Lists of the Best Sentences — Opening, Closing, and Otherwise — in English-Language Novels


I go to encounter for the mil­lionth time the real­i­ty of expe­ri­ence and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncre­at­ed con­science of my race.

— James Joyce, A Por­trait of the Artist as a Young Man

For what do we live, but to make sport for our neigh­bors, and laugh at them in our turn?

— Jane Austen, Pride and Prej­u­dice

There is noth­ing more atro­cious­ly cru­el than an adored child.

— Vladimir Nabokov, Loli­ta

You’ve almost cer­tain­ly read all three of these sen­tences before, or even if you don’t remem­ber the lines in par­tic­u­lar, you’ve prob­a­bly read the famous nov­els they come from. The Amer­i­can Schol­ar high­lights them as three of the ten finest in Eng­lish-lan­guage lit­er­a­ture, along­side oth­er sen­tences com­posed by the likes of F. Scott Fitzger­ald, John Hersey, and Ernest Hem­ing­way. Writ­ing at, Roy Peter Clark explains just what makes these sen­tences so great, from Joyce’s use of “forge” (“For the nar­ra­tor it means to strength­en met­al in fire. But it also means to fake, to coun­ter­feit, per­haps a gen­tle tug at [the pro­tag­o­nist’s] hubris”) to Austen’s struc­tur­al ele­gance (“Who could not admire a sen­tence with such a clear demar­ca­tion begin­ning, mid­dle, and end?”) to Nabokov’s reflec­tion of his nar­ra­tor’s self-delu­sion.

At The Atlantic, Joe Fassler has sep­a­rate­ly col­lect­ed 22 writ­ers’ own favorite nov­el-open­ing lines, a list that includes the one from Nabokov’s high­ly quotable nov­el and anoth­er from lat­er in Joyce’s oeu­vre:

Loli­ta, light of my life, fire of my loins.

— Vladimir Nabokov, Loli­ta, cho­sen by Jonathan Santofler

State­ly, plump Buck Mul­li­gan came from the stair­head, bear­ing a bowl of lath­er on which a mir­ror and a razor lay crossed.

— James Joyce, Ulysses, cho­sen by Lydia Davis

I have nev­er seen any­thing like it: two lit­tle discs of glass sus­pend­ed in front of his eyes in loops of wire.

— J.M. Coet­zee, Wait­ing for the Bar­bar­ians, cho­sen by Antho­ny Mar­ra

If all these don’t sati­ate your appetite for well-wrought sen­tences, the Amer­i­can Book Review has not just its own run­down of the 100 best first lines from nov­els, but of the 100 best last lines as well, a list that fea­tures Coet­zee’s grim colo­nial fable as well as the work of Franzen him­self:

This is not the scene I dreamed of. Like much else nowa­days I leave it feel­ing stu­pid, like a man who lost his way long ago but press­es on along a road that may lead nowhere.

— J.M. Coet­zee, Wait­ing for the Bar­bar­ians

She was sev­en­ty-five and she was going to make some changes in her life.

— Jonathan Franzen, The Cor­rec­tions

“You can trust me,” R.V. says, watch­ing her hand.” “I’m a man of my

— David Fos­ter Wal­lace, The Broom of the Sys­tem

Before you leave a com­ment point­ing out that appar­ent frag­ment of Wal­lace’s sen­tence just above, let me reas­sure you that it appears exact­ly like that in The Broom of the Sys­tem — the nov­el just stops there — and that, if you read all the way to that point, you’ll find it a pret­ty bril­liant choice. This just goes to show that the sen­tence, though undoubt­ed­ly the fun­da­men­tal unit for any writer (“All you have to do is write one true sen­tence,” Hem­ing­way would say), always needs a con­text. This meta-list of best-sen­tence lists at Metafil­ter has many more high-qual­i­ty sen­tences for you to admire, and a fair few intrigu­ing enough to send you right out to go read them in con­text.

You can find some of the great books men­tioned above in our col­lec­tion of 575 Free eBooks.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Open­ing Sen­tences From Great Nov­els, Dia­grammed: Loli­ta, 1984 & More

Nabokov Reads Loli­ta, Names the Great Books of the 20th Cen­tu­ry

James Joyce Reads From Ulysses and Finnegans Wake In His Only Two Record­ings (1924/1929)

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (8)
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  • Niamh says:

    I am a sick man. I am a spite­ful man. I think my liv­er’s dis­eased:)
    Notes From The Under­ground

  • GameBoy says:

    Not sen­tence, but para­graph:

    “No live organ­ism can con­tin­ue for long to exist sane­ly under con­di­tions of absolute real­i­ty; even larks and katy­dids are sup­posed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, hold­ing dark­ness with­in; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. With­in, walls con­tin­ued upright, bricks met neat­ly, floors were firm, and doors were sen­si­bly shut; silence lay steadi­ly against the wood and stone of Hill House, and what­ev­er walked there, walked alone.”
    “The Haunt­ing of The Hill House” — Shirley Jack­son

    It’s sim­ply bril­liant.

  • Tina Brooks says:

    “The young boys came ear­ly to the hang­ing.” — Ken Fol­lett, Pil­lards of the Earth

  • lauhu says:

    “You would­n’t think we’d have to leave Chica­go to see a dead body.”
    –Richard Peck­’s “Shot­gun Cheatam’s Last Night Above Ground”

  • strothart says:

    “NOT EVERYBODY knows how I killed old Phillip
    Math­ers, smash­ing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is bet­ter to speak of my friend­ship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Math­ers down by giv­ing him
    a great blow in the neck with a spe­cial bicy­cle-pump which he man­u­fac­tured him­self out of a hol­low iron bar. Divney was a strong civ­il man but he was lazy and idle-mind­ed. He was per­son­al­ly respon­si­ble for the whole idea in the first place. It was he who told me to bring my spade. He was the one who gave the orders on the occa­sion and also the expla­na­tions
    when they were called for.”- Flann O’Brien

  • Guy says:

    “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gun­slinger fol­lowed. — Stephen King, “The Gun­slinger”

  • Guy says:

    “When Augus­tus came out on the porch, the blue pigs were eat­ing a rattlesnake—not a very big one.” — Lar­ry McMurtry, “Lone­some Dove”

  • Brian Urinal says:

    “They threw me off the hay truck about noon” is one of the great­est open­ing lines in lit­er­a­ture: this con­cise first-per­son state­ment con­veys a lot of infor­ma­tion. It’s from James M. Cain’s 1934 nov­el, The Post­man Always Rings Twice.

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