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Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Universally Acknowledged

Some of you may have read this new list of the best 100 first lines in literature. It's basically all over the place, with some excellent choices and some bad ones. Anyway, Jane came in at 2 with "it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife," which is pretty much universally acknowledged to be a damn good first sentence. But it's become so overused, so shorthandish, that sometimes it's easy to forget WHY this sentence works so well. Here is what i said in its defense over at Numero Cinq:

Austen’s sentence has become a cliche, but it’s actually so perfect, so laden with irony (Her “truth” is in fact, not universally acknowledged but rather assumed to be so by her characters. So the statement that it is universal is, itself, a specific non-universal viewpoint. This is how people talk when they’re unable to justify their weird social ideas–they assume “everyone knows” x or y). It sets the tone for her playful use of free-indirect discourse, the way she never lets you stay comfortable knowing whether there’s an omniscient narrator or she’s taking the limited viewpoint of her heroine. And it also introduces he themes of her book: the flawed perspective of individuals, the absurdity of social assumptions. All in all, a job well done.
Never question Saint Jane!

And here is what Simon said, helping me formulate the above argument. As you can see, I spiced up my own argument with his brilliance.

Simon: it's a well constructed sentence that flows very nicely
me: also it's not universally acknowledged
Simon: there is a level of subtly accomplished irony
me: thats the whole point
Simon: the statement that it is universal is, itself, a specific non-universal viewpoint
1:01 PM exposes the way people talk
assert things as givens when they don't want to (or are unable to) explain their reasoning
attempt to just establish certain mores/assumptions as fact
and since clashing perspectives and mores are the major theme of the book, it sets that out quite nicely
1:02 PM but these things only become clear once you have read the book and become acquainted w the characters
hence, good sentence
me: this is in line with what I'm writing
Simon: WORD
1:03 PM the book is all about why people say certain things at certain times, and how that lines up with what they actually believe / what is actually true

Readers, why do you love this sentence, or any of Jane's first sentences (they're all gems, as far as I'm concerned, particularly Emma, Persuasion, P+P, NA)?

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  1. Nadia6:15 PM

    I think one of the things that's interesting about P&P's opening is the word acknowledged--since some of the conflict comes from Darcy & Co. being repelled by how open the Bennetts seemed.

    One interesting thing about Emma and P&P is how they're both limited viewpoints, but Austen brings you into that limited viewpoint.

    Oh and a couple of random thoughts, Sarah, but you've mentioned how much you love Ulysses a few times. I'm thinking of giving it a shot, but I'm terrified. Any advice for getting through it?

    One novel that does really well on the 20th century lists as well was The Great Gatsby. What is your opinion of it, ma'am?

    On the Gatsby and Ulysses note, there is a last line list and Gastby and Ulysses (surprise!) are both on it and closer to the top.

  2. Nadia6:16 PM

  3. Nadia--my best advice for Ulysses is to take it slow, and read an annotation alongside the book, going back and forth before and after each chapter.
    Gatsby is more accessible and a very very absorbing read as well!