Definition of Epistolary
Epistolary is a literary work especially in the form of a novel. It is presented in letters format, which is written by one or more characters. This narrative format allows the story to unfold through the personal correspondence of the characters, rather than through a more conventional direct narration.
An epistolary work provides insights into the thoughts, feelings and motives of the characters revealing the content of their letters. This technique creates a sense of realism and intimacy. The reader is able to gain private access to the documents of the character. Prominent examples of the epistolary genre include novels, like “Pamela” by Samuel Richardson, “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker and books composed of emails.
Functions of Epistolary
The key functions of the epistolary are:
- Revelation of Characters’ Inner Lives – Letters provide intimate glimpses into character’s thoughts, feelings, motives and private lives, which are not as easily conveyed through traditional third person narration.
- Plot Progression Through Personal Documents – Rather than direct narration propelling the plot forward, the story develops through the letters the characters exchange unveiling events, conflicts and new developments.
- Realism and Immediacy – The first-person letters can create a heightened sense of realism, immediacy and authenticity as if the reader is directly accessing personal correspondence.
- Reader Engagement – By consuming ‘private’ character communications, the readers feel intricately connected to the story and characters heightening engagement.
- Flexible Structure – The epistolary format allows for a flexible and non-linear chronology since letters may be written and received at different points in time.
- Reliability and Unreliability – Letters may reveal accurate or inaccurate aspects of ‘truth’ depending on the reliability of the letter writer.
Examples of Epistolary in literature
“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley
The writer employs the epistolary technique throughout multiple sections of the literary work, largely through letters, written by the character of Robert Walton, an Arctic seafarer. The author introduces Walton’s letters at the beginning of the novel prefacing the story. Walton reports to his sister Margaret back home on the strange events aboard his ship and the bizarre figure he rescues from the ice, Dr. Victor Frankenstein:
“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings…One man’s life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought, for the dominion I should acquire and transmit over the elemental foes of our race.”
Walton informs her sister that so far, despite her concerns, no disaster has happened. This directly introduces the epistolary format to the reader. Walton then mentions his encounter with the mysterious Victor Frankenstein referring obliquely to Frankenstein’s feverish pursuit of dangerous knowledge and experiments. This foreshadows later events and hints at the disastrous consequences of Frankenstein’s obsessive quest as Walton compares it metaphorically to his own ambition to conquer the perilous arctic voyage.
The intimate and confessional tone of Walton’s letter allows Shelley to use the epistolary format to draw readers in with a sense of realism and immediacy. The private dispatch makes the fantastic tale somehow believable and gripping. As Walton corresponds with his worried sister about the strange figure rescued amidst the ice, the scene is chillingly set for the later revelation of Victor’s grim story of tragic creation.
“Pamela” by Samuel Richardson
The entire story of the novel unfolds through a series of letters written by the heroine Pamela to her parents. She is reporting her harrowing trials as a servant who must fend off the advances of her predatory master Mr. B. She writes pleadingly to them:
“O my dear father and mother!…I have been frightened out of my senses; surely I shall never live to get over it!…My master has been very angry with me, and threatened me sadly!…I am quite weary of my life. A poor innocent I am!.”
Richardson uses Pamela’s urgent letters to vividly reveal her psychological state evoking empathy and concern in readers. The intimate and first-person missives create tension and danger as if this abuse is transpiring in real-time. Pamela’s epistolary revelations to her parents drive the plot forward as readers nervously await the next sinister advance from Mr. B which Pamela will undoubtedly chronicle through her obsessive letters.
“The Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis
The writer unconventionally employs epistolary letters from a demon named Screwtape advising his nephew Wormwood on how to tempt his human subject (called the Patient) away from God. Screwtape comically writes:
“I note what you say about guiding our patient’s reading…But beware! The patient must not be aware of your interference. Upon the whole, books are among the best allies of the National Institute of Diabolical Research [Hell].”
Here the witty, ironic letters creative a humorous satire exposing various immoral temptations. Yet they vividly reveal spiritual warfare raging for one man’s soul. The Patient’s story emerges through Screwtape’s shrewd and calculating letters to Wormwood about exploiting the weaknesses of the Patient. This energetic epistolary exchange engages readers in timeless moral and spiritual questions with inventiveness and wit.
