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!  🙂

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. 🙂

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.