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Writing

What Is an Epigraph? Examples of Epigraphs From Literature

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 2 min read

Do you have a favorite book that has directly influenced you as a writer and even perhaps served as a source of inspiration for a book you’re writing? If so, you might want to consider including a quote from this book at the beginning of your own book as an epigraph. Epigraphs serve to give readers some idea of the themes and subjects that will appear later in your work, while also establishing context for your story.

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What Is an Epigraph?

An epigraph is a short standalone quote, line, or paragraph that appears at the beginning of a book. The word epigraph is derived from the Greek epigraphein meaning “to write on.” The use of epigraphs varies from book to book, but generally, authors use them to set up themes or place the events of their story in context. Epigraphs are most commonly a short quotation from an existing work. Epigraphs usually appear offset by quotation marks at the beginning of a text, but there are no set rules dictating how writers use them.

What Is the Purpose of an Epigraph?

An epigraph can serve a number of different purposes. Whether a literary work is fiction or nonfiction, epigraphs serve to clue readers in to some element of the work they are about to read. Sometimes authors use epigraphic quotes to set up larger themes they will explore later in their books. Other epigraph set up expository information that will help the reader understand the work.

4 Examples of Epigraphs in Literature

There are many different epigraph examples in literature. Some notable examples include:

  1. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mound me Man, did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?” —Paradise Lost
  2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.” —Charles Lamb
  3. The Godfather by Mario Puzo: “Behind every great fortune, there is a crime.” —Balzac
  4. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway: “You are all a lost generation.” —Gertrude Stein
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How to Use an Epigraph in Your Book

There are many different reasons to use epigraphs. If you’re considering using an epigraph in your book, here are some things to consider as you search for the perfect source:

  • Think about works with thematic relevance. Are there any books that stand out to you as having overlapping themes with your work? Referencing a book that has similar themes can help clue the reader in to what’s to come.
  • Consider whether you need to establish information. Sometimes epigraphs are necessary to establish expository or contextual information for your readers. An epigraph can give information about the subject and time period of your book.
  • Reference works you allude to later in the work. If there are works that you allude to either later in your book or perhaps in the title, you might want to consider including a quote as an epigraph.

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