelers.
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.
— The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, 1952
Comment: Hemingway was unique in his approach to the short sentence, which makes him easy to parody. But, the slightly longer one sentence above sets the scene as well as it could possibly be set. We did The Old Man and the Sea in the middle years of high school. It is one of the most beautiful of Hemingway’s stories. Although, too easy to dismiss.
They shoot the white girl first.
— Paradise by Toni Morrison, 1998
Comment: I don’t know this book or Toni Morrison, another Nobel Prize Winner, but this is surely a great first sentence for a fairly grim book set in rural Oklahoma. Goodread reviewers liked it with a rating of 3.8, but it seems to be a complex book and a difficult read. This one sentence for me sets up a slightly different book. But, then I am addicted to crime novels.
David Sedaris obviously tries hard with first lines and other one sentence lines, but also creates great beginnings:
My father always struck me as the sort of man who under the right circumstances might have invented the microwave oven or transistor radio.
It is his birthday, and Hugh and I are seated in a New York restaurant, awaiting the arrival of our fifteen-word entrées.
When Hugh was in the fifth grade, his class took a field trip to an Ethiopian slaughterhouse.
(Cited by the Copybot)
David Sedaris was recently in Australia. He seems an interesting man and a thoughtful one. I was impressed how he started writing by sitting in an obscure American franchise the IHOP every night (originally International House of Pancakes). IHOP was a family restaurant but grungy and not cool. One got a free pot of coffee and they left you alone. He listened to people and wrote his diaries. He did this for years. He now lives mostly in England. But, David Sedaris is a comedian so that he may be exaggerating.
Unfortunately, the Copybot article is called David Sedaris’ Tricks to Great First Sentences.
I hope these don’t catch on or they may exacerbate one of my pet peeves about the ‘American Creative Writing Workshop’ promulgated in university courses and elsewhere. You must have read American novels, often acknowledging the help of the workshop, where the author begins and ends each chapter in the same repetitive way: set the scene at the beginning, always end with a teaser to an issue or problem that is resolved in the next chapter. It is most annoying, and worse it becomes so ingrained that the authors no longer know they’re doing it.
Jerry Jenkins is another one with some great examples of first lines, but his purpose is also to teach you how to write great opening lines.
I suppose one shouldn’t worry too much. There is after all only one opening line, one sentence, in a book — not two repetitions with every bloody chapter.
I shouldn’t complain. I once entered a competition to write a first ‘one sentence’ and won $800 worth of Waterford crystal glasses, except I didn’t get the ones I wanted. I’ve tried to find my winning entry, but not succeeded. It was about desultory thunder on the horizon, the Rose Cafe, a too knowing and over-ripe teenage girl and sexual suspense at dusk, in a drought affected Australian country town in the heat of summer. All packed into a tight one sentence, which I’ve forgotten.
Let’s move to non-fiction, even non-fiction can have good first lines.
Great opening sentences in Non-fiction
A frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe.
—The Communist Manifesto, 1848 by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (Helen McFarlane’s 1850 translation)
Comment: Considering what follows, this is a great opening one sentence in an unlikely place.
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.
—Unweaving The Rainbow by Richard Dawkins, 1998
Comment: For a biologist Richard Dawkins has a compelling prose style. The one sentence is great, but he explains in the second sentence. (No suspense.) The unlucky ones are those who are not born at all. I prefer JBS Haldane’s, I would kill for two brothers or eight cousins.
We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.
— Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson, 1972 (it’s partly autobiographical).
Comment: Another first one sentence that basically summarises the plot, but a great road story even if most of it takes place in Las Vegas and inside their heads.
The first sound in the mornings was the clumping of the mill-girls’ clogs down the cobbled street. Earlier than that, I suppose, there were factory whistles which I was never awake to hear.
— The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell, 1937
Comment: A brilliant first one sentence introduction to what follows, but I like the second sentence too.
Louvain was a dull place, said a guidebook in 1910, but when the time came it made a spectacular fire.
— The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan, 2013
Comment: I haven’t read the book and I’m not that interested in the topic. But, the first one sentence intrigues me and makes me want to read it!
By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree.
— The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert 2002
Comment: This one sentence is a great hook. I want to read more.
I arrived in the Alice at five a.m. with a dog, six dollars and a small suitcase full of inappropriate clothes.
— Tracks by Robyn Davidson, 1980
Comment: I think Robyn Davidson is a wonderful writer. Tracks is of course the story of the young woman who crosses the desert with camels. I can’t think of a better scene-setting one sentence.
The title of this book is not my own creation: It is a direct quote from an inmate I met at Bangkok’s women’s prison in January of 1999.
— Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer by Rolf Potts, 2008
Comment: The title of the book is a trifle verbose as is the one sentence but the juxtaposition is catchy. Doug Walsh who has read the book says:
I absolutely love this opening sentence. Who among us, travel writers particularly, doesn’t wish to have an anecdote as juicy as that to drop into an otherwise self-effacing confession? Potts is a wonderful teller of travel stories and this book is a superb teacher of the form, as Potts follows each story with a behind-the-scenes tell-all about how the story came to be, what parts were fabricated (after all, even travel writers have to put the art of story telling front and center to keep reader’s attention) and the mechanics of the journey.
