mr. interpolation’s top five favorite opening sentences of all time

I make zero claim to originality. One evening, as I was thumbing through my books, reading only first sentences, I found myself returning to a select few, again and again. A Russian, an Englishman, and three Americans. Cormac McCarthy doesn’t appear among them. Try as I might, I couldn’t shoehorn any of his first sentences into my shortlist. Not even my longlist. But more on that later.

 It’s time for my top five, starting with…


“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It’s a memorable sentence, isn’t it? Even people who aren’t literary aesthetes drop it at cocktail parties—usually without botching it. I love the line not for its memorability but for its provocative falseness. It’s simply untrue. Whether happiness is the absence of suffering or suffering the absence of pain, or whether happiness is an illusion and pain the ultimate reality, there is more than one way for happy families to be happy, at least in our real, non-fictional world. Why might Tolstoy open with a sentence that’s patently false?

This inquiring mind wants to know.

12 Responses to mr. interpolation’s top five favorite opening sentences of all time

  1. Fredr says:

    It’s a grabber. It’s so false that it lures the reader to continue reading in order to find out what Tolstoy means by such a statement. How will he show this to be true, which, of course, he doesn’t.

    I wonder if it’s also ironic in that both of the two unhappy families featured are unhappy because of the adulterous behavior of one of the spouses in each. In one family, it’s the wife and in the other, it’s the husband.

    • Hi Fred, like you, I see in it a kind of blue print for what’s to follow, not a descriptively accurate statement. I like your ironic twist, too. Ends up that unhappy familys are alike, too, at least in this story. Dig deep enough and you’re likely to find an adulterous worm. Cheers, Kevin

  2. Frisbee says:

    I’m fascinated, because I’ve NEVER HEARD ANYONE QUESTION THIS STATEMENT BEFORE. You’re a philosopher.

    I think Tolstoy wrote with his gut a lot of time…

    To me it rings true: when we’re happy, we don’t need to think much about it. When we’re unhappy, we fall into different lowering states of consciousness and cannot transcend them. There’s Anna’s misery and Kitty’s misery, and you’re right, adultery or dumping is behind the the misery. But Levin’s misery is different. He’s a depressive.

    The unhappy are MORE different than the happy?

    • “You’re a philosopher.”

      Ha! The other F-word. If it’s true, I’m a filosopher of the selph-hating variety, I suppose.

      As for this, “The unhappy are MORE different than the happy?” it’s exactly what an unhappy person who thinks, who’s inclined to ratiocination, and justification, would say!

      Within difference lies distinction, and every unhappy thinking person digs a little bit of exaltation.

      But I’m neither happy nor unhappy so what do I know?



  3. Nabokov’s Ada begins:

    “‘All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike,” says a great Russian writer in the beginning of a famous novel…” and that sentence goes on for a while longer and then “That pronouncement has little if any relation to the story to be unfolded now, a family chronicle…”

  4. I like Nabokov’s “more or less,” as if the comparisons being established are more or less bogus. N’s got good vision. K

  5. Tony says:

    Love this one, but no Kafka? I’d have poor old Gregor Samsa up near the top spot…

  6. I tipped my hand and ruined the suspense. Ay, no Kafka, only because I forgot to pick up his short stories. Otherwise Gregor would be in the mix for sure. My bad! That’s a very fine sentence, indeed… K

  7. William Gaddis, to my mind, has some of the best openers. They state the theme of the book, like the one from A Frolic of His Own, which deals with the American legal system: “Justice? You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.”

  8. […] hitting refresh at Interpolations for Number One on his list of favorite opening lines. Tolstoy, Dickens, Bradbury, and Faulkner took positions five through two. My favorite would be: […]

  9. Bellezza says:

    Hmm. I’ve never considered that opening line to be false. I’m not saying what you’re saying isn’t true, I’ve just not perceived it that way. I’m going to think about that for awhile now, but my initial response is to say that happy families seem to have a pervasive joie de vivre born of a confidence that everything’s going right for them. Unhappy families, on the other hand, seem to be defeated by a myriad of struggles. They don’t know how to unlayer the woe to get to a happier place. To me, that’s what makes an unhappy family unique; are they buried under almost insurmountable strife with no confidence in sight.

    (I’m here from You’re blog is so very interesting.)

    • Hi Belezza, I’m very happy to see you. Your thumbs up comes at a perfect time. So thank you for that. I hear what you’re saying about unhappy families. I think one can calibrate Tolstoy’s sentence to be either true or false depending on one’s frame of mind. The joie de vivre of happy families is born of many things, nice clothing, good food, travel, piano lessons, soccer practice, friendly neighbors, and so on. But not all happy families have piano lessons in common. So not all happy families are alike, etc. Or we can reverse it as you do for unhappy families. Perhaps the sentence is like an optical illusion. It’s an hour glass from one perspecitve but a kiss from another…. By the way, I love the banner photo of your blog and will take a good solid look around later this weekend. Cheers!

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