Literature’s Lines That Linger

Many of us know about literature’s memorable first lines (in A Tale of Two Cities, Pride and Prejudice, Moby-Dick, Jane Eyre, etc.) and even famous last lines in novels (such as The Great Gatsby). But what about notable/revealing phrases and quotes somewhere between those initial and final lines? Lines so striking, dramatic, profound, well-written, perhaps funny, etc., that they make you stop for a moment and go…”wow”!

I thought about that last week when reading Henry James’ superb novella The Aspern Papers, in which the first-person narrator sneakily tries to get the papers of renowned, long-dead poet Jeffrey Aspern by infiltrating the Venice residence of an aged woman admired by Aspern many decades earlier. When Miss Bordereau catches the papers-coveting literary scholar snooping in her quarters, she hisses: “Ah, you publishing scoundrel!”

In the aforementioned Jane Eyre, few fans of that book can forget Jane’s “Reader, I married him” line near the end of the Charlotte Bronte-authored saga. A quote that, among other things, is phrased in a way that shows Ms. Eyre being an independent woman for that era.

From another iconic 19th-century British author — the always-wise George Eliot — we have the memorable Middlemarch sentence “It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from different points of view.”

An also-wise line, from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, is “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”

And from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment: “To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.”

Plus this quip from The Picture of Dorian Gray: “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Often clever, that Oscar Wilde.

Then there’s “Definitions belong to the definers — not the defined,” from Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Or how about the line “You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget” in Cormac McCarthy’s downbeat, post-apocalyptic The Road?

Then there’s the recurring, grudging-acceptance-of-fate lament “So it goes” from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, in which there’s a lot to lament.

And this immortal line from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22: “But if I ask to be grounded, that means I’m not crazy anymore, and I have to keep flying.”

Heck, even just two words can be memorable when they have a certain quirkiness or poignancy — as in Gollum’s use of “my precious” to describe the ultra-important ring in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Your favorite lines in novels that are not the first or last lines in those novels? If you want to also mention first and last lines you love, please do! Β πŸ™‚

Looking for a holiday gift for family and friends? My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time. It’s not only for literature lovers but also for people who couldn’t care less about literature but like books with ridiculously long titles. πŸ™‚

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece, which again slams an ice cream place’s crudely sexist logo, is here.

100 thoughts on “Literature’s Lines That Linger

  1. Ah. A lovely post truly. ‘If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger.’ and of course, β€œAnd the candle by the light of which she had been reading that book filled with anxieties, deceptions, grief and evil, flared up brighter than ever, lit up for her all that had once been darkness, sputtered, grew dim and went out for ever.” Always made me sit up.

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          • I think you’re right there. It’s not to say I don’t read new authors etc, it is just a preference thing for me. Older books are much more detailed in ways that nowadays are not needed but they still offer glorious depths. I love the hardboiled books where one line can sum up a page of feelings, or actions, and I just find recenter books light on all these things that older books have.. When my younger girl was getting married she ran the three possible readings she wanted by me, asking for my advice. When De Berniere’s one about love went up against that one there from Emily Bronte, it was screaming which one to choose. because it was screaming which one had the depth of passion that the other lacked. The other one was Victor Hugo and I thought, that one second.

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            • I totally hear you, Shehanne. I read recent/relatively recent novels more often than older ones these days — partly because after one reads many older novels there are no new older ones by authors long dead, whereas there are always newly published books. πŸ™‚ But, like you, I do often have a preference for older novels — because of their frequently florid prose, their glimpses of times no longer with us, etc. And their appeal for readings at weddings. πŸ™‚

              Liked by 2 people

  2. Dave, I wanted to wish you and all the commenters here a very Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year or whatever you celebrate at this time of year. Bill and I have been celebrating throughout the years The 12 Days of Christmas, Hanukkah, or a totally made up The Nine Moons of Buddhism (or perhaps New Age). This year it is the “I spent so much money on my new home, with Bill’s help, that we’ve greatly curtailed our spending,” which is a good thing — other than a couple of Bill’s grandkids and my great niece and nephew, as they’re all still young enough to get some use out of what I’m giving them.

