Definition of Epistolary
An epistolary work of literature is one written through a series of documents. Most often, these documents are letters, though they can also be diary entries, newspaper clippings, and, more recently, blog posts and emails. The definition of epistolary novels can be further classified into monologic (the letters or diary entries of only one person), dialogic (letters between two characters), or polylogic (three or more characters who write letters, have diary entries, etc, as well as other external documentation like newspaper articles).
The word epistolary comes from the Greek word ἐπιστολή (epistolē), which means “a letter.”
Common Examples of Epistolary
There are countless examples of epistolary works, which is to say, real letters that people have written to each other. Each tells a story in its own way. Here are just a few love letters from famous people:
- Johnny Cash to June Cash:
That’s really nice June. You’ve got a way with words and a way with me as well.
The fire and excitement may be gone now that we don’t go out there and sing them anymore, but the ring of fire still burns around you and I, keeping our love hotter than a pepper sprout.
- Frieda Kahlo to Diego Rivera:
Diego, my love,
Remember that once you finish the fresco we will be together forever once and for all, without arguments or anything, only to love one another.
Behave yourself and do everything that Emmy Lou tells you.
I adore you more than ever. Your girl, Frida
- Gerald Ford to Betty Ford:
No written words can adequately express our deep, deep love. We know how great you are and we, the children and Dad, will try to be as strong as you.
Our Faith in you and God will sustain us. Our total love for you is everlasting.
We will be at your side with our love for a wonderful Mom.
Significance of Epistolary in Literature
The first example of an epistolary novel was Prison of Love (Cárcel de amor) by the Spanish author, Diego de San Pedro, written in 1485. There were a few more examples of epistolary novels in the seventeenth century, and it become a popular genre in in the eighteenth century. Epistolary novels fell out of favor over time, as the form lent itself easily to satire and burlesque. However, there are many famous novels written in this style such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The form has become popular once again in contemporary literature as authors incorporate newer technology such as text messages, emails, blog posts, and so on.
Epistolary examples play with intertextuality in an interesting way, because all (or at least most) of the documents in the text are fictional, yet seem more realistic due to their presentation. Indeed, examples of epistolary novels can often seem to deal more with realism because they seem more like real life. Epistolary novels do not need omniscient narrators to explain what every character is thinking and living through, because we as readers get access through their own words.
Examples of Epistolary in Literature
JONATHAN HARKER’S JOURNAL
(Kept in shorthand.)
3 May. Bistritz.—Left Munich at 8:35 P. M., on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late. Buda-Pesth seems a wonderful place, from the glimpse which I got of it from the train and the little I could walk through the streets. I feared to go very far from the station, as we had arrived late and would start as near the correct time as possible. The impression I had was that we were leaving the West and entering the East; the most western of splendid bridges over the Danube, which is here of noble width and depth, took us among the traditions of Turkish rule.
(Dracula by Bram Stoker)
Bram Stoker’s late nineteenth-century novel Dracula is a famous example of epistolary writing, as he includes letters, ship logs, telegrams, doctor’s notes, and diary entries. This is a polylogic form of an epistolary novel.
PROSPECTUS AND GUIDE TO THE SECRET ANNEX
A Unique Facility for the Temporary
Accommodation of Jews and Other
Open all year round: Located in beautiful, quiet, wooded surroundings in the heart of Amsterdam. No private residences in the vicinity. Can be reached by streetcar 13 or 17 and also by car and bicycle. For those to whom such transportation has been forbidden by the German authorities, it can also be reached on foot. Furnished and unfurnished rooms and apartments are available at all times, with or without meals.
Alcohol: For medicinal purposes only.
(The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank)
Anne Frank’s diary was the monologic epistolary work of a real person, and yet we often read her incredible collection of entries as novelistic. This is not because there’s an iota of fiction in Frank’s writing, but instead because the book has a narrative arc and she includes other intertextual pieces such as the above excerpt that was presented to a man who joined the Annex later than the Frank family. Anne Frank included a good deal of humor in her writing, as witnessed above.
Thursday, 7th November
Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints. Through rotting kelp, sea cocoa-nuts & bamboo, the tracks led me to their maker, a White man, his trowzers & Pea-jacket rolled up, sporting a kempt beard & an outsized Beaver, shoveling & sifting the cindery sand with a teaspoon so intently that he noticed me only after I had hailed him from ten yards away. Thus it was, I made the acquaintance of Dr. Henry Goose, surgeon to the London nobility. His nationality was on surprise. If there be any eyrie so desolate, or isle so remote, that one many there resort unchallenged by an Englishman, ’tis not down on any map I ever saw.
(“The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” from Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell)
David Mitchell writes his polyphonic novel Cloud Atlas from multiple viewpoints. One of the points of view is from a man named Adam Ewing on board a ship in 1850. Mitchell explores Adam Ewing’s story via entries into a journal.
You say they didn’t call for a doctor, that they were afraid they’d be sent back, but then why try to find a cure in the West?
You really don’t understand a refugee’s heart, do you? These people were desperate. They were trapped between their infections and being rounded up and “treated” by their own government. If you had a loved one, a family member, a child, who was infected, and you thought there was a shred of hope in some other country, wouldn’t you do everything in your power to get there? Wouldn’t you want to believe there was hope?
(World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks)
The contemporary novel World War Z is a clever take on the epistolary form, including interviews with different survivors of the zombie apocalypse. The interviewees are from around the world, and show the spread of the zombie infection.
From Amelia Maugery to Juliet
8th February, 1946
Dear Miss Ashton,
Dawsey Adams has just been to call on me. I have never seen him as pleased with anything as he is with your gift and letter. He was so busy convincing me to write to you by the next post that he forgot to be shy. I don’t believe he is aware of it, but Dawsey has a rare gift for persuasion—he never asks for anything for himself, so everyone is eager to do what he asks for others.
(The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows)
Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’s recent novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is told entirely in letters between many different characters as they grapple with the after-effects of World War II. All of the events of the narrative are explored through different letters between the dozen or so different main characters.
From: Soo-Lin Lee-Segal
To: Audrey Griffin
I heard Bernadette tried to run you over at pickup! Are you OK? Should I come by with dinner? WHAT HAPPENED?
(Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple)
Maria Semple’s recent novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette includes a wide variety of documents, from school reports to invoices to emails, like the excerpt above (we also explore the event of Bernadette running over Audrey’s foot via a letter sent home to parents from a teacher). The main character is a girl named Bee, Bernadette’s daughter, who also provides a narrative through-line of a first person point of view.
Test Your Knowledge of Epistolary
1. Which of the following statements is the best epistolary definition, as it applies to literature?
A. A letter.
B. A novel written through documents, often including letters.
C. A series of unconnected letters.
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2. Which of the following statements is correct?
A. A polylogic epistolary work contains letters, diary entries, etc. from more than two characters.
B. A monologic epistolary novel explores a relationship through letters between two characters.
C. A dialogic epistolary piece of literature shows the viewpoint of a single character.
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3. Which of the following would you NOT find in an epistolary novel?
A. A diary entry.
B. A hospital bill.
C. An omniscient narrator.
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