What Is a Prologue?
A prologue is an introductory section to a literary work. Its purpose is to introduce themes and characters that will appear later in the main body of the text and to provide necessary background material for understanding the story. The opposite of an epilogue, where the author “wraps up” loose ends of the plot and tells the reader what eventually happens to the characters, the prologue helps the reader understand the plot events in a larger context.
Coming from the Greek prólogos, meaning “before” and “word,” prologues were invented by the playwright Euripedes to take the place of an explanatory first act. In some cases, prologues contain expository details so that the author need not contrive ways of including this information later on. In other cases, particularly in postmodern fiction, the prologue is another occasion to play with themes of intertextuality and romantic irony.
How Do You Identify Prologues in Writing?
Prologues are different from other introductory sections of a work, like prefaces and forewards. The prologue is an extension of the narrative that follows, written in the same narrative voice. It reflects on events, setting, and characters in the novel. Sometimes authors use the preface to explain how they “found” the narrative, framing the narrative to create an aura of historical authenticity.
The preface, on the other hand, is where the author explains how she came to write the work and to credit those who helped her generate ideas or who lent support. Forwards are not written by the author at all. They are critical essays by scholars that comment on the work’s significance and provide analysis. Because the forward is the most detached, it usually comes first in a book. The preface would come second. The prologue directly precedes the narrative itself.
Examples of Prologue
1. “The Custom House” is the famous prologue to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
2. Umberto Eco’s postmodern novel about the dangers of literacy, The Name of the Rose, contains a prologue that contextualizes the fictional intrigue that follows.
3. Chaucer’s “General Prologue” to the Canterbury Tales sets the scene for the medieval pilgrimage in the main body of the text.
4. 2001, A Space Odyssey has a memorable cinematic prologue, showing how primitive man first learned to use a weapon.
5. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet begins with a prologue in sonnet form.
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