“All this happened, more or less”*: Ten Great Opening Sentences in Fiction

Sometimes the opening sentence of a novel comes down on you like the safety bar on a roller coaster. That first line locks you in; you tingle with excitement, anticipating the ride that is to come. Here are ten of the most engaging lines that begin works of fiction, some classics, some new, some you may never have heard of, but all captivating:

1.  It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice 

2. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

3.  It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984

4.  “To start with, look at all the books.”  Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot 

5.  “They met at the museum to end it.”  – Johnathan Lethem, You Don’t Love Me Yet

6.  “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.” D.H. Lawrence,  Lady Chatterley’s Lover

7.  “I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday.” John Scalzi,  Old Man’s War 

8.  “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 Plath, The Bell Jar

9.  “She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.” Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint 

10.  “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader 

*Note:  Post title is from Kurt Vonnegut’s classic, Slaughterhouse-Five 


Are You with the Banned?

Celebrating Banned Books Week,

September 30th-October 6th

Banned Books Week is currently celebrating its 30th anniversary! “Celebrating the freedom to read,” this annual event aims to raise awareness for the works of literature that are frequently challenged by and even banned from communities across the country.

Did you know that some of the best works of all time, and very often the ones you’ll have studied in school, have at one time or another been censored from the public? Did you know that the practice of censorship in literature still goes on today?

Yup, somewhere out there, a blinkered individual could actually be pondering at this very moment the dangers of a mind raised on an “occultist” story like Bridge to Terabithia, while someone of the same mindset argues that the bildungsroman The Perks of Being a Wallflower is “unsuited to a teenage audience.” Seriously.

And it’s not all Sex, by Madonna, Gossip Girl and l8r, g8r that are considered poised to corrupt our youth either. No, those are part of a tiny minority. What are the most frequently banned books? Our greatest ones, of course.

Of Random House’s list of the 100 best novels of all time, 46 classics have been either challenged or banned altogether, some on a frequent basis. Of Mice and Men is one that is commonly challenged today. Even in the last decade the list of banned books still includes To Kill a Mockingbird (for “racial themes”), Brave New World (for “insensitivity, offensive language,” and probably for being dystopian), and The Catcher in the Rye (for being “a filthy, filthy book”), proving we are far from the progressive culture we may like to think of ourselves as.

No sauciness allowed. Of all the reasons books are banned or challenged, sexual explicitness is cited the most often.

Even when it does not concern “important” works, the point at hand here is that individuals and governments consider it their right to censor what others read, and that (to me) sounds borderline Cultural Revolution/Big Brother-esque. It’s a tad hypocritical that the freedom of speech has been such a huge part of the public discourse lately, while so little thought is ever given to intellectual freedom:

Intellectual freedom can exist only where two essential conditions are met: first, that all individuals have the right to hold any belief on any subject and to convey their ideas in any form they deem appropriate, and second, that society makes an equal commitment to the right of unrestricted access to information and ideas regardless of the communication medium used, the content of work, and the viewpoints of both the author and the receiver of information.

Intellectual Freedom Manual, 7th edition

If libraries begin to ban books from the public, we’ve basically descended into a Fahrenheit 451 situation. Oh wait, that’s another banned book, so that analogy means nothing…

If a book offends you, don’t read it. But please, don’t worry that Harry Potter will turn an entire generation of kids into wand-wielding Satan worshipers. Moreover, if the people trying to censor these stories really took the time to read them, they might just realize how much more faith in humanity these “offensive” books store than the censors do themselves.

There’s a lot more out there to fear than a mind fed with imagination, fantasy, and original thought. And with that, I’ll get off my soapbox.

To see a visual history of the last thirty years of banned books, check out this great timeline from the American Library Association. It contains thirty entries between 1982’s banning of Slaughterhouse Five (a “just plain filthy” book) and 2012’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (banned for concerning “ethnic studies”). You can also find out who’s behind most of the book challenges, and other information, in the ALA’s Statistics page.

More famous banned books:

The Hunger Games Trilogy, Reasons: sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and violence

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Reasons: offensive language, racism, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and violence

My Sister’s Keeper, Reasons: homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence

The Chocolate War, Reasons: nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group

His Dark Materials trilogy, Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group

What are your thoughts on banned books? Do some deserve to be taken off the shelves? If so, which ones? We’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!


