Good use of epigraphs in fiction
February 4, 2012 4:32 PM   Subscribe

Please give examples of good use of epigraphs in fiction.

I mean them quoted dealies they sometimes put at the start of chapters.

What counts as "good use" is whatever you think counts. Part of my goal is to understand what people like about these things.

I'm also particularly interested in examples where the quotes themselves are fictional (because they are quotes of in-universe works and people).
posted by stebulus to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've always been partial to the epigraph at the beginning of Steinbeck's East of Eden. It would be obnoxious if it didn't precede a novel that absolutely delivers on its claim:
"Dear Pat,

You came upon me carving some kind of little figure out of wood and you said, 'Why don't you make something for me?'
I asked you what you wanted, and you said, 'A box.'
'What for?'
'To put things in.'
'What things?'
'Whatever you have,' you said.

Well, here's your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts - the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.
And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you.
And still the box is not full.

posted by telegraph at 4:38 PM on February 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are epigraphs throught the Robotech novelizations, all from fictional books and media related to the series. The first three volumes on Kindle. None of the media mentioned were ever referenced in either the anime series or the novelizations, but they do a nice job of encapsulating what the chapter is about.

I seem to recall the same method shows up in Diane Carey's Mary-Sue-esque Dreadnaught from the Star Trek line from Pocket Books. Though it's been a while, I could be wrong.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 4:46 PM on February 4, 2012

two examples:

Watership Down, where all the chapters have very elegant epigraphs from poems, novels, and non-fiction works on rabbits;

Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, where every chapter is headed by an epigraph from a fictional book within the weird literary-obsessed 1985-with-airships world he's created.
posted by daisystomper at 4:49 PM on February 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Dune has epigraphs before some of the chapters from the POV of someone only remotely involved in the story*, I like them because they do a great job of foreshadowing and add depth and gravitas to some of Muad'dib's actions.

* This will be embarrassing if I've forgotten her role. I haven't read the series in a few years... Man I should read them again.
posted by Strass at 4:51 PM on February 4, 2012

You could start with the Wikipedia article, which has some good examples. But I'm not sure seeing a bunch of examples is going to help you understand what people like about them. There is no one reason for them and no one thing people get out of them; authors put them in for different reasons, some readers try to connect them with the text, some read them and move on, some probably ignore them. Would it be possible for you to pin down more precisely what you're hoping to get from the answers to your question?
posted by languagehat at 5:05 PM on February 4, 2012

Cornelia Funke's Inkworld trilogy uses epigraphs from other stories, and integrates their concepts in the course of the story. Some are immediately recognizable to me, some unfamiliar, yet so interesting that I have a list of the books they've come from to seek out and read. If they've influenced the author of series that I've enjoyed so much, and if reading more would expand or shade the story I've liked, I'd probably enjoy them too.
posted by peagood at 5:12 PM on February 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum" has an epigraph for each of its 120 chapters. My favorite is a piece of an actual letter (iirc) received by the author that discusses the motion of a pendulum burdened by a man suspended from it. Meta and in-story relevant at the same time. Many of the epigraphs come from obscure works and they add to the overall feeling of being steeped in occult history.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:27 PM on February 4, 2012

Ender's Game has quotes at the beginning of each chapter, usually from the viewpoint of the people who are in charge of Ender, the protagonist. They are especially well done because they are crafted to make you think they are revealing secrets to you, but they hide more than they tell.
posted by Night_owl at 6:23 PM on February 4, 2012

Katherine Kurtz does this in all her Deryni series of novels - every chapter has an epigraph. Mostly they are Biblical quotes but sometimes they are fictional (in-universe). The books are set in a Dark Ages Europe analogue and the quotes really contribute to the feel of time and place she's created - stressing the pervasiveness and importance of religion (similar to the influence of the Catholic Church) and adding to the seriousness and scholarly (monkish) sort of mood that many of the main characters portray - the main conflict throughout the series is whether God (again, a Catholic Church analogue of God) accepts this separate race of humans who have magical powers, or if God views them as an abomination (with the mainstream view of intolerance and, essentially, witch-burning; and the enlightened view of acceptance, "God does not make mistakes", etc.). Also because the novels span a lot of time - over two hundred years - it really develops the world of the books with the referencesl to historical documents, characters from earlier books, and things that are part of the mythos of the books even if they aren't directly involved in what's going on - the wallpaper and references that make up a world, that give it depth.
posted by flex at 6:41 PM on February 4, 2012

Dean Koontz made up a whole book just to quote in epigraphs.
posted by Addlepated at 7:19 PM on February 4, 2012

I think the most magnificent epigraphs ever are in Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner's The Gilded Age. Ever.

