7 Epigraph Examples In Literature

Definition of Epigraph

An epigraph is a short quotation or saying at the beginning of a book, chapter intend to indicate its theme. Epigraphs can be derived from anywhere ranging from poetry to prose, famous speeches and also the author’s own original creation. They usually relate to the material of the book or chapter, which provide readers with understanding, setting an atmosphere for them and creating a background economy. 

Unlike a dedication, that is a note honor or tribute to somebody, an epigraph normally has thematic and sometimes mood-setting function and also it be almost the best tool in preparing for any literary work.

Function of Epigraph

An epigraph can serve several purposes in a literary work. Often, the writer chooses an epigraph to set the tone or mood at the outset. A quote from a famous poet at the start of a novel, for example, signals that what follows has artistic ambitions.

Epigraphs also provide commentary on the theme or message of the work. A pithy observation on the human condition introduces the reader to the philosophical dimensions of an essay.

Epigraphs additionally allow writers to pay homage to influences and inspiration. Quoting lines from Shakespeare at the beginning of a book of short stories links the author to the master playwright and classic works of English literature.

Epigraph Examples in Literature

Example#1

“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“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

This is a fictitious quote from Thomas Parke D’Invilliers who was one of the self created characters made by Fitzgerald in an earlier novel. It’s not a real poem but establishes the atmosphere of “The Great Gatsby”. The epigraph speaks of striving and trying to impress someone, which reflects the central theme of the novel. It is about Gatsby’s luxurious life and big parties for merely just to flaunt his fortune in an attempt of winning Daisy Buchanans love. Thus, the art of aspiration and love finds its way to this story hiddenly through epigraph.

Example#2

“The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. […] I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest…”

This epigraph is taken from the novel under discussion where the main character Esther Greenwood describes her life and decisions. The fig tree symbolically stands for all the different paths that her life could take with each of those little brown fruit being a potential future. But her inability to pick one way causes paralysis, leading to the loss of all possible future lives. This is indicative of the novel’s major themes pertaining to choice, societal pressures on women and struggles with mental illness that bring about its central character. The use of this metaphor to start the novel establishes a foundation on which she can build Esther’s inner turmoil and choices made in her life.

Example#3

“The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde

“…I find myself more and more interested in him, and I can’t help telling you things about him which you would rather not hear.”

As an epigraph it immediately makes you curious about who Dorian is and why he provokes such fascination, reflecting the intricate picture of a man untouched by age yet whose portrait bears all scars from his decadent sinister lifestyle.

Example#4

“One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

This catching opening sentence acts as a tantalizing epigraph that gives the reader an idea of this novel’s magical realism and provides more than just a taste about how nonlinear the storytelling is going to be. Fast forwarding to a significant moment years later in the story of one of its characters while raising questions about how Aureliano became his destiny, foreshadows the intricate tales interconnected across several generations present within this seminal work of magical realism.

Example#5

“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood

“When we think of the past it’s the beautiful things we pick out. We want that part of it back.”

The aforesaid excerpt is from one of the handmaids in the book, points to important themes early on – nostalgia, memory, loss. It tells the reader that the narrator is reminiscing about a past which was better than her constrained present reality as handmaid in this dystopian Republic of Gilead. For instance, this single line perfectly anticipates the significance of memories as a method of resistance and creates an image of what society was like before Gilead became all powerful.

Example#6

“The Stranger” by Albert Camus

“Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.”

The matter-of-fact opening line immediately sets the tone of emotional detachment and philosophical absurdity that defines protagonist Meursault. As the epigraph for Camus’ seminal existentialist novel, it plunges the reader right into Meursault’s state of mind, his disconnect from typical grief and lack of care for conventional rituals like noting the exact date of his mother’s death. The offhand uncertainty thus foreshadows the central questions on society’s expectations versus individual freedom.

Example#7

“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain

“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

With his trademark irony, Mark Twain cautions readers against deriving any overly simplistic interpretations, lessons or tidy storyline from his classic but controversial novel. This epigraph wryly defends the moral complexities and free-flowing structure of the tale to follow – an eccentric journey about race, society, conscience and the defiant spirit of youth. The “notice” introduces key Twainian themes regarding skepticism of social norms and mockery of conventional literary expectations.

Epigraph Examples In Literature
Epigraph Examples In Literature

Examples of Epigraph in Pop-culture

Example#1

TV series “Breaking Bad”

“My name is Walter Hartwell White. I live at 308 Negra Arroyo Lane, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87104. This is my confession.”

The line is from the opening scene of the pilot episode, where Walter White records a confession on video after an intense shootout. As the show’s epigraph, it immediately pulls the audience into the dark, dangerous world of the meth trade that Walter enters. His need to confess hints at the moral deterioration he undergoes from family man to ruthless drug kingpin. It sets up the series’ exploration of good versus evil and the depths humans can sink to when compromised.

Example#2

“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins

“May the odds be ever in your favor!”

This cheerful announcement from Effie Trinket at the annual “reaping” ritual has an ironic dark side, as she selects tributes for a fight to the death in the arena. As the epigraph, it encapsulates the dystopian horrors masked by glib catchphrases in the fictional nation of Panem. The odds are never in the tributes’ favor, foreshadowing the themes of inequality and oppression at Panem’s heart. It hints at protagonists Katniss’ uphill battle against the privileged elites when she volunteers as tribute.

Related Terms

Epitaph

An epitaph is an inscription in memory of a deceased person, often included on their tombstone or plaque. While an epigraph introduces themes of a literary work, an epitaph summarizes the key memories or traits of a person’s life after their death. Both serve commemorative functions – one for art, one for human life.

Foreshadowing

Epigraphs often provide hints or clues about the themes, plot points or character arcs that will unfold over the course of a novel, poem or play. In this way they foreshadow key elements of the work, prefiguring what is to come without laying everything out explicitly. So epigraphs engage in a subtle literary technique called foreshadowing, preparing readers between the lines for the important dynamics they are soon to discover in the world of the text itself.

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