Posted by: Sara Jean | October 10, 2009

O Brave New World, That Has Such People In’t

Let’s start with a discussion of starts.  Beginning a story, novel, or song is a tricky business.   Good openings don’t just capture an audience’s attention, they set the tone for the rest of the piece and establish a relationship between the narrator and reader or listener.

Take one famous example: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my head 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.”

I learned in high school english that this a perfect example of setting up trust between the narrator and the reader.  In this case, our narrator is telling us, I’m an impartial observer. I won’t make judgments on the story that’s about to follow. This is important because, as it turns out, Nick Carraway (the narrator in question) is not the main character in the story.  He’s merely relaying it to us, the readers.  His trustworthiness therefore must be established from the beginning, so that we keep reading.

In addition, these opening lines give us some critical information about the story.  We know it will be about people with money, and more specifically we know it will be about two sorts of people with money: those that have always had money and those that have come upon it more recently.  The narrator is apparently of the former sort; the protagonist is of the latter.  The relationship between these two characters, and more broadly between these two forms of wealth, is key to an understanding of The Great Gatsby.

I love the opening of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

In a novel with a dense, swirling narrative full of long sentences and relatively few periods, it’s a simple, one-line paragraph.  Yet in this one line we are given a wealth of information.  First, we can gather that this act, this buying of the flowers herself, is an unusual one for Mrs. Dalloway, perhaps because someone else normally does it for her.  Therefore we can assume she has servants or housekeepers, and must be of a higher class.  Second, since she is performing this duty alone we can surmise it must be an important one, and she can’t leave it to just anyone.  As it turns out, the whole novel centers around Mrs. Dalloway’s preparations for a party, of which these flowers are an integral part.  This line is setting up the story as one about Mrs. Dalloway’s decisions regarding the party, and also her decisions about her own life.  Her narrative is one full of fretting, second-guessing, and accepting.  This opening decision–the one to buy the flowers–is merely the first (or last?) in a long line of decisions that have led her to her current position.

My favorite Shakespearean opening is from Hamlet.  A simple, “Who’s there?” is the beginning of a conversation between two guards, and so a question sets the tone for a play full of questioning.

Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities famously begins

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

in perhaps the best example of comma splicing I’ve ever seen in my life.  I suppose Dickens can do whatever he wants, though.

Music has its fair share of good beginnings.  The Beatles were the first to start a song with a fade-in (“Eight Days a Week”) and the first to think of opening with the sound of feedback (“I Feel Fine”).  And how about the first line of “Norwegian Wood”: “I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me.”  That one turns the traditional pop music macho narrative  on its head, in just a few words.

And I adore the step-by-step descent of the bassline on Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking.”

All this is to say, my blog is about good words, put together nicely.  It’s about words that I love, even though I didn’t think of them myself.  I will also, as demonstrated above, throw in some of my own words about music, movies, and whatever other art forms I feel like discussing.  Here’s to the beginning of a new blog!


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