    I did splurge a little on myself, not just my new car, but on a set of the Little Women Madame Alexander Ginny dolls — which was all four of the daughters, Marmee, and Teddy, at a very good price on Etsy. They arrived the other day from a personal seller, and they’re wonderful, other than poor Teddy was decapitated, which I’m sure we can fix with glue. πŸ™‚ At some point I can pass these on to one of the grandkids, but they make me happy, because growing up, while having some very nice dolls, these were way out of the budget for my parents with 6 kids.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Kat Lib! Happy Holidays to you, too! Nice to celebrate as many of them as possible, whether real or made up. πŸ™‚

      And fantastic that you got those “Little Women” dolls! Leads one to wonder how many novels have inspired things like that. (Of course, the “Harry Potter” books have spawned licensed products galore.)


      • Yes, it does get a little crazy with all the merchandised stuff out there now with every big movie that comes along. And yet, when I grew up, my favorite two gifts were (1) a puppet theater (made by my engineer father) along with very cute puppets for my siblings and me,) and (2) best of all, a cardboard box for my next eldest sister and me filled with a blackboard, eraser, chalk, paper, and many different kinds of paper, pencils and crayons, etc. It was great!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ah yes, homemade, simpler gifts (such as the great ones you described from your childhood!) can be wonderful.

          And I guess we can be grateful that there are no Jane Austen character “action figures” toting guns… πŸ™‚


  3. Happy Yule Tidings Dave and your wonderful Astorers (yes, I name folks that visit a site after the site itself) In keeping with the season I offer the following line spoken by two characters in the same novella, delivering a resounding ” SMACK” each time.
    Stave 1:
    “Are there no prisons?”
    “Plenty of prisons…”
    “And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
    “Both very busy, sir…”
    “Those who are badly off must go there.”
    “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
    “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

    Stave 3.

    “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.”

    Ole Scrooge needed to hear his own callousness thrown back at him, I won’t hold my breath hoping Trump can be redeemed like old Ebenezer who is said to have become “became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. ”
    …as always typos/grammaticals are made with love for your enjoyment!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Jack! Happy Holidays to you, too!

      SO many memorable lines and scenes in “A Christmas Carol.”

      Even at his worst, Scrooge was a model citizen compared to Trump, who’ll never redeem himself or get redemption from any decent person. If Hell exists, he’ll be there. He can call it Trump Basement or something.

      GREAT comment — and I always love your typos disclaimer, even though I almost never see the “t” word in what you write! πŸ™‚


  4. This is a favourite passage from Wuthering Heights:-

    “My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.”

    and …

    “Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.”

    Always has me reaching for a hanky!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Poor Jane just had no choice when it came to Mr. Rochester. ” – while I breathe and think, I must love him.”

    Another of my favourite lines at the moment is “It was a warm, bright day at the end of August”. Not quite up there with dreaming of Manderley, but it is the next line in my Christmas present to myself, which is being able to read whatever book I feel like, no matter where it is on my list, or if I’ve already read that author this year, or even if I’ve already read the book 19 times. This year my gift is “The Brothers Karamazov”. I’m already in love!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susan! Another great line from “Jane Eyre,” which has many!

      And “The Brothers Karamazov” is an amazing novel. As I think we’ve discussed before, it’s more sprawling than “Crime and Punishment” and thus has a few somewhat boring moments to go along with the many riveting moments. But the riveting moments are as good as it gets.


      • I’m a sucker for characters falling in love even when they don’t want to. That’s why I love Elizabeth from “Pride and Prejudice” and Beatrice from “Much Ado About Nothing” and Bella from “Twilight”.

        I also just remembered another line that I read many years ago, but stayed with me. In Anne Rice’s “Violin”, the protagonist’s husband is dead. On page 23 he’s “… so very dead, so much deader than yesterday.” I remember the first time reading it thinking just how dead is he going to get!

