#1 one sentence, three words, a holy trinity

“Call me Ishmael.” It’s my favorite opening line in literature. Unforgettable. I thrill at its power and economy — a storyteller begins; the first person point of view is announced; a “you” is implied; an intimacy is established; a name is vouchsafed—and not any old name, but one that hums with Biblical significance: Ishmael, born of a lowly servant, a lost inheritance, an outcast and a wanderer, and perhaps most important, a central figure in three major monotheistic traditions, being tugged in different interpretive directions. If so much can happen in three words, what are we to make of the rest of the story, of its characters and events, and of our own Ahabian interpretations? Perfect.
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11 Responses to #1 one sentence, three words, a holy trinity

  1. Jeff O'Neal says:

    My favorite thing about this line is the declarative “call.” First, it is a command, which lends the narration a great deal of force. Second, implied in the “call me” is that this may not be his real name. Or full name. If it were “My name is Ishmael,” it would read like a confession, but the guarded “call me” adds mystery and even threat.

    Good choice for the top banana.

    • Hi Jeff, I’m a big fan of the imperative mode. Wittgenstein, I think, says that every meaningful utterance eventually bottoms out in the imperative mode. I don’t agree with you, however, that the declarative “Call me” implies that this might not be his real name, at least no more than “They call me Ishmael” or “My name is Ishmael” or “Maman named me Ishmael” or “Ishamel’s my name,” etc. But I do think the imperative mode is a subtle queue to deeper themes about authority, on the one hand, and a submission or obedience, on the other. Many cheers, Kevin

  2. Totally agree with you! ..although he did get a bit more prolix as the story moved along….

  3. I will confess that I prefer this opening sentence:

    “The pale Usher–threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now.” I see him, too.

  4. Fredr says:

    This also would be one of my top five openers:

    the Biblical echoes;

    the veil behind which he hides himself, for even if his name really is Ishmael, “Call me” casts doubt in the reader’s mind;

    its brevity, a jolt, a command.

  5. anokatony says:

    Some people might consider this opening insufferably pompous, but I guess it is unforgettable. It is one of the few novel opening lines I remember.

  6. Kerry says:

    This is a great choice for a “best” opening line. You and others have already pointed out, but this is a forceful opening. I would also say, this is the sort of line that one uses (or used to use) to transition to a more intimate, less formal relationship.

    “Mr. Jones, I….”

    “Call me Tom.”

    The power relationship is definitely there between the narrator and the reader, but the “Call me…” is, generally at least, an invitation to greater intimacy and greater equality. The intimacy, and the implied power relationship and the implied former formality (we don’t know whaling, so Ishmael gives us the details), create an excellent atmosphere for telling a story. It sounds like the way someone might start the story of their life over a beer.

    I enjoyed this series as much for trying to jog my own memory of other great lines as for the lines you gave (which were excellent).

    Two others from my shelves that I consider very strong:

    “May I, monsieur, offer my services without running the risk of intruding?” (As with Melville, Camus establishes a first person narrator and actively involves the reader as a listener (if not participant) in The Fall.)

    “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” (Kafka, like Melville, undermines the authority of his narrator slightly here: “someone must have”, not “someone did”. We immediately know that there are things we do not know, that the narrator is not omniscient. But he is certain Josef K. did nothing wrong. I, personally, love when authors undermine their omniscience and, thereby, create some mystery. In skilled hands, (cough…Nabokov…cough) the technique can be genius.)

    Thanks for an enjoyable series of posts.

  7. “The power relationship is definitely there between the narrator and the reader, but the “Call me…” is, generally at least, an invitation to greater intimacy and greater equality. The intimacy, and the implied power relationship and the implied former formality (we don’t know whaling, so Ishmael gives us the details), create an excellent atmosphere for telling a story. It sounds like the way someone might start the story of their life over a beer.”

    Hi Kerry, I have a similar reaction to you. I see mystery but not a veiled threat. LIke you, I also see intimacy AND power as the kernel of the three-word sentence. Lastly given the conviviality of the bed sharing and the pipe smoking, the line sounds very much like the beginning of a story told over a beer. Very happy you enjoyed the series. Thank you!

    K

  8. Tony says:

    I prefer this one:

    “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

    1) Attention-grabbing and patently false (but if you substitute ‘hot girlfriend’ for wife…)
    2) The truth is that it is the wife (or the woman) that is in want of a single man in possession of a good fortune.
    3) Mainly because 70% of Victorian women ended up spinsters…

    • Hi Tony, I like it, too, especially the contrast betgween “fortune” and “want,” as well as the cadence of the last seven syllables, all in addition to the reasons you cite. Cheers. K

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