Judging a Book By Its Cover

A six year-old judges classic novels solely on their covers.

At a loss as to how to explain the premise of more than a dozen classic works to her kindergarten-aged daughter, one blogger mom decided to find out how they might appear to the mind of a small child. The results will amuse and surprise you, mostly for the fact that six year-olds expect any book they come across to have “a good really nice ending.” How wrong they are…

But don’t worry, no childhood innocence was crushed in the making of this article.

The Great Gatsby

“I think it’s a book about a haunted theme park and it stars a magical magic guy and he’s good and evil and he’s trying to get rid of the ghosts. And I think at the end, since it’s haunted by a ghost, he tried to make the park go on fire and it did. “

Animal Farm

“It looks like a book for kids. I think it’s about a donkey and a pig that do not like each other and they both live on a farm for animals. The same farm. It looks like it would be a funny book with a good really nice ending. “

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

“I think it’s a book for kiddies, it’s a colorful book. I think it’s about a tiny bird that flew over a cuckoo bird’s nest, that is why it’s named that. It looks like a really sweet kiddy book.”

Wuthering Heights

“It looks weird. I think this must be a book about a tree. I would not read a book about just a tree. And it looks like it’s a sad tree too since it has no friends.”

A Clockwork Orange

“It’s about a person who is a robot, a very colorful robot. He’s pretty fancy for a robot.”

The Fellowship of the Ring

“This book is about a tree on a hill. The tree is the star of the book and it’s a very nice tree but everyone else is mean. I think the tree has a magical ring and some evil guys capture the ring and put him on the top of the hill so they can watch him. “

Farenheit 451

“I think this is about a gigantic robot who goes on fire and he doesn’t like himself. It has a sad ending. It looks like a book for teens. The title means fire, a really really really big fire since the number is 451, that would mean it was really hot. So the robot must get really hot. Maybe that is why he is so sad.”

And just for fun…

Fifty Shades of Grey

“On the cover is a very weird looking Zebra. The book is about a zebra that wears pants. It’s a drama book about this zebra guy who likes to go fishing for aces.”

Click here for more hilarious and heartwarming summaries from the mind of a six year-old.


Hemingway’s Last Farewell

“But after I got them to leave and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”
– Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, Chapter 41

So ends Ernest Hemingway’s 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms, a famously simple, perfunctory line at the end of an epic tale of war and love. But it almost wasn’t to be.

It has become the stuff of writing lore that Hemingway admitted to writing 39 variations on the novel’s ending before deciding on the published version. 39 could-have-been lines that the public never got to see–until now, that is. 

Hemingway’s long-time publishing house, Scribner, is releasing a new edition of A Farewell to Arms, complete with every possible alternate ending the novelist imagined (there are actually a total of 47, by his grandson’s careful analysis). The edition will also feature the original cover art for the book, at right, as well as the list of Hemingway’s other options for its title: these include “Love in War,” “World Enough and Time,” “Every Night and All,” “Of Wounds and Other Causes,” and “The Enchantment.” The last was crossed out by the author, but who knows how close the work could have been to being called by one of these other names.

The New York Times was able to provide a sneak peek to a few of these 47 endings, each of which was numbered and named. They range from the nihilistic…

No. 1, “The Nada Ending”:

“That is all there is to the story. Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.”

..to the optimistic.

No. 7, “The Live-Baby Ending”:

“There is no end except death and birth is the only beginning.”

One was even suggested by Hemingway’s good friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, and is named after him. In this, the author concluded that the world “breaks everyone,” and those “it does not break it kills…”

No. 34, “The Fitzgerald Ending”:

“It kills the very good and very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

If you recognize the quote, it did in fact make its way into the published copy of the book, but earlier on, in Chapter 34.

