The anatomy of an opening line

In my post of 2 April, I mentioned the first line of The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, as one of my favorite openings to a novel. Which got me to thinking about why it’s one of my favorites. I wondered if I could explain it, and even quantify it.

Here’s the line again. “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

Not a particularly long sentence, at just 23 words. And, given that “summer”, “the” and “I” are each repeated, Plath has actually used only 20 different words. So how much do we learn from the use of these 20 words, before we’ve even moved on to the second sentence of the novel?

Firstly, we know the setting, which is New York. Secondly, we know the season, which is the summer. Thirdly, we know the weather, which is sultry. Those are the obvious ones.

But, fourthly, we know the year, or at least we can work it out easily. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were real-life New Yorkers, convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage (for passing secrets to the Russians) and executed in the electric chair in Ossining, NY, on June 19th 1953. (Of course, cooperating with Russian intelligence agents is today so de rigueur that half the occupants of the White House are doing it, but that’s a different story.) So, whilst Plath doesn’t tell us directly the year in which her story is set, she gives us more than enough evidence to work it out for ourselves.

Fifthly, we know something about the disposition of our first-person protagonist, Esther Greenwood. We don’t, at this point, know that she’s called Esther Greenwood, and we won’t find that out until later. But we do know that she’s suffering from something that you might call dissonance. “I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” It’s a safe bet, even before reading further, that she knows in a literal sense perfectly well what she’s doing in New York. But, in another sense, she feels out of sorts. She feels that she doesn’t fit.

And we are entitled to come to that conclusion not just because of the last ten words of the sentence, but also because of the use of the word “queer”. And this – if you’re still with me – is the clever part. We know the summer is “sultry”, literally. But the summer is not, in itself, “queer”. It’s the narrator who is feeling “queer”, but ascribes that oddness to the season, rather than to herself. And that’s a feeling that many readers might recognise: when you’re feeling out of sorts, depressed, anxious or lonely, it can feel that the problem is out in the world, in the external circumstances, rather than within yourself.

Am I reading too much into it? Maybe so. But it’s a free country. Well, it was a free country until… Okay, let’s not go there.

But I think it’s at least arguable that we know five solid, distinct things about the setting of the novel by the time we’ve read the first 23 words, an average of only 4.6 words for each lesson learned. And that’s quite a return on your reading investment, an efficiency that quite possibly comes from the fact that Plath was a poet more than she was a novelist.

Most of all, the line does something unquantifiable: it sets a tone, an atmosphere, that pervades the whole book, and makes you want to read more. And that, of course, is the whole point of a great opening line.

Which brings us to the moral of the story: don’t fraternise with the Russians, or they’ll put you in the chair. Or at least they used to, in the good old days.

2 thoughts on “The anatomy of an opening line

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