        Liked by 1 person

        • “I’m a sucker for characters falling in love even when they don’t want to” — that does make for very interesting literature, Susan. Also an element in A.S. Byatt’s great “Possession,” among various other novels.

          Your second paragraph was hilarious! I’ve just read one Anne Rice novel — the very compelling “The Witching Hour” — and that author IS into various gradations of dead. (“Fifty Shades of Dead”?)


      • Oh, and very early on, I agree about “TBK”. It’s more sprawling, and is making me realise just how much time Razzy spent in his bed, either alone, or with family and friends that he was barely able to acknowledge.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Love the nickname “Razzy”! πŸ™‚

          Yes, hard to believe, but “The Brothers Karamazov” is quite a bit more ambitious (in number of major characters, etc.) than the very ambitious “Crime and Punishment”!


  6. Another line I have kept in mind in recent weeks, since I finished Angela Carter’s “The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffmann”, this one a purposeful misattribution to Freud constructed out of a famous Einstein quote:
    “In the unconscious, nothing is treated or destroyed.”

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The line that has rolled around in my head of late is from ‘The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries’ on BBC, which turn is based on a series of detective novels by Gladys Mitchell, who wrote, according to wikipedia, 65 of them(!).

    From memory, and spoken by the main character:
    “The country is a dampish sort of place where birds and animals wander about uncooked.”

    Downright Wodehousian!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Pingback: Literature’s Lines That Linger β€” Dave Astor on Literature – Freelance Suman D.

  9. This quote from John Toland’s “No Man’s Land,” a book covering the last year of WWI, punched me in the face when I read it a few days ago: β€œβ€¦perhaps the only truth that would emerge from the cataclysm which had shaken the world was that war inevitably breeds war, that triumph eventually turns into defeat, and that only the brotherhood of suffering endures.” As it was pretty much the result of WWI, I couldn’t believe the brutal honesty of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m currently reading Liane Moriarty’s great novel “The Husband’s Secret,” and just saw these amazing lines (about the Cecilia character — a Tupperware salesperson, among other things — after she learns her husband’s terrible secret): “She never swore. All these years there had been a Tupperware container of bad language sitting off to the side in her head, and now she’d opened it and all those crisp, crunchy words were lovely and fresh, ready to be used.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • β€” β€œAll these years there had been a Tupperware container of bad language sitting off to the side in her head, and now she’d opened it . . .” β€”

      Speaking of four-letter words: BURP. (Onomatopoeically speaking.)

      Liked by 1 person

        • There ought to be– there’s a story of woman’s achievement crushed by unimaginative men at the top in the Tupperware tale. Haven’t seen it in years, but there’s a documentary somewhere on the history of the company and its best salesperson and promoter, who was nicknamed Brownie, a woman of great ability– but not so great as to avoid being frozen out after a rough patch in sales.

          Mostly, the reason the product went nationwide, the reason we still know the brand and its products, is groundwork done by Brownie.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I know nothing about the history or set-up of Tupperware, but I’m never surprised when it turns out that men run companies in which women do most of the work and provide most of the ideas and energy. Sort of the “Charlie’s Angels” syndrome. Heck, I was chagrined to belatedly learn that a gymnastics place my younger daughter trained at until about six months ago was run (owned?) by two guys — even as most of the instructors and virtually all the students were female.


  11. James Joyce’s, “The Dead” the last paragraph is haunting, one that stays with me every time I have the pleasure to read, particularly this time of the year:

    “A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Michele!

      That paragraph IS haunting — and melancholy and magical and more. An absolute emotional knockout. I haven’t read any of Joyce’s novels — only his “Dubliners” short-story collection, and “The Dead” is by far the best story in that collection.


