Nothing sets the tone of a novel quite like a great opening sentence — nothing, that is, except an equally great epigraph. Not every book begins with a quotation or excerpt from another work, but those that do offer a sense of what you’re about to read; for that reason, they often resonate even more after you finish the novel they introduce. Even so, these seven exemplars of the genre are compelling no matter when you read them.
“THE SUN ALSO RISES” BY ERNEST HEMINGWAY
You are all a lost generation.
– Gertrude Stein
Ernest Hemingway is a luminary of the “Lost Generation,” but he didn’t actually coin the phrase. That honor belongs to his mentor, Gertrude Stein, whom he quoted at the beginning of The Sun Also Rises — a vital text of that movement, which represents those born at the turn of the 20th century who came of age during World War I and found themselves disenchanted in its aftermath. In literary terms, it refers specifically to the likes of Hemingway, Stein, and American expatriate writers who traveled abroad to find themselves — and write some of the 20th century’s defining works.
“FRANKENSTEIN” BY MARY SHELLEY
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
– John Milton, “Paradise Lost, X, 743-45”
Whether you call the reanimated corpse at the center of Mary Shelley’s timeless classic Frankenstein or Frankenstein’s Monster, neither name is entirely accurate: the former because Frankenstein is the man who made him, the latter because he isn’t truly a monster. More than anything, he’s a victim — a being created in a lab to deny the laws of physics who, like Adam in this quote from John Milton’s epic poem, didn’t ask for any of this. It’s relatable to anyone who’s ever felt as though their circumstances were thrust upon them and they had no say in the matter — which is to say, everyone.
“HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS” BY J.K. ROWLING
Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass, they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure. This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.
– William Penn, “More Fruits of Solitude”
Only one book in the Harry Potter series begins with an epigraph: The Deathly Hallows, which concludes J.K. Rowling’s seven-part epic. It does so in part by saying goodbye to many more characters than you’d expect of a fantasy series aimed at children, with several fan favorites meeting devastating ends. Beyond that, there’s also the villain Voldemort’s obsession with achieving immortality no matter the cost, and the hero Harry’s growing realization that to confront his arch rival is also quite literally to confront death. With all that in mind, it would have been strange not to open the book with Penn’s ruminations on mortality, especially as the epigraph is also about the comfort our friends bring us: Harry Potter is about many things, but few through-lines are as ever-present in its pages as the importance of friendship.
“THE LITTLE FRIEND” BY DONNA TARTT
The slenderest knowledge that may be attained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge attained of lesser things.
– Saint Thomas Aquinas, “Summa Theologica”
The Little Friend isn’t as acclaimed as Donna Tartt’s other two novels, The Secret History and The Goldfinch, but her overlooked sophomore effort is essential reading for admirers of the Pulitzer Prize–winning author. A kind of mystery following a little girl coming of age in 1970s Mississippi, the book is concerned with nothing if not knowledge — especially because its central question is who murdered the protagonist’s older brother years before.
“ANSWERED PRAYERS” BY TRUMAN CAPOTE
More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.
– Teresa of Ávila
Speaking of lesser-known works from revered authors, Truman Capote’s unfinished novel went so far as to take its title from this musing attributed to Teresa of Ávila. The missing chapters of Answered Prayers have been the subject of much speculation since the book was published posthumously in 1986; one confidante claims to have read them in the years before Capote’s death, and that he gave her the key to a safe-deposit box supposedly containing them, though no such container was ever found. The book’s own editor’s note suggests that Capote may have destroyed those chapters himself.
In its own way, this behind-the-scenes intrigue touches on the epigraph’s meaning: If the book’s existence may itself be thought of as a kind of answered prayer, the effort to make it whole shows that getting what we want — or think we want — rarely solves our problems the way we expect it to.
“THE INFORMERS” BY BRET EASTON ELLIS
One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the very middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life, because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up or I got out. That was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my door. A great problem, deserving acute attention. I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed.
– John Fante, Ask the Dust
Not everyone confronts their problems head-on — especially in the books of Bret Easton Ellis. The opening paragraph of John Fante’s masterwork could have served as the epigraph of several of Ellis’ books, but the fact that he chose it for The Informers is no accident. The collection of short stories is set in Los Angeles, as is Fante’s Ask the Dust (and, for that matter, most of both writers’ bodies of work), and its criss-crossing characters are beset with an ennui that makes them even less proactive than Arturo Bandini, Fante’s tragicomic hero.
“TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD” BY HARPER LEE
Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.
– Charles Lamb
You wouldn’t think that a single quote could touch upon the perspectives of both Atticus and Scout Finch, but the epigraph that opens To Kill a Mockingbird does just that. Harper Lee’s all-timer of a novel is required reading for a reason, offering readers of all ages a profound lesson on how to treat those who are different from us and, really, how to look at the world. Too many of us forget what it was like to be a kid, whether by choice or through the simple passage of time, and few books remind us of that age of wonderment quite like To Kill a Mockingbird.
Photo credit: Jasmina007/ iStock