Hence even non-fiction can sometimes do with a killer first sentence.
Another brilliant one sentence
Suzanne Langer Philosophy in a New Key
Suzanne Langer is a serious academic and a philosopher to boot. As an academic one would not expect her to begin with a killer first sentence and she doesn’t. The pertinent one sentence is the second sentence in the second paragraph.
Well she had a bit of qualifying and explaining to do. And besides, she probably didn’t realise the mind-numbing stopping power of this one sentence, as it isn’t directly related to the theme of the book and certainly isn’t the new key she intended.
Suzanne Katharina Langer (née Knauth; December 20, 1895 – July 17, 1985) was an American writer, philosopher and educator and was well known for her theories on the influences of art on the mind. She is best known for her 1942 book Philosophy in a New Key: A study in the symbolism of reason, rite and art. (Wikipedia)
Langer was a student of Alfred North Whitehead and heavily influenced by him and Ernst Cassirer. Whitehead was an English mathematician and philosopher who co-wrote Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell (a former student). From 1910 to the 1920s Whitehead gradually turned his attention from mathematics to the philosophy of science. Cassirer was also interested in the philosophy of science but primarily interested in the philosophy of symbolic forms. Hence man is a symbolic animal whereas animals perceive their world by instincts and direct sensory perception. (Wikipedia)
Suzanne Langer therefore had an excellent academic pedigree. Philosophy in A New Key is primarily about signs and symbols. The latter distinguish man from animals. Goodreads reviewers give the book a high rating of 4.1 and one of them Tom Schulte says the second part courageously attempts to define art and settles on music as the case to build on.
Philosophy in A New Key was certainly popular for what was basically an academic treatise. It was into its sixth printing by 1954. There were two new editions in 1951 and 1956.
Langer’s marvellous one sentence
The way a question is asked limits and disposes the ways in which any answer to it—right or wrong—may be given.
Think about it!
I’ll provide some context before I offer my own explanation of why this is such an important one sentence.
My discovery of Philosophy in a New Key
My discovery of Philosophy in a New Key was largely accidental. I was undertaking a loose course called theoretical zoology as part of my final undergraduate honours year in 1972.
An American, a visiting postdoc in the Department, was studying sexual communication in backswimmers (underwater beetles in ponds and swimming pools that attract a mate by loud stridulating noises caused by playing their legs like violins) and in waterstriders. The latter bounced a light, floating object, like balsa wood, to cause special ripples across the water to attract a mate and warn off other males.
He was a tutor in the course. I’m not sure how it came up but he mentioned that he’d begun Philosophy in A New Key but only got to that one sentence and didn’t ever get any further. He remained stuck on the first page. It struck me as interesting at the time, sufficiently so that I looked up the book and read most of the first chapter. And the idea of that pivotal one sentence has remained with me ever since. Indeed, as I have been writing this piece I have come across people using Langer’s one sentence (sometimes not accurately) on at least two occasions.
Neither of us got far enough in the book to realise that it was about something else entirely.
Suzanne Langer is a clear and lucid writer but her prose is full of ideas, most of them complex ones. In the first paragraph of the book she sets up the idea that every age in Philosophy has its own preoccupations and then goes on to the fabulous one sentence about questions.
In the remainder of the chapter she calls these ages epochs and mentions the Ancient Greeks, the early Christian church, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance as examples of such epochs (the term comes from Whitehead).
What we missed or didn’t care about was that she was going to say that the study of symbolism presaged a new epoch. Because of her background and influencers, one could also infer that science and mathematics were her mix, as well as philosophy. We also had no idea that she was targeting art.
The similarity of these epochs to TH Kuhn’s paradigms in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962 is thought provoking, but as I wasn’t aware of Kuhn until 1979 it is not relevant to this discussion.
What Langer’s one sentence means to me and others
Both the American postdoc and I in our ignorance were stuck on the sentence.
The way a question is asked limits and disposes the ways in which any answer to it—right or wrong—may be given.
I found the one sentence mind-boggling then and I still do now. On a superficial level, it tells the cliche: think outside the box. But, think outside the box alone is as misleading as the famous lines of Yeats The Second Coming is to understanding our own era.
It’s framing the question not the answer that limits us.
What does this mean? I don’t think that it is possible to give a definitive answer, but it can and certainly should change our way of thinking about things.
Herman Bergson in his blog The Philosophy Class does a reasonable job:
Every age in the history of philosophy, she says, has its own preoccupation. You see a certain grouping of ideas, not by their subject-matter, but by a subtler common factor which may be called their ‘technique’.
The ‘technique’ or treatment of a problem begins with its first expression as a question. The way a question is asked limits and disposes the ways in which any answer to it , right or wrong, may be given.
This is the quintessence of her approach. Not [that] the great philosophical systems are the most important matters in philosophy, but the questions from which they originated.
