An epigraph, according to most definitions, is a quotation – ostensibly from a source other than the writer of the work before us – set at the beginning of a text (in our case novel or short story). An epigraph may set the tone for the subsequent narrative, provide a hint to its major themes and concerns, serve as preface or summary, or place the work within a certain genre or in relation to other works. It may also be a throwaway joke, a clever aside, or a playful flirtation with the reader’s expectations. It may also be none of those things.
There’s always something suspiciously serendipitous about an epigraph – how is it possible that the writer found the exact lines to complement the work, through the barriers of space, time, and sometimes language? For the conspiracy-minded this may also raise a sort of Post-Modern chicken and egg debate – which came first, the novel or the epigraph? Did the writer have the epigraph in mind before writing, or is it the work itself which imbued the epigraph with a significance it didn’t have before?
I think those concerns can safely be left to the critics, and for now I’ll simply focus on some basic Dos and Don’ts of epigraphs.
1. Don’t try to lend grandeur to a work by using a pretentious epigraph
A recent article in The Guardian offers the following warning:
With its privileged position at the gateway to the text, the epigraph is, of course, open to abuse. Authors may add random passages from the Bible in the quest for portent; Shakespearean couplets to add a little erudition; sections from Lewis Carroll to conjure that missing air of mystery. There's nothing inherently wrong with using such favourites - just don't expect to make up for what's lacking further in.In other words, an epigraph won't change the nature of your work, and an unsuitably lofty choice could annoy or confuse readers. This rule, like many of the others that follow, does not apply if the epigraph is used ironically, as in Joseph Heller's God Knows, a satirical rendering of King David's deathbed confessions, where the epigraph taken from Ecclesiastes is:
"How can one be warm alone?""2. Don’t use too many epigraphs
This naturally depends on the nature and length of the work, but I think it's safe to say you couldn't get away with 9 pages of epigraphs as there are in my edition of Herman Melville's Moby Dick. One is usually the norm; two can be used if they're placed in opposition to each other, as in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, where Gertrude Stein's claim that Hemingway and his friends are all a 'lost generation' is contradicted by a quote from Ecclesiastes (what can I say, it's very quotable) about the continuity of generations. Three epigraphs or more should have very good justification, and not merely restate each other.
Epigraphs for short stories are pretty rare nowadays, though many of Poe's short stories had them (often in foreign languages - more on that later). Contemporary novels vary widely - Robert Coover's hefty The Public Burning has five, Don Delillo's massive Underworld has none.
3. Don’t use a quote taken from a very recent work
This rule came from a recent visit to a bookstore. I picked up some novel whose name I can’t recall and found that its epigraph was taken from Cormac McCarthy’s celebrated 2006 novel The Road. Considering the time it takes books to be written, edited, published, and reach bookstores, I think it’s safe to assume this epigraph was chosen sometime around 2007-2008 at the latest, or in other words, at the point when The Road reached the height of its fame. This seems a transparent attempt to ride that book’s coattails, and immediately turned me off the book. It also makes the writer seem lazy and unimaginative, or at least like someone who doesn’t read much, which is the first sign of a bad author. Are there really no works worth reading that are older than two years?
I would say that a decade should be about the absolute minimum, anything more recent than that would seem the choice of a dilettante rather than a serious reader (which all good authors are). For example, Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, which takes its title and epigraph from The Waste Land, was published 12 years after T.S. Eliot’s poem. This rule does not apply if the quotation is taken from a newspaper or some similar non-fictional source, particularly if both epigraph and novel deal with the same historical characters, as in Coover’s The Public Burning, whose epigraphs deal with Ethel Rosenberg and Richard Nixon. Incidentally, Nixon is also quoted in the epigraph to Our Gang by Philip Roth, and in Part 4 of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, where the epigraph is simply:
4. If using a fictional epigraph, make sure it’s not merely a private, unfunny joke– Richard M. Nixon
There are a lot of ways to get this wrong, especially if the author is too easily amused with himself. The safest way is probably to present a quote from a character that appears or is mentioned in the novel. A good example is Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman which presents a quote from DeSelby (alongside one from Shakespeare), a philosopher/scientist constantly referenced throughout the novel. The epigraph to The Great Gatsby is, in my view, a failure – it adds nothing, flattens the overarching themes of the novel, and almost contributed a disastrous name to the book (Fitzgerald considered calling it Gold-Hatted Gatsby, or The High-Bouncing Lover, based on lines from the epigraph)
5. Don’t present an epigraph in a foreign language
I think this is pretty self-explanatory – you don’t want to annoy or alienate your readers; exceptions can be made if the epigraph is:
- Short and in Latin or Greek – De mortuis nil nisi bonum
- Famous – Veni, vidi, vici
- Fairly easy to figure out - Liberté, égalité, fraternité ou la Mort!
- Or presented with translation.
Some successful epigraphs I've recently encountered:
The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolano
"Do you want Mexico to be saved? Do you want Christ to be our king?"
- Malcolm Lowry
***The Gift, Vladimir Nabokov
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.
- P. Smirnovski, A Textbook of Russian Grammar