From National Public Radio:
Shortly after Amazon introduced the Kindle, they put up a page with a ranked list of the most frequently highlighted passages across all the books. It’s not there anymore, but when I first looked at the list in 2013, the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice was in third place. That was all the more impressive because eight of the other top 10 finishers were passages from the Hunger Games series, which was the hit of the season that year, as Austen’s novel had been exactly 200 years earlier.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
We can argue about whether that’s the most famous first line in English literature or whether the honor belongs to the opening sentence of Moby Dick or A Tale of Two Cities or 1984. But there’s no other opening sentence that lends itself so well to sampling, mash-ups and adaptation.
If you’re looking to add a literary touch to your article on pension schemes or emergency contraceptives, you’re not going to get very far with “Call me Ishmael.” But “It is a truth universally acknowledged” is always available as an elegant replacement for “As everybody knows” when you want to introduce some banal truism.
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Yet my guess is that a large portion of the people who adapt that sentence know perfectly well that the original version is anything but straightforward. It may be the single most celebrated example of literary irony in all of English literature. Pick up a paperback of Pride and Prejudice at a garage sale and it’s even money you’ll find the first sentence underlined with “IRONY” written in the margin.
The sentence may look like a truism, but the first part actually undermines the second. In her book Why Jane Austen, Rachel Brownstein points out that if the novel had begun simply with “A single man possessed of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” we’d snuggle in for a stock romantic story. We might expect the next sentence to describe an aristocratic Colin Firth lookalike galloping full-tilt toward the Bennets’ house at Longbourn.
But prefacing that clause with “It is a truth universally acknowledged” implies that’s only what most people say they believe — after all, if everybody really does accept it, why bother to mention the fact? In fact, as Austen says in the following sentence, nobody really cares what the wealthy man himself thinks he needs. There’s only one truth that matters to Mrs. Bennet and the other families in the neighborhood — that a daughter who has no fortune must be found a well-to-do husband to look after her, which Mrs. Bennet has made “the business of her life.”
Link to the rest at NPR