What is Epiphany? Examples in Literature

What is Epiphany?

Epiphany is a sudden understanding or realization of something significant, that was previously obscure or unknown to them. This discovery might be about a life fact, a greater comprehension of a situation, or a personal component. It’s as if a light bulb goes out in your thoughts, revealing a fresh viewpoint or understanding.

Epiphanies sometimes occur suddenly and might be precipitated by an event, a discussion or a simple observation. They play an important role in literature, when characters have these epiphanies that shift their thinking or path in life.

Functions of Epiphany

An epiphany serves several functions in literature:

Revelation – It reveals an essential truth, either about life or a particular situation, that was previously veiled or misunderstood. Through a sudden insight or experience, deeper meaning is uncovered in a illuminating instant.

Transformation – The realization profoundly transforms the protagonist by altering their self-perception, shifting perspectives on relationships/events, or igniting a significant change in beliefs, motives or actions. It sparks dynamic personal growth.

Thematic Significance – An epiphany crystallizes and communicates pivotal themes, messages, or ideas the author wants to convey regarding life, human nature society. It provides vivid insight into the human condition.

Plot Development – Structurally, epiphanies act as a turning point, dramatically changing the protagonist’s path and driving the plot in a new direction. It signals a key story arc transition.

Reader Engagement – By aligning readers with the protagonist’s aha moment, epiphanies allow audiences to arrive at revelations as well. The shared clarity emotionally binds readers to characters and themes.

Epiphany Examples in literature


“Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” by James Joyce

“Heavenly God! cried Stephen’s soul, in an outburst of profane joy….Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy. Her eyes had called him and his soul had leaped at the call. To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!”

Here, the protagonist Stephen’s moment of epiphany is when, he sees a girl wading in a stream. He is spiritually moved by the beauty of this sensual vision, which sparks an awakening of his artistic consciousness. The passage conveys an intensity of profound revelation, as Stephen’s “soul” cries out in “profane joy” at the sight of the girl. The language suggests a nearly religious ecstasy – her image has passed into Stephen’s soul “forever” and the scene is described with sacred overtones like “holy silence” and “ecstasy.” This highlights how deeply stirring and revelatory the moment is for Stephen.

The girl’s eyes call to Stephen, and his soul instinctively “leaps” in response – indicating a visceral, spiritual pull toward her beauty and grace. This vision stirs Stephen’s artistic impulse to not only notice beauty, but to distill meaning from life’s varied experiences – from living, erring, falling, triumphing. The quote captures Stephen recognizing his artistic purpose is to recreate and transform “life out of life.”


“The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison

“I did not wish for anything that day, except for Pecola to stop hurting…Why didn’t I feel what I was supposed to feel for the one who had taken my friend’s milk? Why didn’t I want to bash his head in?”

The aforesaid excerpt depicts a significant epiphany or awakening for the young character Claudia. She reflects on her own reaction after committing rape and impregnated of her friend Pecola by her father. She realizes that although she wished for Pecola’s suffering to stop, but did not feel hatred or vengeance toward’s Pecola’s rapist.

This moment marks Claudia’s revelation that she failed to fully support or empathize with her friend Pecola in her moment of crisis. By focusing her emotions solely on Pecola rather than condemning the rapist, Claudia recognizes her own fault in implicitly allowing community complicity in Pecola’s trauma. She awakens to the injustice of Pecola’s black female body not being cherished or protected in society.

The quote captures Claudia’s sudden epiphany about her community’s racial and gender dynamics that permit such violence against black girls and women like Pecola. This plants the seeds for Claudia’s growing social awareness and commitment to Pecola’s humanity – representing a turning point in her moral and ethical development. The moment sparks her personal growth through harsh realization.


“Emma” by Jane Austen

Knightley after Harriet confesses her belief that Mr. Knightley is in love with her:

“She was proved to have been universally mistaken; and she had not quite done nothing—for she had done mischief. She had brought evil on Harriet, on herself, and she too much feared, on Mr. Knightley.”

The excerpt shows epiphany about the consequences of misguided matchmaking schemes of the protagonist Emma. After coming into knowledge that her friend Harriet has fallen for Mr. Knightley, Emma suddenly realizes the ‘mischief’, which her meddling has caused.

The passage conveys Emma’s internal shift in perspective – she comprehends that her judgment has been “universally mistaken” and that her interference has brought “evil” rather than good. Her misplaced confidence in understanding others’ romantic intentions has created chaos rather than order.

