18 Iconic First and Last Lines of Literature

There are many reasons why books end up becoming classics. Universal themes, unforgettable characters, or often they reflect the times in which they are published perfectly. A classic novel has the power to inspire and influence its readers for decades, sometimes even centuries. While many lists argue over which novels should be included as 'the greatest ever,' the number of which manage to open or close with perfect lines is far smaller.

It's a tricky thing for an author to do, to capture the book's spirit in its opening or closing moments, but the books we've included below have done just that. How many have you read?

Opening Lines

1. “It was a pleasure to burn”

Book: ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury

Book: ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury

This fiery start succinctly sets the tone for Bradbury’s 1953 Dystopian novel, a classic of Science Fiction.

2. “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”

Book: ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Book: ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age classic still captivates fresh audiences almost a century later.

3. “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

Book: 'The Old Man and the Sea' by Ernest Hemingway

Book: 'The Old Man and the Sea' by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway’s Nobel prize-winning novella is often seen as his last true masterpiece.

4. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Book: ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen

Book: ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen

Austen's Classic Regency novel was first finished in 1797 but was not published for another 16 years.

5. "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York."

Book: ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath

Book: ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar is the only novel written by the American writer and poet Sylvia Plath, originally published under the pseudonym "Victoria Lucas” in the UK. It wasn’t released in the US until 1971 as Plath’s mother didn’t want people to recognize themselves in its pages.

6. “In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.”

Book: ‘The Heart is a Lonely Hunter’ by Carson McCullers

Book: ‘The Heart is a Lonely Hunter’ by Carson McCullers

After the runaway success of her debut novel, McCullers eventually took an apartment in a Victorian house in Brooklyn Heights shared by other prominent writers and artists like Salvador Dali.

7. "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

Book: ‘The Go-Between’ by L. P. Hartley

Book: ‘The Go-Between’ by L. P. Hartley

While his career was slow to take off, the English author eventually published 17 novels, six volumes of short stories, a book of criticism, and was awarded a CBE.

8. "Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person."

Book:  ‘Back When We Were Grownups’ by Anne Tyler

Book:  ‘Back When We Were Grownups’ by Anne Tyler

A winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, author Anne Tyler has published 23 novels as of 2021, the first being 'If Morning Ever Comes' in 1964, aged just 22.

9. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

Book: ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ by J. D. Salinger

Book: ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ by J. D. Salinger

Since its publication, the novel has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide, with around 685 copies a day still being sold.

Last Lines

1. "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both."

Book: ‘Charlotte's Web’ by E.B. White

Book: ‘Charlotte's Web’ by E.B. White

With a story so packed full of drama, fear, and important choices, this last line beautifully sums up the story's main protagonist.

2. "For Siddalee Walker, the need to understand has passed, at least for the moment. All that was left was love and wonder."

Book: 'Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood' by Rebecca Wells

Book: 'Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood' by Rebecca Wells

Siddalee's conclusion on her past through pain and heartache was summed up in a bitter-sweet sentence to conclude this book.

3. "But I don't think us feel old at all. And us so happy. Matter of fact, I think this the youngest us ever felt."

Book: 'The Color Purple' by Alice Walker

Book: 'The Color Purple' by Alice Walker

'The Color Purple' is undoubtedly a classic and has been adapted into both an Oscar-winning movie and a highly celebrated musical.

4. "A last note from your narrator. I am haunted by humans."

Book: 'The Book Thief' by Markus Zusak

Book: 'The Book Thief' by Markus Zusak

This haunting last line manages to encapsulate the entire meaning of 'The Book Thief' in just one line, commenting on how much evil humans are really capable of.

5. "There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can't fix it, you've got to stand it."

Book: 'Brokeback Mountain' by Annie Proulx

Book: 'Brokeback Mountain' by Annie Proulx

Brokeback Mountain's complicated love story between two midwestern men ends with a heartbreaking yet accepting tone, a poignant last line for sure.

6. "Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this."

Book: 'Little Women' by Louisa May Alcott

Book: 'Little Women' by Louisa May Alcott

This timeless coming-of-age novel was turned into a Hollywood blockbuster in 2019, making over $218.9 million at the box office.

7. "The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years. All was well."

Book: 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’  by J.K. Rowling

Book: 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’  by J.K. Rowling

The famous Harry Potter series was made into 8 separate movies and established itself as one of the best-selling franchises of all time.

8. "He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance."

Book: ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley

Book: ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley

This horror classic about a scientist's mad creation of life from death was inspired by a horror story competition with fellow writer Lord Byron.

9. "I ran with the wind blowing in my face, and a smile as wide as the valley of Panjsher on my lips. I ran."

Book: 'The Kite Runner’ by Khaled Hosseini

Book: 'The Kite Runner’ by Khaled Hosseini

After being published, 'The Kite Runner' became a hit and spent almost two years on the New York Times bestseller list.

About the Author

Sam Walker-Smart

Sam Walker-Smart is a British culture journalist currently based in Bristol. His work has appeared in CLASH, The Huffington Post, Vinyl Me Please, Barcelona Metropolitan, Little White Lies, and other outlets. He enjoys writing about inclusivity in gaming, fun for seniors, educational apps, and entertainment for all. In his spare time, he enjoys weird folklore, sad songs, and good beer.