The Value of Opening Lines (Module C Adv)
Opening lines deserve our special attention; whether they are in novels, poems or films they are invariably carefully chosen by the composer. Here are four examples from Advanced Module C that show the importance of the beginnings of texts–how we should read them, how they help us establish our relationship with the rest of the text, and why they may not really be the beginning at all. There are many clues to the author’s interests in the early stages of texts that can help get your reading on the right track.
Elective 1: Representing People and Politics
Brave New World (Novel, Aldous Huxley)
“A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories.”
The monochrome of grey will be repeated throughout the world created by Huxley becoming a motif for conformity and authority, or lack of individualism, but what is remarkable is the use of the word ‘only’ which immediately marks this building as unusual by what it is not.
Huxley’s description of the single building immediately places it in the context of those that are much taller and obviously the norm.
34 stories in the context of the 1930s, or indeed anytime after that, is by no means a ‘squat’ (meaning short, thick) building. In this opening line, there is a foreshadowing that this world is not of our time.
Wag the Dog (Film, Barry Levinson)
The film begins with an epigraph, which is a quote used at the beginning of a text that usually highlights a theme. This one is an old joke that is used to give a lesson. “Why does a dog wag its tail?” The expected answer would be something like because it is happy but the quote continues, “Because the dog is smarter that its tail. If the tail was smarter, the tail would wag the dog.” The quote is about power and about how power structures can be reversed. In the case of politics, it is saying that politicians are supposed to represent the interests of the people but the film shows that power can become unbalanced and politicians manipulate the people instead. If the people are not conscious and aware, they become the dog that is being wagged by their tail!
The Crucible (Drama, Arthur Miller)
An Overture is a term usually reserved for a musical composition; it is written as an introduction to a longer work, such as an opera or a musical comedy. Miller gives the overture a clear voice of authority which is weighted heavily with historical detail and may contradict the characters’ behaviour and speech on stage. This monologue is communicated directly to the audience and can be delivered through various methods.
Miller opens his four act play with one of six overtures which intersperse Act 1. Each piece provides the audience with valuable information and backstory prior to key characters’ entrances on stage. The first focuses on Reverend Parris and includes a detailed biography of his religious/political position in Salem in 1692. It is with this rich blend of information that the audience is first presented with Salem’s system of theocracy, ‘a combination of state and religious power whose function was to keep the community together, and to prevent any kind of disunity that might open it to destruction by material or ideological enemies’ (Miller, p.16). The opening scene stages Reverend Parris kneeling and praying at the bedside of his daughter, Betty, as Miller takes us into the Puritan household. This group fled from persecution in Europe and established a parochial community ‘hardly forty years before’ (Miller).
Other detailed biographies are also afforded to the characters Thomas Putnam, John Proctor, Rebecca Nurse, Mr Hale and Giles Corey, each of which brings particular historical elements to the narrative.
Elective 2: Representing People and Landscapes
Art of Travel (Non-fiction, Alain de Botton)
“It was hard to say when exactly winter arrived.”
The Art of Travel begins with a reference to the weather. It seems quite humdrum, the idea of grey skies creating a slightly depressed mood. De Botton is writing in London, a city famed for its dull and dreary weather and it has long been the habit of English writers to use the weather as a symbol for the emotions of characters. In this case, de Botton goes on to use the weather in this chapter as an important contrast between two of his most significant concepts–the everyday, repetitive life of ‘home’ and the potential for the exotic and unusual experiences of ‘travel’–and he uses an element of the landscape to make his point.
In fact, de Botton’s and Huxley’s opening lines share the idea of greyness as a symbol of dissatisfaction. They speak to each other because they are written from a similar context (in place if not in time). This shows us that even though we might be looking at the opening line of a text, there is a long history of writing that may have influenced it. So, the beginning may not really be the beginning…but that is a story for another day.
Look and listen carefully at the opening lines you experience in films, books and TV or your related texts. What clues can you detect in the composer’s choice?