This epiphanic moment marks Emma’s dawning understanding of her own foolishness and the harm she has inadvertently caused those close to her heart. She awakens to the reality that her manipulations have threatened Mr. Knightley and Harriet’s welfare rather than aided it. Along with this reality check comes Emma’s first glimpses of self-accountability and maturity in her romantic outlook.

The quote captures the humbling yet formative instant where Emma finally sees the consequences of her matchmaking mania. This propels essential growth in her character as she releases her fanciful notions of steering others’ destinies and gains wisdom about real human emotions.


“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte

“My world had for some years been in Lowood: my experience had been of its rules and systems…now I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse, to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils.”

This quote from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre captures the protagonist Jane having an introspective epiphany as she reflects on her life while alone on the moors. After leaving Thornfield Hall and Rochester, Jane contemplates her limited worldview having been confined thus far within the strict walls of Lowood.

The passage conveys Jane’s sudden realization that beyond her narrow existence lies “the real world” in all its width and variation. With this comes an awakening of her yearning to discover broader “hopes,” “fears,” “sensations” that await beyond her small corner of experience.

Jane grasps there is “real knowledge of life” to gained out in the expanse of both possibility and “perils.” It shows that Jane is realizing to grow that she needs to be brave and step out of her comfort zone to explore new places and experiences.


Middlemarch by George Eliot

“Her mind was theoretic, and yearned by its nature after some lofty conception of the world which might frankly include the parish of Tipton and her own rule of conduct there; she was enamoured of intensity and greatness, and rash in embracing whatever seemed to her to have those aspects.”

It is an important realization for the character ‘Dorothea Brooke’. She being an idealistic young woman had developed lofty notions of how she would contribute meaningfully to her small parish community. However, in this moment Dorothea gains clarity about the flawed and unrealistic nature of her over-zealous ambitions.

The passage conveys how Dorothea’s mind “yearned after some lofty conception of the world” in all its theoretical grandeur, rather than confronting concrete practicalities. Her high-minded aspirations made her “rash in embracing whatever seemed” intense and great, without reasonable discernment.

But her epiphany centers on recognizing that in her “enamour” of vague ambition, she overlooked understanding real human lives in her actual surroundings in Tipton parish. Her awakening reveals her immaturity in assuming she could tackle parish problems with over-simplified theoretical solutions.

The quote captures Dorothea’s sudden understanding of how her naïve passion for “intensity and “greatness” blinded her judgment of everyday complex truths. This realization marks the beginning of her gaining wisdom about pragmatic action versus idealistic imagining – propelling essential personal growth.


“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison

In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the narrator experiences an epiphany during the Harlem Riots when he realizes the complexity of race relations and power dynamics that fuel societal tensions:

“Where were the historians today? And how would they put it down…Were we fools and victims of our own mad notions of racial division…Or were we tormented? What did the mob want, what actually was it demanding when it called for ‘social equality’?”

The narrator is undergoing an epiphany as he witnesses a riot unfolding in Harlem. As racial tensions explode into violence on the streets, the narrator questions himself about the deeper root causes fueling the chaos.

The passage conveys the narrator’s sudden confrontation with his own lack of understanding regarding the complex social and psychological forces at play. His questioning spotlights societal issues that historians have failed to capture or acknowledge.

In this instant, the narrator grasps the insufficiency of simplistic explanations for the riots that would dismiss the rioters as just “fools.” Instead, he awakens to layered truths – both the reality of ingrained “notions of racial division” but also the legitimate outcries for “equality” from the oppressed.

The quote captures the narrator’s startling realization that he must develop a more nuanced, thoughtful analysis of events rather than rely on conventional assumptions. This epiphany plants seeds for his increased social awareness and personal accountability in facing hard truths.

Epiphany Examples in literature
Epiphany Examples in Literature

Related Terms

Moment of insight

Epiphany is a literary term, which is often described as a sudden moment of insight or realization by a character. It is a revelation that gives the character clarity about themselves or the world. An epiphany can reveal new truths or information to a character that shifts their perspective.

Turning point

Epiphanies are often turning points or pivotal moments for characters, where they come to an important understanding that changes their perspective going forward. An epiphany marks a transition in a character’s journey or arc, signaling growth, change or transformation after gaining profound realization about themselves, others, or the world they inhabit.

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