Definition of Prologue

A prologue is a separate introductory section that comes before the main body of a poem, novel, or play, and gives some sense as to what’s to come. There are many different ways in which the prologue may do this, such as presenting the main characters and setting in a straightforward way, explaining some background event or events, or give a sense of the theme or atmosphere of the upcoming work.

The definition of prologue is opposite to that of the epilogue, a separate section of the text that provides a conclusion and answers questions. The word prologue comes from the Greek word πρόλογος (prólogos), which is a compound of pro, “before” and lógos, “word.”

Difference Between Prologue, Preface, and Foreword

The sections of the prologue, preface, and foreword all come before the main body of the text, but have slightly different functions. A foreword is written by someone other than the author in order to introduce the reading audience to the text, often from a scholarly perspective. If a book had all three of the three sections, this one would come first. The preface would then come next, which is an introduction from the author that explains how the text came into being, and to whom the author would like to give gratitude.

The prologue differs from these two other forms of introduction because it is written in the same voice as the rest of the text; indeed, it is a literary addition to the text. The prologue usually occurs in a different time, and sometimes a different place, than the rest of the text, but it does contain some sense of background plot.

Common Examples of Prologue

Sometimes we provide a short prologue before launching into a story. For example:

  • “I was hanging out with Sandy and Jim the other night. You know Sandy, the one who once ran a major New York magazine but declared bankruptcy after publishing scandalous photos of Leonardo DiCaprio? So anyway…”
  • “I visited my aunt’s cabin last weekend. It’s the same cabin that Billy the Kid once spent a winter, and it doesn’t look or feel like much has changed there since then.”
  • “I’m worried about going camping next month. Did I ever tell you about the time I went camping in the mountains of Romania and thought I saw a vampire pass by my tent?”

We also use the term “prologue” to refer to real events. For example, we might talk abut the economic crisis in Germany that was a prologue to WWII.

Significance of Prologue in Literature

Prologue examples were prevalent in Ancient Greek theater, often explaining an episode which directly led into the main events of the play about to come. The prologue in these cases provided important, pertinent information that playgoers would need to understand and contextualize the main events of the drama. Plays in the Middle Ages and in Elizabethan England drew on this tradition of prologues, and often included a short introduction presented by a character or chorus. We can find examples of prologues in many different novels, plays, and poems to this day. However, some writers caution away beginning novelists from including prologues because they do not often grip the reader as much as beginning in media res, i.e., in the middle of the action.

Examples of Prologue in Literature

Example #1

Here begins the Book
of the Tales of Canterbury
When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)-
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.

(The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer)

Geoffrey Chaucer included a very long “general prologue” to his famous work The Canterbury Tales. In this prologue Chaucer introduces us to the theme of people going on pilgrimage, and introduces the various people he will be going on pilgrimage with. These people end up occupying different chapters in the rest of the text.

Example #2


Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

Perhaps the most famous of all literary prologues, William Shakespeare wrote a lovely sonnet to introduce the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. This prologue, a poem in itself, sets the scene in a very straightforward manner telling the audience the setting, protagonists, theme, and even what will happen at the end.

Example #3

As a case history, “Lolita” will become, no doubt, a classic in psychiatric circles. As a work of art, it transcends its expiatory aspects; and still more important to us than scientific significance and literary worth, is the ethical impact the book should have on the serious reader; for in this poignant personal study there lurks a general lesson; the wayward child, the egotistic mother, the panting maniac—these are not only vivid characters in a unique story: they warn us of dangerous trends; they point out potent evils. “Lolita” should make all of us—parents, social workers, educators—apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.
John Ray, Jr., Ph.D.
Widworth, Mass

(Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov)

Vladimir Nabokov loved to play with conventions in his very unconventional works of literature. He creates a fake foreword for his novel Lolita by an imaginary scholar named John Ray, Jr. In this prologue, Nabokov pretends that someone else has encountered the text and is now introducing it to the reader. In so doing, Nabokov provides a clever way of introducing his text and also the theme of the untrustworthy narrator.

Example #4

Parties to that settlement, including the distinguished scientific board of advisers, signed a nondisclosure agreement, and none will speak about what happened-but many of the principal figures in the “InGen incident” are not signatories, and were willing to discuss the remarkable events leading up to those final two days in August 1989 on a remote island off the west coast of Costa Rica.

(Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton)

Michael Crichton uses two prologue examples in his best-selling novel Jurassic Park. First comes a prologue, excerpted above, which seems very straightforward in style that presents the technological advances of the time period. This prologue reads almost like a news clipping, and yet sets up Crichton’s own authorial view on the possible dangers of scientific innovation. The second prologue is more literary in nature, describing a short scene in which someone has been bitten by a dinosaur, not knowing what this creature is.

Test Your Knowledge of Prologue

1. Which of the following statements is the correct prologue definition?
A. An introductory section written by a different author in order to give some scholarly background.
B. A separate beginning section written in the same voice and by the same author as the rest of the work.
C. A final conclusive section that provides some closure.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Why was an example of prologue often found at the beginning of a Greek play?
A. The playgoers already knew the story and needed only to be refreshed on what had happened.
B. The prologue was basically useless and just took up time.
C. The prologue provided pertinent information what led up to the story in question.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following would constitute a prologue to a novel by James Joyce?
A. A separate section written by Joyce that introduces the characters and tone of the rest of the novel.
B. An explanation of the influences and time period that Joyce was writing in by the contemporary Irish writer Edna O’Brien.
C. A introductory section by Joyce that explains his authorial intent and thanks those who helped him in writing the novel.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: A is the correct answer. B would be an example of foreword, and C an example of preface.[/spoiler]