So, why the need to uncover these now, after many decades safely tucked away within the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library? Though Hemingway is still a strong seller for his publisher, they admit the need to constantly present his body of work afresh. There has also been a push to place the author’s collected works further into the limelight than his formidable persona, which has appeared recently quite dramatized in the films “Midnight in Paris” and “Hemingway and Gellhorn,” as well as the bestselling novel The Paris Wife. Finally, the fact that the collection of alternate closing lines exists is a testament to a bygone way of writing, as well as to Hemingway’s commitment to “getting the words right,” as he once put it. With so many writers today composing on computers, would it be possible to uncover such a glimpse into the writing process as this? But also, is it fair that we should get to see it?

Not according to Sean Hemingway, one of the author’s grandsons:

“I think people who are interested in writing and trying to write themselves will find it interesting to look at a great work and have some insight to how it was done,” he says. “But he is a writer who has captured the imagination of the American public, and these editions are interesting because they really focus on his work. Ultimately that’s his lasting contribution.”

Others may disagree. Do you feel that the drafts should go unpublished? Or are you happier knowing how Hemingway arrived at A Farewell to Arms‘ classic ending? Did Hemingway, in your opinion, make the right choice with the ending he selected?


Gatsby from Multiple Perspectives

After teaching The Great Gatsby for many, many years, I couldn’t help but get bored with the same old interpretation of the geography:  East Egg represents the old rich, West Egg represents the new rich, The Valley of the Ashes represents industrialization.  Blah, blah, blah.  That’s why I was excited to find a totally different (although controversial) interpretation right here on eNotes. 

 It all began with one of the answers in our Question and Answer section which, ironically, was on the synecdoche in The Great Gatsby.  Suddenly, my teacher-mind (numbed by years of teaching the exact same thing) became reenergized again and I posted a query to the discussion board.  What was most interesting was to hear the loud voices of dissenters!  (Was it truly surprising to me that, as teachers, we would desire to cling to our time-tested ways of looking at literary pieces?)  Desiring to research the new perspective myself, I came to a lesson on The Great Gatsby from Multiple Perspectives, began to peruse and be amazed.

Suddenly, I was being presented with The Great Gatsby from a feminist, Marxist, and archetypal point of view!  Never before had I broached the subject of how Fitzgerald himself had “treated” women in his novel or whether the female characters were, in fact, “complete” or victims of “gender inequality.”  It was totally new to me to discover a separation of the characters into the powerful and the powerless, as cars as the symbols of power, or of the impact of a specifically Midwestern, middle-class narrator.   I had never thought before to divide characters into types such as the hero, the scapegoat, the loner, and the temptress.

Furthermore, as a teacher, it is just so exciting to inject novelty into a subject that becomes so very monotone year after year.  Now the trysts of Daisy and Gatsby, the bloody blotch on the yellow car, Nick’s quaint cottage in West Egg, and those ominous eyes of Eckleburg will never quite look the same ever again.


Light in February: Plantation Diary Find Sheds New Light on Faulkner Novels

For scholars, there is no bigger coup than finding new information that offers insight to a writer’s processes, character construction, or plot development.  Even if one is working with a lesser known writer, there is joy in discovery.  To find previously unknown information for an author as popular and extensively researched as William Faulkner is akin to finding a gem in a junkyard.

Sally Wolff-King is a professor and Southern literature scholar at Emory University. She appears to have found the ledger that Faulkner used as a model for the famous scene in Go Down, Moses in which the character Isaac McClassin opens his grandfather’s farm ledgers and discovers his family’s slave-owning past.  Many of the character names, used in this and other works, seem to have come from this ledger as well.

The diary/ledger belonged to Frances Terry Leak, a plantation owner. Leak’s great-grandson, Edgar Wiggin Francisco Jr. was a childhood friend of Faulkner’s, and the two men remained friendly throughout their lives.  Mr. Francisco’s son, now 79, recalls that Faulkner was a frequent guest in their home and had a keen interest in the ledgers.

Character names that appear in both the ledgers and Faulkner’s novels include Moses, Isaac, and Toney in Go Down, Moses, Caddy/Candace (Candis) and Ben in The Sound and the Fury and Old Rose, Henry,  Milly, and Ellen in Absalom, Absalom!.

Of particular interest to scholars is that Faulkner has given many of his white characters the names of slaves listed in the ledgers. Why did Faulkner do this?  Professor Wolff-King believes Faulkner is trying to “give the slaves a voice.”


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