What Is an Epigraph?

An epigraph is a short exerpt that prefaces any work of literature. Coming from the Greek epigraphein, meaning “to write on,” epigraphs became a literary convention in the eighteenth century. Like dedications, they are still common in novels, books of poetry, and even nonfiction works.

The primary function of an epigraph is to introduce the theme of a literary work that follows. Sometimes, authors use an epigraph to place themselves in a literary tradition similar to that of the writer they are quoting. For instance, a contemporary novel that is in the style of an epistolary novel — a narrative that consists entirely of letters written back and forth among the characters — might have an epigraph from Samuel Richardson, who was famous for writing epistolary novels.

Epigraphs don’t have to be by real writers. Several authors, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, made up their own epigraphs and cited a fictitious author. Such epigraphs gently poke fun of the need to make oneself part of a great literary tradition. Made-up epigraphs are most common in modernism and post-modern literature, reflecting the solipsism and playfulness of these movements.

How Do You Identify Epigraphs in Writing?

An epigraph comes at the beginning of a literary work, most often right after the title page. In a short work, such as a lyric poem, the epigraph comes right after the title.

Examples of Epigraph

Epigraph Example 1. “You are all a lost generation,” a quotation attributed to Gertrude Stein, is the epigraph of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

Epigraph Example 2. “Behind every great fortune there is a crime,” by nineteenth-century French novelist Honoré de Balzac, is the epigraph for Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.

Epigraph Example 3. “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once” is the epigraph for Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The quotation is from Charles Lamb.

Epigraph Example 4. Amy Tan’s novel, The Joy Luck Club, begins with an epigraph in the form of the author’s own words to her mother: “You asked me once what I would remember. This, and much more.”

Epigraph Example 5. Although his most famous novel, The Great Gatsby, has a made up epigraph, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night uses a passage from Romantic poet John Keats: “Already with thee! tender is the night. . . /But here there is no light,/Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown/Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.”

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