Title

Opening pages
Quick revise

After studying this section you should be able to:

  • understand the importance of the opening pages of a novel
  • identify some of the important features of the opening pages
  • apply these ideas to the text you are studying

The opening pages of a novel are particularly important and often the first few pages tell us a good deal about the novel itself. In these opening pages the writer tries to capture our attention so that we want to read on. He or she will probably also present us with some important characters, themes or situations in these pages.

For example, read the following two openings.

It was nine-thirty on Christmas Eve. As I crossed the long entrance hall of Monk’s Piece on my way from the dining room, where we had just enjoyed the first of the happy, festive meals, towards the drawing room and the fire around which my family were now assembled, I paused and then, as I often do in the course of an evening, went to the front door, opened it and stepped outside.

I have always liked to take a breath of the evening, to smell the air, whether it is sweetly scented and balmy with the flowers of midsummer, pungent with the bonfires and leaf-mould of autumn, or crackling cold from frost and snow. I like to look about me at the sky above my head, whether there are moon and stars or utter blackness, and into the darkness ahead of me; I like to listen for the cries of nocturnal creatures and the moaning rise and fall of the wind, or the pattering of rain in the orchard trees, I enjoy the rush of air towards me up the hill from the flat pastures of the river valley.

Tonight, I smelled at once, and with a lightening heart, that there had been a change in the weather. All the previous week, we had had rain, thin, chilling rain and a mist that lay low about the house and over the countryside. From the windows, the view stretched no farther than a yard or two down the garden. It was wretched weather, never seeming to come fully light, and raw, too. There had been no pleasure in walking, the visibility was too poor for any shooting and the dogs were permanently morose and muddy. Inside the house, the lamps were lit throughout the day and the walls of larder, outhouse and cellar oozed damp and smelled sour, the fires sputtered and smoked, burning dismally low.

My spirits have for many years now been excessively affected by the ways of the weather, and I confess that, had it not been for the air of cheerfulness and bustle that prevailed in the rest of the house, I should have been quite cast down in gloom and lethargy, unable to enjoy the flavour of life as I should like and irritated by my own susceptibility. But Esmé is merely stung by inclement weather into a spirited defiance, and so the preparations for our Christmas holiday had this year been more than usually extensive and vigorous.

I took a step or two out from under the shadow of the house so that I could see around me in the moonlight. Monk’s Piece stands at the summit of land that rises gently up for some four hundred feet from where the little River Nee traces its winding way in a north to south direction across this fertile, and sheltered, part of the country. Below us are pastures, interspersed with small clumps of mixed, broad leaf woodland. But at our backs for several square miles it is a quite different area of rough scrub and heathland, a patch of wildness in the midst of well-farmed country. We are but two miles from a good-sized village, seven from the principal market town, yet there is an air of remoteness and isolation which makes us feel ourselves to be much further from civilization.

from The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Commentary

  • This is a ghost story and ‘Christmas Eve’ gives the beginning a specific location in time. Also there is the connection between Christmas and the traditional ghost story.
  • Hill sets up lot of contrasts here. What is their effect?
  • Note the image of cold, rain, mist, dismal weather – the graphic details such as ‘oozed damp’, ‘smelled sour’.
  • The narrator reveals something of his own susceptibility to melancholy.
  • Note how Hill evokes a sense of isolation – a removal from civilisation.
‘Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!’

The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a schoolroom, and the speaker’s square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster’s sleeve. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s voice, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside. The speaker’s obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders – nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was – all helped the emphasis. ‘In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!’ The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.

from Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Commentary

  • Emphasis placed on ‘Facts’ suggests a lack of emphasis attached to imagination.
  • Notice the bareness, plainness and monotony of the schoolroom. Even the speaker’s finger is ‘square’ and his forehead a ‘square wall’.
  • Note the description of his mouth. What kind of impression of him as a character does this give?
  • How do you respond to the description of the speaker?
  • What is the effect of this image of ‘little vessels’?

Progress check

Is the narrator in the first or the third person? What character (including the narrators) are introduced? What do you learn about them?

Now think carefully about these openings and consider the following points:

  • What situation is being presented?
  • What kind of atmosphere is created?
  • Are things explained to you or are you plunged into the middle of the story?
  • What do you notice about the writer’s style? Take note of the vocabulary, imagery, sentence structure used.
  • How does the writer arouse your interest and make you want to read on?
Summary
The extract from The Woman in Black is written in the first person which gives the piece a more personal feel to it – as though the narrator is addressing you personally. Hill sets the scene quite specifically – we are told it is Christmas Eve, for example, but despite this festive season, this scene seems to contain an air of solitude and melancholy. It is night time and the vocabulary used reinforces this sense of darkness and there is the suggestion of death and cold – ‘outhouse and cellar oozed damp and smelled sour’, ‘fires … burning dismally low’ and this physical setting of the narrator’s house reinforces the sense of isolation.
 
The extract from Hard Times is quite different in character. It is written in the third person and we are launched straight into the story. In fact a lesson is in progress and the novel opens with the schoolmaster’s words being spoken to his class. Dickens then goes on to describe the scene in detail. Notice how he gives an impression of monotony with the emphasis on squareness, and a level-headed solidity that has no room for imagination. Descriptions like that of the speaker’s mouth as being ‘thin, and hard set’ and his voice being ‘inflexible, dry and dictatorial’ tell us something of his character. There is also humour in his physical description such as his bald head being like the ‘crust of a plum pie’. At the end of the extract it is clear that we are in a schoolroom and we are left in little doubt as to what kind of schoolroom it is.
 
KEY POINT - The opening of a novel is very important and the first few pages give a lot of clues as to the kind of book you are dealing with.
 
Progress check
Now look at the novel you are studying and read the opening section through very carefully. Make notes on what you learn from these opening pages.
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