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.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.
(The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain)
The best prologue I ever read was an epigraph. The book in question was from my early reading days, before I had come to understand that epigraphs were a common thing. The quote was a prelude to a ripping fantasy yarn by Raymond Feist and was from the pen of Shakespeare:
We were, fair queen,
Two lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day to-morrow as to-day,
And to be boy eternal.
The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare
I would never hold that book up to any critical scrutiny today, but Feist’s talent for setting off an epic coming-of-age story with quotes about how great it was to be young—and to imagine anything was possible—had a kind of perfect intonation.
Having taken up the mantle “writer,” epigraphs have taken on a significance of another sort. Just what purpose epigraphs serve, where they come from, and how the source from which they were drawn affects the story in which they are embedded have all bubbled to the surface. Among the most pressing questions for me: should epigraphs be thought of as part of the text, a sort of pre-modern, post-modern device, like tossing a newspaper clipping into the body narrative? Or are they actually a direct invitation by the author, perhaps saying, “Look here, for from this inspiration came this tale?”
Put another way, are they part of the book or part of the author, or both, or neither?
People love to call epigraphs a bundle of things, an “apposite quote that sets the mood for a story and to give an idea of what’s coming” or “a quote to set the tone like a prelude in music” or as a “foreshadowing mechanism” or “like little appetizers of the great entrée of a story” meant to illuminate “important aspects of the story [and] get us headed in the right direction.”
Humbug, say I. Humbug.
Epigraphs have a long history. As early as 1726, one can find in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels the cousin of the epigraph, a fictitious “note from the publisher” explaining that Gulliver is in fact a real person and these his true papers. Yes, Lolita got that from somewhere. But even Gulliver’s fictionalized note, that cousin to the epigraph, can be traced to Cervantes and Don Quixote (published in 1605) wherein the author assures us that:
My wish would be simply to present it to thee plain and unadorned, without any embellishment of preface or uncountable muster of customary sonnets, epigrams, and eulogies, such as are commonly put at the beginning of books.
Author’s Preface to Don Quixote (following, one should note, several sonnets, epigrams, and eulogies)
And so it is certain that even in the time predating the texts which we now call the canon, and some would assert Don Quixote the first “novel,” the epigraph and its ilk were widely entrenched into the formula for literature.
The point is, of course, that epigraphs have been around for a long time.
So to the question of how we are to read epigraphs, one must first decide whether there are ‘bad’ epigraphs and ‘good’ epigraphs, and if so, how these categories might arise.
I have already described something which many would characterize as an example of a good kind of epigraph, that quote which seems to connect in a fundamental way with the text. Like, perhaps, “Vengeance is mine, I shall repay.” Yet, of course, epigraphs cannot be too explicit, too clear or too thematic or it ruins the whole endeavor. If the author gets up on a soapbox and declares “this is an important novel” well then the ship’s sailed. That’s why William Styron starts Sophie’s Choice with this quote from André Malraux: “…I seek that essential region of the soul where absolute evil confronts brotherhood.”
Clearly these are not the only types of epigraphs that succeed. Nabokov hit a home run with his epigraph for The Gift with this quote from a Russian school-book: “An oak is a tree. A rose is a flower. A deer is an animal. A sparrow is a bird. Russia is our fatherland. Death is inevitable.” Which reveals that sometimes it is enough to be clever. Ander Monson’s Neck Deep and other Predicaments has an epigraph from the Chicago Manual of Style: “A dedication intended to be humorous will very likely lose its humor with time and so is inappropriate for a serious book destined to take a permanent place in the literature.” Again, very clever. So clever epigraphs work.
However, two kinds of epigraphs do not work. The first is any serious literary epigraph to a Harry Potter book, like for instance, this one from The Deathly Hallows
Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure. This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.
William Penn, More Fruits of Solitude
Perhaps one will call me hypocritical for allowing a quote from Shakespeare to grace a munchy fantasy novel and then to turn around and say that the epigraph to a Harry Potter book falls flat. I would simply note that the fantasy novel in question actually took itself seriously whereas Harry Potter tried to have it both ways—and the William Penn quote is about life and death, which would have been inappropriate to any book that wasn’t. Rowling should have selected something on the theme of love and friendship to be true to the work she published.
Another sort of epigraphical failure is in Blood Meridian. McCarthy uses one of those triple-epigraphs which I’ll address in a moment, and the third epigraph, after two highfalutin contemplations on darkness and death he adds this:
Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.
THE YUMA DAILY SUN
McCarthy has an important point here, which is that people have been scalping each other since forever. Unfortunately, it would have come out more candidly through the mouth of one of his characters. The big problem is that in a semi-biblical masterwork, the only part of the entire overarching text that ever makes any reference to normal-sounding speech is this tiny bit of a 3-part epigraph.
So this sets out an objective standard. Epigraphs must count as part of the text because they affect the way the text is read, and therefore are tied more to the text than to the author. They belong to the text, regardless of the way the author feels. Also, as these epigraphs make clear, they are clearly not sources of inspiration for the story. Quite often they are tacked on.
So epigraphs abide by certain principles, and they do not always work. Quite often they come across like throat clearing, sort of a “here it goes” before the author gets into the work. Especially when an author has more than one epigraph, which seems to have become only more common. So when searching for an epigraph, the most important part of the endeavor should be how the quote integrates with the novel as a whole. Does it fit the tone, and does it take on a deeper meaning, or lend a deeper meaning, because it’s there?
(As a quick aside, I would like to say that overt references to Dover Beach should be restricted to epigraphs. In a striking number of novels, the poem is actually a plot point giving rise to a significant epiphany. I’m looking at you Fahrenheit 451 and most especially Saturday.)
But the question remains: How does one determine precisely the tone an epigraph should take? Herman Melville in Moby-Dick has probably one of the longest and most interesting (and most tonally consistent) epigraphs ever. He spends several pages just talking about Whales. But again, isn’t it just—too much? Would it not have been a better epigraph if he had simply included only this one from among all his myriad quotations:
October 13. “There she blows,” was sung out from the mast-head.
“Where away?” demanded the captain.
“Three points off the lee bow, sir.”
“Raise up your wheel. Steady!” “Steady, sir.”
“Mast-head ahoy! Do you see that whale now?”
“Ay ay, sir! A shoal of Sperm Whales! There she blows! There she breaches!”
“Sing out! sing out every time!”
“Ay Ay, sir! There she blows! there–there–THAR she blows–bowes–bo-o-os!”
“How far off?”
“Two miles and a half.”
“Thunder and lightning! so near! Call all hands.”
–J. ROSS BROWNE’S ETCHINGS OF A WHALING CRUIZE. 1846.
A similar question of “too much” arises in Sophie’s Choice and other texts in which the author seeks to use an epigraph in another language. Given the fact that most readers will not be speakers and therefore cannot see the intricacies in tone and the shades of meaning in that other language’s words, one wonders whether the author is writing the epigraph to himself or to the reader. If we are to think of epigraphs as part of the main text, then this foreign-language snippet needs to stand on its own, it can’t just be authorial vanity, right? Although, since his editor let him plant it there in the original German or French, one wonders if this means that epigraphs are thought to be more like dedications in the publishing world than the main text.
Finally, one wonders why epigraphs are always at the beginning of the book. Some stories end and make you want to hold the book to your chest and absorb it directly into your very soul. How moving it would be to me to finish a book and turn the page, sad that it’s all over and read an epigraph that reflects on all that’s come before.