Epigraph (literature)

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Not to be confused with epitaph, epigram, or epithet.
Facsimile of the original title page for William Congreve's The Way of the World published in 1700, on which the epigraph from Horace's Satires can be seen in the bottom quarter.

In literature, an epigraph is a phrase, quotation, or poem that is set at the beginning of a document or component.[1] The epigraph may serve as a preface, as a summary, as a counter-example, or to link the work to a wider literary canon,[2] either to invite comparison or to enlist a conventional context.[3]


Epigraph and dedication page, The Waste Land
Epigraph, consisting of an excerpt from the book itself, William Morris's The House of the Wolfings
  • The epigraph to Theodore Herzl's 'Altneuland' is "If you will it, it is no dream..." which became a slogan of the Zionist movement.
  • The epigraph to Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov is John 12:24. "Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit."
  • The epigraphs to the preamble of Georges Perec's Life: A User's Manual (La Vie mode d'emploi) and to the book as a whole warn the reader that tricks are going to be played and that all will not be what it seems.
  • The epigraph to E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime quotes Scott Joplin's instructions to those who play his music, "Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast." This stands in contrast to the accelerating pace of American society at the turn of the 20th century.
  • A Samuel Johnson quote is used as an epigraph in Hunter S. Thompson's novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man."
  • Stephen King uses many epigraphs in his writing, usually to mark the beginning of another section in the novel. An unusual example is The Stand where he uses lyrics from certain songs to express the metaphor used in a particular part.

Why, you may take the most gallant sailor, the most intrepid airman or the most audacious soldier, put them at a table together - what do you get? The sum of their fears.

Fictional quotations[edit]

Some authors use fictional quotations that purport to be related to the fiction of the work itself. For example, Stephen King's The Dark Half has epigraphs taken from the fictitious novels written by the protagonist; Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair has quotations from supposedly future works about the action of the story; John Green's The Fault in Our Stars has a quotation from a fictitious novel, An Imperial Affliction, which features prominently as a part of the story. JRR Tolkien's epigraph describing the Twenty Rings of Power at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings includes the verse of the One Ring (Ash Nazg Durbatulûk), which can be seen within the complete epigraph or on its own. F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby opens with a poem entitled "Then Wear the Gold Hat," purportedly written by Thomas Parke D'Invilliers. D'Invilliers is a character in Fitzgerald's first novel, This Side of Paradise and it should also be noted that, aside from its role as a tie-in to the Fitzgerald canon, the poem elucidates one of the major themes of the work. This cliché is parodied by Diana Wynne Jones in The Tough Guide To Fantasyland.

Dean Koontz' The Book of Counted Sorrows began as a fictional book of poetry from which Koontz would "quote" when no suitable existing option was available; Koontz simply wrote all these epigraphs himself. Many fans, rather than realizing the work was Koontz' own invention, apparently believed it was a real, but rare, volume; Koontz later collected the existing verse into an actual book.[5]

Some science fiction works (Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy and Frank Herbert's Dune series are examples) use quotations from an imagined future history of the period of their story. This can be seen as a way of constructing authenticity for a work of the imagination.

The film Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby opens with a fictional quotation from the real historical figure Eleanor Roosevelt, using the epigraph to comedic effect.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Epigraph". University of Michigan. Retrieved 17 December 2013. 
  2. ^ "Definition of Epigraph". Literary Devices. Retrieved 17 December 2013. 
  3. ^ Bridgeman, Teresa. Negotiating the New in the French Novel: Building Contexts for Fictional Worlds. Page No-129: Psychology Press, 1998. ISBN 0415131251. Retrieved 17 December 2013. 
  4. ^ Tom Clancy, The Sum of All Fears, 1991, Harper Collins Publishing, London
  5. ^ Dean Koontz. Podcast Episode 25: Book of Counted Sorrows 1 (Podcast). Retrieved July 9, 2011. 


External links[edit]

  • Epigraphic: an ever-growing, searchable collection of literary epigraphs