Last week’s post was about memorable goodbyes in literature. This week, I’m flipping that around to discuss characters’ memorable first meetings — which can help hook readers early in a work of fiction.
I’ll start by again mentioning Jane Eyre, in which Charlotte Bronte’s quiet but feisty governess heroine initially encounters a galloping Rochester on a path where his horse slips and injures him. It’s significant — and portentous — that Rochester’s temporary disability puts him on a somewhat equal footing with Jane despite being her employer.
In L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert decide to adopt a boy to help with the farm chores. When Matthew goes to the train station to meet him, the “boy” is a girl: Anne Shirley. That mistake and Matthew’s shyness make for awkward acquaintance-getting, but, before the horse-and-wagon ride home is done, the orphaned Anne wins over Matthew with her talkativeness, enthusiasm, intelligence, and (understandable) neediness.
Moving from England to Canada to France, we have German surgeon Ravic in Paris on the run from the Nazis when — in the opening page of Erich Maria Remarque’s Arch of Triumph — he dramatically meets an almost catatonic Joan Madou on the street as she’s (possibly) contemplating suicide. What ensues is loosely based on Remarque’s relationship with famed actress Marlene Dietrich.
Then there’s A.S. Byatt’s Possession, in which little-known scholar Roland Michell and better-known scholar Maud Bailey meet to try to solve a long-ago mystery involving two 19th-century poets. The initial Maud-Roland encounter is somewhat strained, but things gradually warm up between the two.
Or how about the part-comedic/part-scary first meeting of Moby-Dick characters Ishmael and Queequeg when they’re forced to share the same inn room before boarding Captain Ahab’s ill-fated ship?
Ray Bradbury wrote the screenplay for the 1956 movie version of Herman Melville’s classic work — three years after the publication of Fahrenheit 451. In that Bradbury novel, the meeting between professional “fireman” (book burner) Guy Montag and free-thinking teen Clarisse McClellan is the spark that causes Guy to question his beliefs and what he’s doing with his life.
Another fascinating first meeting is when Kiki Belsey visits Carlene Kipps in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. Their annoying, self-centered husbands are academic and authorial rivals, yet the two women manage to carve out something of a friendship.
There are many memorable meetings in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz — Dorothy coming across the Scarecrow, the two of them meeting the Tin Woodman, the three of them encountering the Cowardly Lion, the four of them meeting the Wizard, etc. (And black-and-white meets color in The Wizard of Oz movie. 🙂 )
In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, the title character learns he’s a wizard when meeting Hagrid; then, on the train to Hogwarts, he encounters the two people (Hermione and Ron) who will become his closest friends; then Harry is introduced to Hogwarts headmaster Dumbledore; then he later meets arch-villain Lord Voldemort; and so on.
There are also first meetings — often in a continuing series of novels — that are long anticipated/delayed. For instance, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series has Jack first hearing Major Susan Turner’s voice on the phone in 61 Hours, but our curious hero doesn’t come face-to-face with that potential romantic interest until four books later, in Never Go Back. A meeting teased that long is often worth waiting for — and, in this case, it is.
An engineer visiting a Massachusetts town is also curious — about the dour, limping Ethan Frome when he first meets him in Edith Wharton’s novel. Readers soon learn about Ethan’s melancholy, tragic history.
Then there are meetings with celebrities, as when the time-traveling Sam Fowler encounters Mark Twain, President Grant, and other notables in Darryl Brock’s If I Never Get Back.
Not to mention difficult meetings between people who don’t understand each other’s language, as in Zhilin’s initial “conversation” with his captor in Leo Tolstoy’s tale “The Prisoner of the Caucasus.” (I’m currently reading a collection of that author’s short stories.)
What are your favorite first meetings in literature?
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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.