  12. From “Middlesex,” by Jeffrey Eugenides: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Dave, this more like a paragraph rather than one line, but in “Paper Towns” by John Green, there is a running commentary on how much the narrator Quentin hates driving his mom’s minivan. I suppose most high school students, especially guys would feel the same. So when he graduates from high school, his parents give him a key to a car, and he is so excited until it turns out that they gave him a Ford minivan. He says to himself, “O God of Vehicular Justice, why dost thou mock me? Minivan, you albatross around my neck! You mark of Cain! You wretched beast of high ceilings and few horsepower!” Of course he shows his appreciation; one thing I love about John Green is that the parents of the main character are basically really good and are appreciated by their kids. I think that comes through in “The Fault in Our Stars,” as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think this stuck with me, because I’m now on the search for a new car myself, although I’m looking for a VW Beetle rather than a minivan. My first two cars were Beetles, so since this will be my last car, I want another Beetle and I don’t do a lot of driving anymore. Also, this past year I learned that my property isn’t as big as I thought. There’s a paper street going between my property and my next door neighbor. According to the official survey, I don’t own my driveway that goes to my garage, which I do own. But now I’m going back to last week’s topic of bureaucracy gone amok!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Kat Lib! I love that John Green paragraph! Such a funny description of frustration. πŸ™‚

        Good luck with your car hunt! My first car was also a VW Beetle! I bought it for $150 when I graduated from college and needed a car for my first full-time reporting job. It was a standard shift, which I didn’t know how to drive when I bought the car. After a few days of grinding gears, I got the hang of it.

        Property lines can be strange. (As can lines in novels. πŸ™‚ )


        • My dad loaned me the money to buy my first Beetle, which also had standard shift. He then tried to teach me how to drive it, before letting me know that the car would roll back on a hill. After an awful first session, I was in tears and told dad that I’d learn on my own, which I did. It’s odd that when I learned to drive at 16, when I took my tests, the person who administered the driving portion of the test, asked whether I went to a driving school (which wasn’t mandatory back then) and was quite impressed about the job my dad did.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Great self-teaching, and teaching by your father!

            Yes, it was scary stopping on a hill and then rolling back as one tried to get going again — especially when a car was right behind. 😦


            • Well, the deed is done. I’m now a proud owner of a 2016 VW Beetle. I’m about ready to go pick it up. Despite its age, it’s brand new, and is black, but has a really cool interior that I can’t even begin to describe. But I got a very good deal, based on the age of the car, and I fell in love with the interior, though I can see why most people wouldn’t want it. But there you go, I didn’t really want the standard black, gray or tan interior. This one suits me quite well, so I’m very pleased. But sorry for once again hijacking your blog with all of my personal details, but I guess I feel so comfortable with you and the other commenters that I can’t help myself! πŸ™‚

              I’m also very happy that you are enjoying “The Husband’s Secret,” by Liane Moriarty. Perhaps M.B. Henry would like the references to the Berlin Wall that I found fascinating.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Congratulations on your car purchase, Kat Lib! If the car “speaks” to you, it doesn’t matter if it has a quirky interior. πŸ™‚ I also have a black car — a Prius, which I love.

                Just finished “The Husband’s Secret” last night. Liane Morality’s novels are so absorbing that I tend to read them very fast. πŸ™‚ “Secret” is a terrific book, with a “what goes around, comes around” conclusion that’s devastating but entirely appropriate.

                The novel’s Berlin Wall references are indeed interesting, and, as you know, totally “germane” to the plot given that Cecilia found the letter with her husband’s secret when looking for a piece of the wall — to show her wall-fascinated daughter — that she (Cecilia) had purchased around the time the wall came down.


                • Thanks, Dave. I’ve got so many good associations with VW Beetles, especially with cars going back to the 1960’s. In the showroom they had a classic microbus, which I wouldn’t want, but I asked the salesman what the cost would be, even if it were sale, which it wasn’t, but he said it would probably cost $150,000. Yikes!

                  Liked by 1 person

                  • Wow — $150,000!

