Top 10 Dickens’s Opening Lines

Some believe that there are few things which are more important in a novel than its opening line, especially since it sets the tone for the rest of a book. Charles Dickens excelled in crafting a memorable opening line, and I especially appreciate those of his creations that have humour/irony in them, which contrast things or introduce curious facts. Below are my ranked personal favourites.

I. A Tale of Two Cities: “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 of incredulity, 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.”

II. Dombey and Son: “Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.”

III. Great Expectations: “My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.”

IV. A Christmas Carol: “Marley was dead: to begin with“.

V. Little Dorrit: “Thirty years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun, one day.”

VI. Our Mutual Friend: “In these times of ours, though concerning the exact year there is no need to be precise, a boat of a dirty and disrepute appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between Southwark Bridge, which is of iron, and London Bridge, which is of stone, as autumn evening was closing in.

VII. Nicholas Nickleby: “There once lived, in a sequestered part of the county of Devonshire, one Mr Godfrey Nickleby: a worthy gentleman, who, taking it into his head rather late in life that he must get married, and not being young enough or rich enough to aspire to the hand of a lady of fortune, had wedded an old flame out of mere attachment, who in her turn had taken him for the same reason. Thus two people who cannot afford to play cards for money, sometimes sit down to a quiet game for love.

VIII. David Copperfield: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anyone else, these pages must show.”

IX. Martin Chuzzlewit: “As no lady or gentleman, with any claims to polite breeding, can possibly sympathise with the Chuzzlewit Family without being first assured of the extreme antiquity of the race, it is a great satisfaction to know that it undoubtedly descended in a direct line from Adam and Eve; and was, in the very earliest times, closely connected with the agricultural interest.

X. Oliver Twist: “Among other public buildings in the town of Mudfog, it boasts of one which is common to most towns great or small, to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse there was born on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events, the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.”

Do you agree with my selection/ranking? What is your favourite opening line of Dickens? Do you pay attention to novels’ opening lines and are they significant to you?


30 thoughts on “Top 10 Dickens’s Opening Lines

  1. I find it extraordinary that, for all that these novels start with a bang, they pretty much all started life as serialised episodes with Dickens not having crafted later chapters or indeed liable to tinker with the emphases and even directions of his narratives.

    Or so I understand – it’s been a while, decades really, since I took a studious interest in his modus operandi, and the facts are rather hazy at this stage in my life! Great choices though: I think it’s important to have your attention grabbed from the start, like the ‘Hwæt!’ uttered at the start of Beowulf. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I find that Dickens paid an amazing amount of attention to the beginnings of his novels and it seems like they don’t always tie in perfectly with how the novels actually end. I also find the quality of Dickens’ novels to decline as they go on – the second half of “Bleak House” was not written with the extreme detail and care of the first half – it becomes more “episodic”. In that regard, my view of Dickens has always been a bit less than others.

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  2. I don’t necessarily rank them as you do, however I do agree with you about the ‘quality’ of Dickens’s openings. If I had to pick a favourite book, I’d probably go for Copperfield, though the sheer genius of Two Cities’ opening shines through the years!

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  3. The inimitable Dickens! The double entendre of A Christmas Carol always makes me laugh. The first-person beginnings of David Copperfield and Great Expectations are also so perfect. And I’d put in a word for the opening of Bleak House, too…although the first sentence does not do much on its own.

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  4. Dickens certainly was a master of opening lines. I agree with A Tale of Two Cities, nothing can really compete with that. A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield both have opening lines which make you curious to read the book.

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  5. I’d forgotten the opening of Nicholas Nickleby but such fun, and a thoroughly enjoyable book too. For my favourite Dickens though I can’t quite decide between OMF and Bleak House. Dombey is a wonderful one as well.

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    1. I am still to read Our Mutual Friend. I read some reviews and I now I fear that it may top two of my absolute favourites which are Bleak House and Dombey and Son as you also mention. It is a very pleasant thought though to have some great and unread Dickens still to come.

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  6. This is a great post, Diana.

    For sheer effectiveness, I would rank “Marley was dead” (a deadpan line about a dead
    man) as Dickens’s best-ever opening line, with it was the best of times, the worst of times second.

    These lines (they remind of Herman Melville’s first sentence in Moby-Dick) show why Dickens is so readable by ordinary readers as well as very literate ones and show his brilliance as raconteur, narrator.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, and for your insightful comments. I agree about the first place for effectiveness going to A Christmas Carol. Since it is a morality novella of a sort, I guess Dickens had to be punchy and to the point (rather than poetic or long-winded). That’s also so very true about his readability. There is definitely a Dickens book for every kind of reader.


  7. You asked about other books as well. The opening of Anna Karenina, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gaddis’ J.R. (Which is a single word), every novel of James Joyce, all stick in my mind. A great first line can make a difference, definitely.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Clearly. I have to look up again others you mention, but isn’t Kafka in the league of his own on this? The Trial begins: “Someone must have made a false accusation against Josef K., for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong”. He establishes the whole world right there in this first sentence, and everything flows from it, like opening a Pandora’s box. I love how indisputable this first line appears. No explanations are given, since it is an unquestionable fact in Kafka’s world, just like Gregor waking up and finding himself turned into an insect.

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  8. Perhaps I agree with the best start from Dickens. Indeed, a brilliant beginning.
    It is curious that recently with my loved ones they discussed the famous principles of outstanding writers and could not find anything more brilliant than the beginning of Anna Karenina. Tolstoy. “All happy families are similar to each other, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

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