“Dangerous Liaisons” by Choderlos de Laclos
The writer unfolds through a series of letters exchanged between wealthy, debauched aristocrats Marquise de Merteuil and her ex-lover Vicomte de Valmont, who cruelly manipulate others for sport. When de Merteuil challenges Valmont to seduce the pious, married Madame de Tourvel, he replies boastfully:
“Do you find nothing piquant in the idea of making this shy, blushing virtue adore me? Of inspiring passion for me in that novice heart? Of glowing myself on the still icy but transparent fires that my eyes have just lit?”
In this paragraph, de Valmont describes his wicked intentions to seduce the virtuous and married woman namely Madame de Tourvel, as part of a cruel game orchestrated with de Merteuil. His letter directly addresses de Merteuil vividly conveying his arrogant confidence in his ability to emotionally and sexually manipulate de Tourvel, referring to her insultingly as “shy, blushing virtue.”
The intimate and conversational tone of de Valmont’s letter, enabled by the epistolary format allows readers a voyeuristic glimpse into his predatory nature and corrupt morals. As he outlines his plans to sadistically play with de Tourvel’s “novice heart,” we recognize the true brutality lurking beneath his sophisticated charm. The inappropriate candor and graphic sensuality of his letter creates discomfort yet insight into a Georgian-era aristocrat’s innermost vile machinations.
“Dracula” by Bram Stoker
The Gothic novel unfolds largely through letters, diary entries, telegrams and newspaper clippings by the main characters. For example, Mina Murray writes in a journal to her fiancé Jonathan Harker:
“When we started, the sun was but newly risen…Before we reached Bistritz, however, the sky became overcast…We grew afraid that we would not arrive in time. Then without warning the rumbling of thunder was heard.”
Mina describes the foreboding atmosphere and ominous storm during a carriage ride to meet her friend Lucy. Phrases like “the sky became overcast” and “rumbling of thunder” create a tense, eerie mood, foreshadowing supernatural danger. Stoker aims to immerse the reader, making them feel they are right alongside Mina witnessing the events in her diary in real time.
The intimate first-person diary format allows readers to connect emotionally with Mina. When she writes “We grew afraid that we would not arrive in time,” we empathize with her rising fear and feel suspense, wondering what malevolent events may transpire after her arrival. The epistolary diary adds authenticity, as if these disturbing events truly transpired and Mina is faithfully recording her experience.
“Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe
One of the earliest novels in literary history, wherein the writer uses the epistolary writing in fiction. The novel is framed as the autobiography of the shipwrecked sailor Crusoe, presented in memoir form as an extensive letter he is writing primarily to readers, but addressing at times his “Dear Friend” about his decades alone on an island:
“I, poor miserable Robinson Crusoe…having been shipwrecked during a dreadful storm…was come on shore on this dismal, unfortunate island, which I called ‘The Island of Despair’… I walked about on the shore, lifting up my hands, and my whole being, as I may say, wrapped up in the contemplation of my deliverance.”
Defoe’s fictional first-person account conveys incredible realism and intimacy. By learning of Crusoe’s thoughts and activities through his own writing, readers feel transported alongside him experiencing his despair and hope as he faces the ultimate isolation. When Crusoe describes making clay vessels, we seem to discover his inventions simultaneously sharing the triumph. Epistolary confessional entries continue when he rescues Friday allowing Defoe to explore interpersonal and colonial themes.
Overall, the writer used the intimate memoir format when little precedent existed immersing readers deeply in Crusoe’s remote existence through the revealing lens of his personal writings. The epistolary method helped launch realistic fiction and still demonstrates its capacity to create self-revelatory tales full of psychological realism across time, place and even genre as in this early novel.
1- Unreliable Narrator
The epistolary format lends itself well to unreliable narrators, since first-person letters can reveal the subjectivity and biases inherent in a character’s personal account. For example, in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”, Victor Frankenstein’s tragic story as reported by Robert Walton may show signs of mental instability or distorted memory. Readers must piece together truth from his potentially fallible narration.
2- Frame Story
Epistolary novels sometimes employ frame stories: shorter narratives embedded within another overall narrative. For example, in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”, the main character Mina Murray’s journal entries essentially frame the deeper flashback stories that characters like Jonathan Harker share with her about their frightful experiences with Count Dracula. Her epistolary record frames these retrospective tales.
The intimacy of first-person letters and documents crafts narrators that may be intentionally or unintentionally unreliable. And epistolary tales often contain frame stories, as personal writings prompt characters to exchange embedded stories. The revealing quality of private correspondence generates narrative-within-narrative. So unreliable narration and frame stories frequently complement and drive the overall epistolary format.