                    Beetles do have great present and past associations. And, as far as I know, those VW “Bugs” haven’t been tarnished by the company’s greedy/outrageous diesel-car scandal.


  14. Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita is full of lines that are now widely quoted, including the delightful sturgeon that is “of the second freshness,” to which Woland (Satan) replies, “fish only has one freshness. The first, which is also the last.” But the most beloved line is probably “manuscripts don’t burn,” written against the backdrop of Stalinist repression and censorship.

    As for first lines, I have a deep love for Dick Francis’s masterful openers. The best is probably from “Hot Money,” which goes something like “I loathed my father’s fifth wife, but not to the point of murder.”

    Liked by 2 people

  15. I read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was just a kid, and this quote stuck with me for a lifetime: β€œYou never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” I’m not sure I’ve always followed the wise advice of Atticus Finch, but I have tried.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Shallow Reflections!

      That’s a fantastic line from a fantastic book! A sentiment worthy of trying to follow, but few of us do that completely — including, from what I heard, Atticus himself in “Go Set a Watchman.”

      Liked by 1 person

        • I haven’t read “GSAW,” either, but I know that several of this blog’s regular commenters have. There were several discussions here about whether “GSAW” is a distinct novel, an early draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” or whatever. πŸ™‚

          I’m not remembering if Atticus literally said “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it” or whether it was a narrative Harper Lee line.

          Liked by 2 people

  16. Howdy, Dave!

    β€” Your favorite lines in novels that are not the first or last lines in those novels? β€”

    Not figuratively but literally, thousands, maybe tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of awesome lines have burned their way into my consciousness, subconsciousness and unconsciousness. Some are beautiful in context, and others are beautiful even out of context. Here and now one of the latter: β€œMany a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.”

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

    Liked by 3 people

    • “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”! Great line, J.J. — thanks! And an elegantly expressed comment by you!

      If one were to leaf through Mark Twain’s novels, there are probably several dozen quotes that would belong in my blog post. He was truly a master wordsmith — and not just in a humorous way.

      And, yes, great lines from many authors are buried somewhere in all our brains. Also, you make a very good point that lines can be amazing in themselves and/or amazing in context.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. “…I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out Daisy’s light at the end of his dock.” Hi, Dave. Out of all the books I’ve read in my life, there has been no image more indelible than that green light in “The Great Gatsby”. There is so much hope and defeat at the end of that light.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Pat and Dave, I really need to read this novel. For some reason that I don’t know, I missed out on so many American authors, such as Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Steinbeck (other than “The Red Pony”). But I suppose it was partly because none of my English classes, even into college, made American authors a priority as opposed to English ones. I’m not sure why that was.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Kat Lib, I’m not an enormous F. Scott Fitzgerald fan, but “The Great Gatsby” is an absolute gem. And really quite short — around 200 pages.

          As an English major, I also focused a lot on British authors for years, but there are certainly some amazing American authors out there — including Barbara Kingsolver, who I know you’re a fan of. I love much of Steinbeck’s work; Hemingway I can take or leave, though “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is pretty compelling.


        • Hey Kat Lib … I was never able to get into Hemingway, although my daughter’s all-time favorite book is “A Farewell to Arms”. I do love John Steinbeck’s work, especially “Of Mice and Men”. It was a surprise to me, after reading “The Great Gatsby”, to discover I didn’t find much appeal in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s other works. That’s why, even though “The Great Gatsby” is probably my favorite book (tied with a couple of others), F. Scott Fitzgerald is certainly not my favorite author.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Pat, I thought “Tender Is the Night” was good, as was Fitzgerald’s unfinished “The Last Tycoon.” But, as is the case with you, Fitzgerald is not among my favorite authors. Maybe it’s because he focuses on rich people so much (even though that focus usually includes a spotlight on those characters’ flaws).

          Liked by 1 person

  18. The elephant in the room is “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!” although I think Rhett didn’t say “my dear” in the book. I don’t have a copy to verify.

    Liked by 2 people

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