We all have a natural way of thinking. It is filled with assumptions about life, the world. We hardly are conscious of the fact that we are assuming certain basic principles.
But, though they are not stated, they find expression in the forms of our questions. A question is really an ambiguous proposition: the answer is its determination. There can be only a certain number of alternatives that will complete the sense.
Therefore, she says, a philosophy is more characterized by the formulations of its problems than by its solution of them. Its answers establish an edifice of facts; but its questions make the frame in which its picture of facts is plotted.
Our philosophical questions are limited by fundamental assumptions which appear so obvious that we do not know what we are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occured to us. Thence, every moment in history has its horizon.
All I can give is give a few examples.
- Thomas Kuhn in talking about modern physics and paradigm shifts says that it is only when the anomalies build up that ‘normal science’ or the existing paradigm begins to come under question, generally by the young and researchers from outside the field. Max Planck said cynically that the new paradigm (modern physics) is only fully accepted when the proponents of the old die out. Obviously the proponents of the old have no interest in reframing their questions. Langer’s sentence explains the difference between paradigms. Kuhn and another philosopher Lakatos set-up these descriptive ideas on frameworks to explain how science works. They don’t fully, but are still an interesting way of looking at science, even if their ideas don’t quite nail it.
- Belief systems: We all have our own belief systems and world views. Some of us question them but most do not. These are built up from childhood and they are very hard to change. Even, if we realise that some of our beliefs are wrong, we are still very reluctant to change them. One aspect of the participative design workshops and ‘Search Conferences’ that I used to be engaged in was to expose participants to each others’ world views early on and then hopefully get them to realise that they had to take these into account, and to strive for solutions within competing world views. Some could make this perceptual leap and some would always remain blind to it.
- Politicians: In a representative democracy, politicians are self-selected. They form political parties and it is usually against the best interests of the political party for voters to question the dogmas and ideologies that they take as self-evident. Hence it is probably not in the best interests of politicians and they would say the same of voters to ponder Langer’s proposition. There are many other power groups in society with similar vested interests.
I don’t think these thoughts do Langer justice, but I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey to this point. I think Langer’s one sentence is more thought provoking in the long term. I certainly don’t think about it day to day. But I do think about this one sentence on occasion, and even more occasionally I try to change the way I think based on Langer.
Key Words: One sentence, First Sentence, Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, George Orwell, 1984, Albert Camus, The Stranger, The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald, Suzanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key
Reminding me of good first one sentences from fiction were:
Oxford Royale Academies for the quotation about LP Hartley
Jerry Jenkins Blog How to write a great opening line for your novel or nonfiction book
The Copybot blog provided great first lines from David Sedaris. Unfortunately, another article on how to write them.
David Sedaris Theft by Finding Interview, ABC Radio Australia 2017, podcast (27 min)
David Sedaris Downunder: I’ve gotten some great stories in Australia, ABC News, Australia 2018
Great Novels in Haiku
David Bader’s book is brilliant and a must read!
David Bader One Hundred Great Books in Haiku, Penguin, 2010
Reminding me of good non-fiction beginnings were:
John Rentoul The Independent The best first sentences of non-fiction texts: From The Communist Manifesto to The Social Contract October, 2014.
Doug Walsh Blog A year in first sentences: non-fiction edition 2016.
Suzanne Langer Philosophy in a New Key
Biography of Suzanne Langer
Summary and details
ENotes provides a good summary and mini-analysis of Philosophy in a New Key
Prefaces to Philosophy in a New Key. This site by Anthony Flood also gives a much more detailed entry into Langer and her New Key, including an important essay on Great Orders of Art which gives context to her philosophy. Although nothing probably beats reading the book Philosophy in a New Key, which as mentioned above I haven’t, yet!
Tony Flood in a series of personal communications pointed me to the following quotation from Whitehead.
When you are criticizing the philosophy of an epoch, do not chiefly direct your attention to those intellectual positions which its exponents feel it necessary explicitly to defend. There will be some fundamental assumptions which adherents to all the variant systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose. Such assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them. With these assumptions a certain limited number of types of philosophic systems are possible, and this group of systems constitutes the philosophy of the epoch.
Alfred North Whitehead Science and the Modern World, 1925
Obviously Langer would have been aware of this and has adapted it to her own work. It is hard to be original in the modern world and one always owes much to one’s mentors. Were we attributing this as to a discovery in science, of course, one would have to defer to Whitehead as the earlier source. However, Langer is more concise and directed, and also more quoted. Hence the marvellous sentence is hers alone.
Herman Bergson’s Philosophy Class quotation in Second Life does quite a good analysis of Langer’s one sentence.
Christopher Marlowe Quotation
The Jew of Malta 1589, an alternative to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
Two interesting comments:
Sheridan Morley, New York Times on Marlowe’s Appalling Appeal 1999
Spark Notes also has this to say about the quote and the play
Excellent choices for opening gambits. We’re travelling now and I’ve had to skim, but look forward to an in-depth read of this. Thanks Tony.
Thank you for taking the time on your travels Peggy. Regards! Hope the trip is going well.