Sometimes the impact of the first sentence in a story or a novel is breathtaking. It just sets such a tone to the novel that it seems unlikely the story should drag. And sometimes the beginning alone sustains the rest of the story. Since I write, I read about writing. There are hundreds of prescriptive websites that instruct you on how to write and what to write. I don’t find their instruction particularly helpful with respect to my writing; but the prescriptions are great for reading. For example, when I read somewhere that it helps to have a beginning that is full of impact, my attention immediately turned to observing and noticing beautiful and momentous beginnings in all that I read ( I also notice not so great beginnings). So here are three of my favourite beginnings for novels and, incidentally, they are all written by the same author. These beginnings make you want to say, “please, sir, I want some more.”
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green islets and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city…Fog in theeyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.
– Bleak House by Charles Dickens
In this paragraph, Dickens has already introduced us to the bleakness. Fog is bleak. The second element of genius is the relevance of the description across time and space. Parts of 21st century industrialising India can also be described in those words. In fact, I was reminded of the paragraph as I walked to work in the morning; as I walked in the smog. And the enveloping ways of the fog is full of constraint, limitations, despair, hopelessness – bleak. The atmosphere is set. Our social strata is set what with ‘shivering little ‘prentice boy’ and ‘ ancient Greenwich pensioners’. We know it is a ‘great(and dirty) city’ that has ‘tiers of shipping’ and ‘waterside pollutions’. We know that this is a story that is set among the working class of a newly industrialised. We know its newly industrialised because ‘people on the bridges (are) peeping over….as if they were up in a balloon hanging in the misty clouds’. An analogy like that demonstrates that this ‘fog’ is new and unexpected much like that balloon in the clouds. There is enough reiteration for the concept to sink in but not too much.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch ofincredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
– A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
After the first sentence, we know this is a historically momentous time; a time of contradictions, of polarisations, of dichotomies. Such turbulence can only be brought about by some kind of macro political, social and/or economic upheaval. And again, it is a description that transcends space and time. Parts of 21st century India could be described this way. And the author knows about this universal significance as he says ‘in short, the period was so far like the present period’.
“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”
– Hard Times by Charles Dickens
Hard Times is my favourite Dickens novel. And this is why. The paragraph describes the post-renaisance era’s preoccupation with ‘objective, cold, scientific, rational facts’ (a preoccupation that continues to this day!) So again it describes a situation that transcends time and space. Dickens also lays the foundation for a critique of a system of education that seeks to ‘form minds of reasoning animals’ by ‘plant(ing) nothing else, and root(ing) out everything else (other than facts)’.
The major themes that Dickens introduces in the first paragraphs of each of these novels pervade through the entirety of the novel much like the fog in “Bleak House”. This consistency of genius is what makes books like these read time and again over centuries. Crucial as beginnings are to stories and narratives, it takes genius to see it through in the entire novel. So as a prescriptive for writing, it is useless, atleast for beginners.
January 24, 2011 | Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: beauty, book review, books, Charles Dickens, Critiques, culture, dichotomies, Experiences, feminism, ideology, Literary criticism, meaning, politics, PostaWeek2011, reading, social implications, society, writing | 2 Comments