Definition of Epigraph

In literature, an epigraph is a short quotation that is set at the beginning of a text or section of a text to suggest the theme of what’s to come. The epigraph can be a quote from a famous person, an excerpt or full text of a poem, phrase, lyric, or definition. Epigraphs can be a sort of preface or can set the mood or tone of the following work. Epigraphs can also invite the reader to make a comparison between what the epigraph says and what the rest of the text is about. Some authors use epigraphs to tie their own literature to the greater body of literature in the world.

The word epigraph comes from the Greek word epigraphein, which means “to write on.” The contemporary definition of epigraph was introduced into English in the mid-19th century, when it came to mean a motto or pithy sentence that prefaces a book or chapter of a book.

Common Examples of Epigraph

While there is a literary meaning of epigraph, the word epigraph can also refer to inscriptions on buildings, statues, and coins. Non-literary epigraphs work to figuratively label and give some sense of the symbolic meaning of these buildings, statues, and coins. Here are some examples of epigraphs that are used in everyday life that are not literary epigraphs:

  • Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. (From Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “New Colossus”)
  • United States seal and coins: E pluribus unum (out of many, one)
  • Yale University buildings: Lux et veritas (light and truth)

Significance of Epigraph in Literature

Epigraphs became popular in the early eighteenth century, when reading for pleasure became common amongst middle-class citizens. Before this time, people who read literature had generally read all of the canon. When reading surged in popularity as a pastime, authors found it necessary to provide a small excerpt from some work in the canon to give readers a small anchor to the literary tradition. This was concurrent with authors’ optimistic and sometimes presumptuous desires to show how their own new works of literature fit into the canon. The tradition of the epigraph was ubiquitous for a time; some authors began to create fake quotes to use as epigraphs partly to demonstrate their frustration with the literary canon. Epigraphs remain relatively popular today, though, as authors find ways to present the main theme or their works in brief through the words of other writers.

Examples of Epigraph in Literature

Example #1

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me? — Paradise Lost, X, 743-45

(from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley)

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in the early nineteenth century when examples of epigraphs were quite ubiquitous. She uses a quote from John Milton’s Paradise Lost in which a human speaks to his maker (i.e., God); the comparison here is that in Shelley’s novel man himself ill-advisedly becomes the maker.

Example #2

Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her; If you can bounce high, bounce for her too, Till she cry “Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover, I must have you!” — Thomas Parke D’Invilliers

(from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

The epigraph example in The Great Gatsby is one that F. Scott Fitzgerald created himself. Fitzgerald is somewhat light-hearted, therefore, in this use of epigraph. It still serves the purpose that others epigraphs do, which is to highlight a theme of the novel to come. In this case, the epigraph suggests that a man must wear nice things (and be of a high class) to impress a woman.

Example #3

Lawyers, I suppose, were children once. — Charles Lamb

(from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

Harper Lee’s famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird includes the important perspectives of both Atticus Finch, a lawyer, and his children. While not all lawyers might maintain a childlike empathy with the world, Atticus works hard to be fair and impart this fairness in his daughter, the narrator.

Example #4

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death. – T.S. Eliot, “The Journey of the Magi”

(from No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe)

Chinua Achebe includes a pertinent example of epigraph in his novel No Longer at Ease. He quotes from T.S. Eliot, whose poem mirrors the post-colonial condition that Achebe explores at length in his novel. Just as with the difficult journey the Magi took, the protagonist in Achebe’s novel travels from Nigeria to England, and when he returns to Nigeria he finds himself no longer at ease when he returns back to his home country.

Example #5

If they give you ruled paper, write the other way. – Juan Ramón Jiménez

(from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury)

Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 contains this epigraph example that encourages going against the rules. While the protagonist of the novel, Guy Montag, originally is part of a society that discourages reading and enforces the burning of books, he later changes his views. The quote from Juan Ramón Jiménez is a brilliantly succinct way of presenting the rebellious nature that Guy embodies.

Example #6

And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.

And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?

And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. —Genesis 30:1-3

(from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood)

Margaret Atwood quotes from the Bible in her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. This short excerpt from Genesis is the basis for Atwood’s entire societal issue, which is the use of women basically as breeding machines. Just as there’s no sense in this passage that the maid Bilhah’s own body or feelings matter, so too is there a lack of protection for the protagonist in Atwood’s novel, or women like her.

Example #7

The reader should realize himself that it could not have happened otherwise, and that to give him any other name was quite out of the question. — Nikolai Gogol, “The Overcoat”

(from The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri)

Jhumpa Lahiri’s recent novel The Namesake focuses on a character who is named Gogol Ganguli, named as such for his father’s favorite author. This naming choice haunts the protagonist of Lahiri’s novel because it is so unusual. Yet the epigraph example here presents the key dilemma; that Gogol’s story would not have happened otherwise if he had been named anything else.

Example #8

All the lives we could live, all the people we will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is what the world is. –Aleksander Hemon, The Lazarus Project

(from Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann)

Colum McCann quotes Aleksander Hemon’s The Lazarus Project to open his contemporary novel Let the Great World Spin. In McCann’s brilliant novel many people witness one event, which is a tight-rope walker walking between the Twin Towers in New York City. McCann then follows many different stories of people before, during, and after they witness the event, showing the interconnectedness of all people.

Test Your Knowledge of Epigraph

1. Which of the following statements is the best epigraph definition?

A. An adjective or phrase expressing a quality of the person it’s representing.
B. A short quotation set at the beginning of a novel or chapter.
C. An inscription on a gravestone.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: B is the correct answer. A is the definition of epithet and C is the definition of epitaph.[/spoiler]

2. Why might an author choose to use an epigraph?

I. To connect his or work her of literature to the greater body of literature.
II. To show off how much better his or her own literature is than the already existing canon.
III. To offer a brief statement that hints at the theme of the work.

A. I and II
B. II and III
C. I and III
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. Consider the following epigraph:

Behind every great fortune, there is a crime. –Balzac

Which of the following novels would you guess this epigraph example is from?

A. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
B. 1984 by George Orwell
C. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: A is the correct answer. The epigraph from Balzac perfectly and neatly sets up the conflict between financial fortune and criminal activity that is so central to the novel about the mafia.[/spoiler]