First Class Cambridge Essay

August 18, 2015

You don't know me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain't no matter.

- Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884


If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know if where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like... and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

- J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, 1951


DOMBEY sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution was analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.

- Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son, 1844


Discuss these three opening first lines 


On opening a novel - unless it is a sequel, we have read it before or we have read a detailed blurb - it is inevitable that we won’t know the identity of its narrator. What we less accustomed to, however, is meeting a narrator who addresses this lack of knowledge explicitly. The narrator of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn does just this. ‘You don’t know me,’ says Huckleberry, ‘without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.’ Such a technique immediately invites intimacy. Indeed, Huck’s first four words - ‘you don’t know me’ - would not be unusual coming from someone introducing themselves to us personally, in the flesh. This is perhaps ironic: in the act of saying ‘you don’t know me’, Huckleberry both invites and denies familiarity.

Huckleberry is right to note that we don’t know who he is. By the end of the opening sentence, however, we have been given enough information to gather a substantial impression of him. Most obvious, on first reading, is Huckleberry’s accent: phrases such as ‘without you have’ and ‘that ain’t no matter’ make it clear that he doesn’t speak grammatically correct English. The latter phrase - ‘that ain’t no matter’ - is also of special importance in defining Huckleberry’s character. Coming from another narrator, ‘you don’t know me’ might be hostile, suspicious or guarded. It might indicate that they want to make the reader feel uncomfortable, and to deny their expectation of a friendly, welcoming opening line. ‘Without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’, moreover, might lead us to assume that the narrator is trying to discourage readers who haven’t read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer from continuing. Yet with ‘that ain’t no matter’, it becomes apparent that Huckleberry is neither hostile nor trying to discourage us. Rather, we sense, he wants to put at us at our ease. By the full stop, then, know that Huck is in fact an inclusive, friendly narrator, and, we suspect, one who does hope we will get to know him as the novel continues.

J.D. Salinger’s altogether more acerbic narrator of The Catcher in the Rye also begins by explicitly addressing how much the reader knows about him. The novel opens thus,

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like… and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

Unlike Huckleberry’s apostrophe and his friendly, unpresuming manner, Holden’s use of the address ‘you’ is affronting: he uses it to assert his authority. While Huckleberry was unsure as to whether the reader might have read Tom Sawyer, the way in which Holden talks to implies that he knows all about us. He sneeringly suggests that he knows what we expect from an opening line, that he knows what ‘we want to know.’ What he also implies, however, is that we share some of his knowledge. This becomes apparent from his use of the notoriously ambiguous word ‘it’ in the first clause. Reading Huckleberry’s opening phrase, ‘You don’t know me,’ the reader, though unaware of who is speaking, knows that ‘me’ refers to the narrator. Holden’s opening with, ‘if you really want to hear about it’ is much more puzzling. For it implies not only that that the reader, like Holden, knows what ‘it’ is, but also that it is this foreknowledge that has motivates them to open the book. This is curious: for we do not, in fact, know what ‘it’ is. Such an enigma is a testimony to Salinger’s ability to ignite the imagination, and provoke a desire to continue reading. For, we sense, in order to understand Holden, we need to know to what this ambiguous ‘it’ refers.

Holden is manifestly reluctant to provide us with information about himself. Indeed, the first two first person pronouns - ‘where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like’ - refer not so much to himself as to what he thinks we, the reader, want from him. This expectation denied us - and putting aside, for a moment, that which we infer from what he says - Holden volunteers just three bits of information about himself. Most important of these three is that he doesn’t ‘feel like going into’ his backstory. The second, that he had a ‘lousy’ childhood, somewhat undermines this claim. With the adjective ‘lousy’, Holden provides us with precisely the sort of information he claims to deny us, thus involving praeteritio - and, perhaps, undermining the control he seems keen to establish. Finally, Holden also volunteers that he has some knowledge of the novel David Copperfield, and seeks to distance himself from such a figure. This is worth exploration.

