Essays

On Epigraphs

By posted at 9:39 am on March 11, 2010 19

0.
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)

1.
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.

2.
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.

3.
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.”

coverClearly 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.

4.
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.)

coverBut 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.

5.
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.





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19 Responses to “On Epigraphs”

  1. Neil Griffin
    at 2:41 pm on March 11, 2010

    I like Pynchon’s in Gravity’s Rainbow before part four. Richard Nixon: “What?”

  2. Jason Coleman
    at 2:58 pm on March 11, 2010

    Great idea for an article, Andrew, and bless you for mentioning the textbook epigraph for The Gift, which I agree is a stunner. But I’ve got to say, I strongly disagree with your contention that the scalping report that McCarthy dug up for Blood Meridian “falls flat,” and I think that the extravagant list of whale quotes at the beginning of Moby Dick is completely in character with Melville’s crazy novel.

  3. Joe
    at 3:09 pm on March 11, 2010

    I’ve seen epigraphs begin chapters. In fact, I had one book sent to me and it had every chapter start that way. I would never use an epigraph in my own writing. I don’t really see the point. It’s my work, it should be my own words throughout. Get on with the book already, you know? For this same reason, I would never use someone else’s words as my high school yearbook quote. I guess it’s an ownership thing. If it’s mine, it should come wholly from me.

  4. DN
    at 3:25 pm on March 11, 2010

    I love epigraphs: all of Moby-Dick’s; each one in Middlemarch. The Anatomy of Melancholy–epigraphs is all it is. As mentioned above, Gravity’s Rainbow also has some good ones. I don’t think you can have too many.

  5. DN
    at 3:26 pm on March 11, 2010

    Oh, as to epigraphs at the end of a book–I think the Magus has one–but I don’t have it at work, so I can’t look and see.

  6. danup
    at 2:42 am on March 12, 2010

    Epigraphs are great. I’m especially fond of the one in This Side of Paradise, which, besides giving the book its name, is so of a piece with the opinions of its young author and his characters—”Well this side of paradise, there’s little comfort in the wise.”

  7. Christian
    at 10:32 am on March 12, 2010

    Do you mean Feist?

  8. C. Max Magee
    at 10:36 am on March 12, 2010

    @Christian: Fixed, thanks.

  9. Emily St. John Mandel
    at 10:44 am on March 13, 2010

    I like epigraphs in moderation. If there’s one good epigraph at the beginning of a book, great: it sets the tone. If there are four or five bristling on the page before the first chapter, I drive myself crazy trying to figure out the common thread between them before I even start reading the book.

  10. Kylie L
    at 1:43 am on March 22, 2010

    The epigraph F. Scott Fitzgerald chose for the “The Great Gatsby” is perfect… it wasn’t until many years after I’d first read the book that I found out he made the whole thing up.

  11. Harry Gilonis
    at 7:26 am on March 22, 2010

    Best epigraph ever, introducing one section of Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow”:

    “What?”

    — Richard Milhous Nixon

  12. John Reinhart
    at 10:53 am on March 22, 2010

    I thought Jim Crace warranted a mention in your essay. All the epigraph’s to his books are made up; purely the author’s invention.

  13. Writing links: March madness edition « Fog City Writer
    at 5:05 pm on March 30, 2010

    [...] an epigraph, anyway?  Andrew Tutt, over at The Millions, considers these prologue-ish lit bits in an excellent essay: People love to call epigraphs a bundle of things, an “apposite quote that sets the mood for a [...]

  14. Economic Play Pin Links
    at 11:21 pm on March 30, 2010

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  15. Writing Exercise: Put the Epigraph Before the Horse «
    at 12:32 pm on April 19, 2010

    [...] Tutti at The Millions examines what purpose an epigraph serves: “Are they part of the book or part of the author, or both, or neither?” (He also says [...]

  16. Writing Exercise: Put the Epigraph Before the Horse | Sarah Enni
    at 6:30 pm on April 24, 2010

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  17. BOTNS Podcast #128: Epigraphs and a Surprising Bestseller List | Books on the Nightstand
    at 10:41 pm on May 10, 2011

    [...] culture reference. (Apologies to all authors who agonize over choosing just the right quote!) This recent article over at the Millions is a great look at epigraphs and asks some of the same questions we have, most notably, [...]

  18. Julie
    at 7:05 am on April 25, 2012

    It’s ridiculous that you bash the quote Rowling used in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”. THAT ENTIRE BOOK IS ABOUT LIFE AND DEATH. Harry is destroying horcruxes which eventually leads to Voldemort’s demise, but that can only happen through his own death. You clearly haven’t read “Deathly Hallows”. The quote fits the book perfectly. Excuse you.

  19. Fate in Newfoundland | The Quality of Light
    at 11:37 am on July 14, 2013

    [...] the essay, “On Epigraphs” in the on-line magazine The Millions that covers books, art and culture, Andrew Tutt asks, [...]

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