46 Great Opening Lines: 18

Black are the brooding clouds and troubled the deep waters, when the Sea of Thought, first heaving from a calm, gives up its Dead.

From The Chimes, a Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In, Charles Dickens, 1845

Sometimes it’s not the first chapter that has a memorable opening line. It could be a later chapter like this one that comes from the Third Quarter of a short novella in Dickens’ Christmas collection. Rather than four chapters, it has four quarters, like the quarters of an hour at which church bells chime. The tale is set on New Year’s Eve. And since, today, it is indeed New Year’s Eve, I’ve chosen it to end my year.

Here is the story’s true opening line, for your comparison:

There are not many people — and as it is desirable that a story-teller and a story-reader should establish a mutual understanding as soon as possible, I beg it to be noticed that I confine this observation neither to young people nor to little people, but extend it to all conditions of people: little and big, young and old: yet growing up, or already growing down again — there are not, I say, many people who would care to sleep in a church.

While I agree with Dickens that not many people would care to sleep in a church, particularly a church whose bells mark every quarter hour, I was especially struck by the Sea of Thought giving up its Dead.

At this point in the tale, a poor and aging messenger nicknamed Trotty Veck (for he trots) believed that chiming bells were speaking to him as he sat on the church porch waiting for messenger jobs. He was a pessimist, he could see no way up and out of a pauper’s life; he believed that poor people are naturally bad. Now he climbs the stairs of the belfry to see these bells that speak to him. But the bells have spirits in the form of goblins who reprimand him for his lack of faith in a poor man’s ability to improve. They want to teach him a lesson: if the poor are not oppressed, they can strive for better things, and, like time, they must advance.

The goblins are excellently illustrated on the opening pages of the novella.

The Chimes, illustrated title page, archive.org
The Chimes, illustrated title page, archive.org

The Chimes is another of Dickens’ tales about injustice and the impoverished of Victorian England. Grim as it is throughout, the story has a happy ending. The goblins may or may not have been real, but Trotty Veck learned his lesson:

“I know there is a Sea of Time to rise one day, before which all who wrong us or oppress us will be swept away like leaves.”

A Sea of Thought. A Sea of Time.

And now to conclude 2017, some lines from The Chimes describing the past and future of any year:

“The New Year! The New Year! Everywhere the New Year! The Old Year was already looked upon as dead; and its effects were selling cheap like some drowned mariner’s aboardship. Its patterns were Last Year’s and going at a sacrifice, before its breath was gone. Its treasures were mere dirt, beside the riches of its unborn successor!”

 

Happy New Year to all!

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Journey to the centre: Great middle lines – 17

A few months ago I became interested in the middle lines of a story, which are usually, but not always, the turning point.  I posted on this blog 16 examples of great middle lines, then I went to New Zealand and lost my momentum with novels, not only because I had gone away and come back, but because the novels I read after blog post no. 16 didn’t have great middle lines, or because they were meaningless without adding a substantial whack of the story before and after.

Now, I’ve been reading some short stories about Christmas and have seen some pretty good turning points in their middles.  Four of them are worth blogging about, so between today and Christmas Day I’ll share them with you.  In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, for example, the middle lines of the middle chapter are meaningful.  Perhaps even great.  Here, Scrooge is with the Ghost of Christmas Present, and from this page on he will never be the same:

“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”
“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved.  If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”
“No, no,” said Scrooge.  “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”
“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here.  What then?  If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.

The Ghost of Christmas Present, John Leech, 1843
The Ghost of Christmas Present, John Leech, 1843.  Courtesy Wikimedia.

*****


Journey to the centre: Great middle lines – 13

At the centre of Great Expectations is a paragraph about Pip’s love for Estella, about his great expectations to win her heart.  Though I’ve read this novel several times, I’d never thought of Dickens as romantic until today when I read this paragraph separately from the rest of the story:

Far into the night, Miss Havisham’s words, ‘Love her, love her, love her!’ sounded in my ears. I adapted them for my own repetition, and said to my pillow, ‘I love her, I love her, I love her!’ hundreds of times. Then, a burst of gratitude came upon me, that she should be destined for me, once the blacksmith’s boy. Then, I thought if she were, as I feared, by no means rapturously grateful for that destiny yet, when would she begin to be interested in me? When should I awaken the heart within her, that was mute and sleeping now?

*****

54 great opening lines: 37

Marley was dead: to begin with.

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

*****

I love a story with a good moral, the type of story with a bad character who turns good;  it’s a formula based on the possibility that no one is without hope.  I read such stories to be spurred on.  The film Groundhog Day gives me the same buzz:  Phil the weatherman is a modern Scrooge who cares for no one and shares nothing. Yet against their will, both Phil and Scrooge learn how good generosity can feel.  Of course, my hopes are bridled by the fiction of Scrooge being shown, in one night, the cause and effect of his misery…

54 great opening lines: 10

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.

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

*****

I had to read it at school and liked it then; I still like it now.  There’s enough Gothic darkness and joyful resolution to satisfy me.