Opening Passages to Greatness

The other day I stumbled upon The Heart, a wonderful series in the online version of The Atlantic in which authors discuss their favorite passages in literature. Browsing through the collection, I came upon John Rechy’s discussion of his favorite, which is the opening sentence of William Faulkner’s short story, “A Rose for Emily,” which also happens to be on my list of greatest short stories, although I confess I had never before focused on that opening sentence, which is as follow:

When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant—a combination gardener and cook—had seen in at least ten years.

William Faulkner

Read it again, and you will start to see how much is going in that sentence, from the formal reference to “Miss Emily Grierson” (thus an unmarried woman) to the fact that no one but an elderly man-servant had seen the inside of her house for at least a decade (thus she died a recluse). As Rechy states:

Everyone goes to Miss Emily’s funeral, a ritual not to be missed. Clearly, this lady who died unmarried was of importance to everyone. And yet the town itself is eventually divided, and we see that division here in the first line. The men attend her funeral “through a sort of respectful attention for a fallen monument,” but that “sort of” tells us it’s qualified admiration. And there’s the subtle, metaphoric symbolism of “a fallen monument,” which is thematic—the fall of the South after the Civil War— which Faulkner often lamented, at times too much.

By contrast, the women go there to see what is inside that mysterious house.

And all gleaned from that first sentence, which ends with a hint of suspense. What might be hidden in that house? As with any great opener, I was intrigued–so intrigued, in fact, that I had to re-read that short story, which was even better than I remembered.

Which got me thinking about out the opening passages in other great short stories. So I browsed through some of my favorite stories and found several intriguing and well-crafted openers–sometimes just a sentence, other times more than one. I will confess that I also discovered that some of my favorite short stories–including ones by Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anton Chekhov, and James Joyce–do not start with a bang, although most do end with one.

Set forth below are examples of great opening passages from some of my favorite short stories. Enjoy!

  1. “The Swimmer” by John Cheever. “It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night.’ You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium, heard it from the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife preserve where the leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover.
  2. “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry: “One dollar and eighty–seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty–seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.”
  3. “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe: “TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”
  4. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce: “A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees.”

    Ernest Hemingway

  5. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway: “‘The marvelous thing is that it’s painless,’ he said. ‘That’s how you know when it starts.’”
  6. “Barnaby the Scrivener” by Herman Melville: “I am a rather elderly man. The nature of my avocations for the last thirty years has brought me into more than ordinary contact with what would seem an interesting and somewhat singular set of men, of whom as yet nothing that I know of has ever been written:—I mean the law-copyists or scriveners. I have known very many of them, professionally and privately, and if I pleased, could relate divers histories, at which good-natured gentlemen might smile, and sentimental souls might weep. But I waive the biographies of all other scriveners for a few passages in the life of Bartleby, who was a scrivener of the strangest I ever saw or heard of.”

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