What is an epigraph

What is an epigraph
Table of Contents

Welcome to this comprehensive dictionary of definitions centered around the theme “What is an epigraph”. As university students embarked on the journey of writing a thesis, you will often encounter the need to understand, interpret, and effectively utilize a myriad of concepts. One such important concept is the epigraph. This introduction serves to navigate you through the key points we will be exploring throughout this dictionary, including the definition, historical usage, and significance of epigraphs in literature and academia. Epigraphs play a crucial role in setting the tone, creating context, and offering insight into the content that follows. Thus, understanding “What is an epigraph” is indispensable for a compelling and informative thesis. Hence, each concept in this dictionary is meticulously defined and explained to enrich your understanding and application in your academic journey.

What is an Epigraph? – Definition of the concept

Epigraphs, a literary device often overlooked in the grand scheme of literary analysis, hold a key role in setting the tone, presenting themes, or providing context in a piece of literature. This article aims to explore the question – What is an epigraph? – and delve into its significance in literature, offering noteworthy examples along the way.

An epigraph is a quote, phrase, or poem set at the beginning of a document or a chapter, serving as a preface, summary, or link to a wider canonical or cultural context. Epigraphs can be drawn from various sources: other literary works, famous speeches, religious texts, or even pop culture. The use of an epigraph is a stylistic choice made by the author. It can provide a thematic framework, foreshadow events, or offer an interpretative lens for the work that follows.

Noteworthy Examples of Epigraphs in Literature

Epigraphs have been employed by authors across centuries and genres. Here are some noteworthy examples:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee opens with an epigraph from Charles Lamb: “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.” This epigraph subtly introduces the theme of lost innocence and the role of morality in society.
  • In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald uses a fictitious epigraph from a poet named Thomas Parke D’Invilliers. The epigraph explores themes of nostalgia, unrequited love, and the relentless pursuit of the past, which are central to the novel.
  • Toni Morrison’s Beloved begins with an epigraph from the Bible, Romans 9:25: “I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved”. The epigraph serves as a poignant commentary on slavery, love, and identity.

Purpose of an Epigraph in Literature

In literature, an epigraph serves multiple purposes. It can provide contextual background, offer thematic insight, or create a connection with another work.

  • Contextual Background: An epigraph can provide historical, social, or cultural context, helping the reader understand the setting or period in which the narrative takes place. For instance, in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”, the title and the epigraph reference the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, establishing the book’s backdrop during the Great Depression.
  • Thematic Insight: An epigraph might hint at the central theme or the moral of the story. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”, the fictional epigraph by Thomas Parke D’Invilliers reflects the theme of the elusive American Dream.
  • Connection with Another Work: By citing a quote from another work, authors can create a dialogue between their work and the one referenced, adding depth and richness to their narrative. For example, J.K. Rowling uses quotes from classical works in her “Harry Potter” series, establishing a connection between her narrative and the broader literary tradition.

What is an epigraph

The Role of an Epigraph in a Book

Understanding the role of an epigraph can enrich your reading experience and provide a more profound comprehension of the author’s intentions. Here are some ways an epigraph enhances a literary work:

  1. Sets the Tone: An epigraph can establish the tone or mood for the book or chapter. It introduces readers to the emotional context before they dive into the narrative.
  2. Foreshadows Content: Epigraphs can also serve as a foreshadowing tool, hinting at critical plot points, conflicts, or themes in the story.
  3. Offers Insight into the Theme: Epigraphs often encapsulate the central theme or message of the book. They can serve as a lens through which the narrative should be interpreted.
  4. Provides a Connection: An epigraph can link the book to another work, suggesting that the two texts converse with each other or share similar themes or ideas.


In conclusion, an epigraph is a short quote, phrase, or poem set at the beginning of a document or a chapter in a book, primarily to suggest its theme or mood. Originating from the Greek word ‘epigraphic’ which means ‘to write on’, epigraphs are often used by authors to add depth, context, or summarize the essence of their work. They can be extracted from various sources such as literary works, songs, speeches or even from the same author’s other works.

The use of epigraphs is not a recent phenomenon but has a long history dating back to ancient Greek literature. However, its use and significance can vary based on the author’s intent and the reader’s interpretation. While some authors use it to give insight into the theme of the work, others may use it to create a particular mood or pay homage to another author.

Despite its short length, an epigraph can have a profound impact on the reader’s understanding and interpretation of the work. It can set the tone, provide a context, or stimulate thoughts and discussions. Therefore, while it may seem a trivial part of a document or a book, an epigraph can greatly enhance the overall reading experience.



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