The Gilded Age is a hard book to read for me because of the ethnic prejudice (specifically against the Irish and to a lesser extent the Jews) and the racism (perhaps surprisingly less virulent than the anti-Irish prejudice, particularly in the illustrations in which the black people look like shabbily dressed people and the Irish people look like baboons), but the epigraphs are just awesome. There's also some hilarious stuff about lobbying in the US Congress that is just as true now as when it was written.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:52 PM on February 4, 2012

Obviously, what I meant to say was "Irish people" and "Jewish people" above. Drunk and racist is a helluva way to go through life.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:12 PM on February 4, 2012

Not a novel, but I've seen the fictional leader epigraphs from Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri widely quoted online. For instance:
As the Americans learned so painfully in Earth's final century, free flow of information is the only safeguard against tyranny. The once-chained people whose leaders at last lose their grip on information flow will soon burst with freedom and vitality, but the free nation gradually constricting its grip on public discourse has begun its rapid slide into despotism. Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master.

--Commissioner Pravin Lal, "U.N. Declaration of Rights"

The Dune series by Frank Herbert is another memorable source, full of fictional scripture produced by the convergence of human religions over the course of many thousands of years.

Also, some of my favorite parts of the Hitchhiker's Guide novels were the periodic direct quotes from the guidebook.
posted by Rhaomi at 9:25 PM on February 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am partial to the quote from Petronius' Satyricon at the beginning of Eliot's "The Waste Land." I like it, one, because I like that part of the Satyricon anyway (and love the idea of the Sibyl in a bottle just chirping in Greek that she wants to die); and two, because it sets a tone of decadence and weariness that is one of the themes of the poem. Oh, and the 'theme' of learned allusions, because the game of intertextuality/reference in "The Waste Land" is fun for those of us who like that sort of thing!

In general, epigraphs are the most obvious use of intertextual techniques, and they should, like all allusions/intertextual references, provide a new/further-developed hermeneutical tool for understanding the work. They often set up expectations in the reader. The best ones require in general a familiarity with the original work that is being quoted (the quote should not be divorced from its context, but should bring with it the themes and problems of that work); they provide a subtle coloring or framework for the new work. They also set up expectations about who the implied audience of the new work is: it's someone who's read [whatever the epigraph is from]. Now, admittedly, many epigraphs do not succeed at that, or subvert those expectations (as in epigraphs from in-universe fictional works); they can be trite or unnecessary. But the good ones are essential to understanding what the author is doing in the work.
posted by lysimache at 6:55 AM on February 5, 2012

Neil Gaiman's American Gods has epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter, and, while not always immediately apparent, they're always relevant and interesting.
posted by WidgetAlley at 8:30 AM on February 5, 2012

Also, TVTropes is naturally your treasure trove for examples of this across all forms of media:


Encyclopedia Exposita
posted by Rhaomi at 8:32 AM on February 5, 2012

China Mieville's Kraken, which I'm reading now, has a pretty cool epigraph - it's one side of a conversation that's pretty intriguing, presented without any context. It acquires context as the book unfolds, and you come to realize who must have been speaking, and who was on the other end.
posted by Ragged Richard at 10:09 AM on February 6, 2012

Oh, also, if you want to see an unintentionally hilarious example of epigraph use, see almost any James Fenimore Cooper novel. He puts epigraphs, usually from Shakespeare, at the beginning of every chapter. They frequently have only the most tangential connection to the chapters that follow them, and appear to be there mainly 1) to lend weight and respectability to Cooper's novels and 2) because Walter Scott used them.
posted by Ragged Richard at 10:11 AM on February 6, 2012

The Myth series by Robert Asprin has fictional epigraphs, but they are not from in-universe characters. They're just made-up quotes for historical people, related to what is going on in the chapter.

They are meant to be funny. Some are, some aren't. There's a list here.
posted by Quonab at 12:54 PM on February 6, 2012

Roberto BolaƱo makes very good use of epigraphs. The Savage Detectives has as its epigraph this fragment of dialogue by Malcolm Lowry:
"Do you want Mexico to be saved? Do you want Christ to be our king?"
2666 has this, by Charles Baudelaire:
An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom.
Both, in an elliptical way, sum up both works perfectly.
posted by Kattullus at 2:11 PM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Zadie Smith makes great use of epigraphs in White Teeth.

For example, in the final chapter, the character joins a fundamentalist cult.

The chapter starts: "you must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh/ the fundamental things apply as time goes by."

I can't even remember half of that book but I've always loved that.

This pretty much sums up the appeal of epigraphs for me (when they are not overused). True, they can sometimes come off as authorial intrusion, but they also somehow tie things together and in the best of times they convey a gentle irony, or create a dialogue between the different sections that really adds to the book.
posted by kettleoffish at 5:27 PM on February 27, 2012

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