When Huckleberry and Holden make reference to another literary work in their opening sentence, it suggests that they are aware of the fact that they are beginning a novel. In fact, Huckleberry’s reference to ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ indicates that he even knows that he has appeared in a literary text before, thus drawing a link between the novel we are reading, and the one to which he refers. Holden’s reference to ‘David Copperfield’, by contrast, is made explicitly to distance the text he is reading from Dickens’ novel. In his dismissal of Dickens’ novel as ‘all that David Copperfield crap’, Holden not only implies that he finds David Copperfield sentimental and predictable, and assumes that his audience is the type to have read (and, I think, enjoyed) David Copperfield. He also establishes himself as a reader, and not only that, but an analytical one. Indeed, Holden here perhaps establishes himself as something of a literary critic.

Having looked at a narrator who dismisses Dickensian writing as ‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap’, it feels fitting to move on to look the opening of Dickens’ Dombey and Son. ‘DOMBEY’, writes Dickens,

sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.

Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son, 1844-6

The first thing to notice here is that, unlike Twain and Salinger, who use the characters of Holden and Huckleberry as first person narrators, Dickens’ novel is narrated by (we assume) an anonymous third person narrator. This third person narrator, not troubled with the problem of introducing himself, instead performs the traditional duty of setting the time and place of the novel. We are in the past tense, and scene is located quite precisely: a darkened room with a fire, in which sit the character Dombey on an armchair, and Son in a basket. From the lit fire, the darkness of the room, we might imagine that this is set on a winter’s evening. (Indeed, sitting in an armchair is very much an evening activity.) While the narrator does not acknowledge us directly, the precision of the description - taking into account corners, darkness, and with a close focus on furnishings - allows us to gain a detailed image of the scene. Where Holden and Huckleberry invited the reader to feel a part of their narration, Dickens’ narrator is, rather, inviting us to picture it, to visualize it, but not to imagine ourselves in it.

I suggested in the paragraph above that Dickens’ setting of place, time, and character is typical of a novel’s opening. It is, however, worth noting that there is nothing about this sentence that would make it incongruous were it to appear later in the novel. For Dickens’ use of indefinite and definite articles in this sentence suggests that the reader might already be familiar with some of what he is describing. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huckleberry’s use of the indefinite pronoun ‘a’ when he describes ‘a book by the name of’ anticipates that we might not know about Twain’s earlier novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. (In fact, that Huckleberry feels the need to tell us that it is ‘a book’, suggests he thinks we might not be able to guess what it is from the title alone.) Dickens’ use of definite pronouns in his evocation of the corner of the darkened room’ (my italics), by contrast, assumes we know which corner and which armchair he is talking about.

Given that Dickens’ narrator is a third person, anonymous figure, we are perhaps slower to notice his character than we are when we first meet Huck or Holden. Yet Dickens’ narrator does, of course, possess a distinctive tone. It emerges most forcefully in his the pleasing Dickensian simile at the line’s close, in which Son is described as sitting close to the fire, ‘as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.’ The imagery is as homely as the scene being described; toasting muffins evokes warmth, comfort, bread and jam. In fact, the homeliness of the image almost makes us overlook how bizarre it is to compare the toasting and browning of a muffin, to toasting and browning of what we can assume is a small child. Indeed, it adds an entirely new, potentially more sinister, tone to the phrase ‘tucked up warm.’ That Dickens means the simile to be mocking, however, mitigates the potentially unsettling undertone.

One clue that Dickens intends the simile to be humorous is the addition of the clause, ‘and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new’; for it introduces an urgency which we do not usually associate with muffins. This is not, we suspect, the sort of writing to which Holden referred when he evoked ‘all that David Copperfield crap.’



Resources others found helpful

How to get into medical school

This resource signposts and describes what we should be aiming for in our application to study medicine

STEM Applications to Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge)

This article attempts to shine some light on the Oxbridge Admissions process for STEM-based subjects, such as Maths, Engineering and Natural Sciences.