Writers often include what is called an “epigraph”—a quote, phrase, or tiny snippet—at the beginning of their works. It is usually a short, self-contained piece of writing that often appears at the beginning of a book, chapter, essay, or other written work to do one of three things: set the scene, summarize the work, or provide a counterpoint. As opposed to a prelude, preface, or introduction, an epigraph need not have any bearing on the subject matter at hand.
As such, the function of an epigraph might vary widely. Whether a book is fiction or nonfiction, an epigraph usually foreshadows something about the story or information that will follow. The tone, topic, or storyline of a book might be hinted at in the epigraph—they can sometimes help set the tone or mood of the work; they can be serious and deep, or they can be funny and light.
However, some epigraphs are just ornamental and contribute nothing to the substance of the piece of writing they precede. Nevertheless, the reader may find that the information provided in the epigraph is crucial to their overall comprehension of the work. Authors often utilize epigraphic quotes to establish overarching ideas that will be explored in more depth later in the narrative.
The word “epigraph” is derived from the Greek prefix “epi-” (meaning “on”) and graphein (meaning “write”), from which we obtain the phrases “autograph,” “graphic novel,” and many other writing-related terms. Although most books only have one epigraph at the very beginning, it may also be used at other points in the narrative—some writers choose to include an epigraph at the start of each chapter or section. Depending on the denouement, it may also have a significant impact when read at the conclusion of a work.
Although there isn’t a specific length requirement for epigraphs, it’s generally accepted that they shouldn’t exceed one printed page. Remember that the epigraph’s purpose is to grab the reader’s attention and pique their interest rather than to introduce a pointless section.
Some notable examples of epigraphs in literature are as follows:
Lawyers, I suppose, were children once. —Charles LambTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her; If you can bounce high, bounce for her too, Till she cry “Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover, I must have you!” —Thomas Parke D’InvilliersThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
If they give you ruled paper, write the other way. —Juan Ramón JiménezFahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
“You are all a lost generation.” —Gertrude Stein in conversation
“One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever… The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose… The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits… All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.” —EcclesiastesThe Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Let us not become gloomy as soon as we hear the word “torture”: In this particular case there is plenty to offset and mitigate that word—even something to laugh at. —Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of MoralsThe Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
On Epigraphs by Andrew Tutt, The Millions
Why you should always read the epigraph by Michael Delgado, Penguin Random House UK
Epigraphs: opening possibilities by Toby Lichtig, The Guardian
Towards the Heart of a Book: In Praise of the Epigraph by Thomas Swick, Literary Hub
Why Are You Really Quoting Another Writer? The Epigraph as both hero-worship and laziness by Alexandra O’Connell, alexoconnell.com