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Interpretation of Epigraph With Famous Examples from Literature

Neha B Deshpande Jun 18, 2019
Epigraphs are quotes or poems that are included in the beginning of a novel, story or an essay. It is a literary device that can add embellishments to your work. Penlighten provides information about this literary device along with some examples.

Epigraph or Epigram ?

There is considerable confusion about epigraphs and epigrams. Epigraphs are quotes or poems that are used at the beginning of the story or an essay. On the other hand, epigrams are smart, witty quotes cited by someone.
An epigraph is a literary device used to highlight a part of an article or to suggest the theme of the story/essay. This is a smart device used by writers to grab the attention of the readers and to intrigue them into reading more. It might also be the inscription on a building, monument, or a coin.
Epigraphs can act as a gateway to a story, that sets the theme and tone. A smart epigraph can increase the reader's inclination towards reading the matter. Hence, if you're thinking of including epigraphs in your write-up, be choosy about the quote or the poem you wish to include in your epigraph.

Famous Epigraph Examples

'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry "Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!"
Thomas Parke D'Invilliers
This epigraph got as much recognition as the novel. Interestingly, Thomas Parke D'Invilliers is not the name of a real person, but a fictional character of Fitzgerald's own book This Side of Paradise.
In a few lines, the poem describes the theme of the book, how Jay Gatsby's passion for the beautiful Daisy Buchanan knows no bounds, and he goes on to buy all the lavishes for her. The metaphors 'gold-hatted' and 'high-bouncing' have been used to convey how a lover is willing to buy all riches and gold in this world to woo the woman he loves.

'The Sun Also Rises' by Ernest Hemingway

"You are all a lost generation." ― Gertrude Stein
"One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever... The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose... The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to its circuits... ..."
The two epigraphs tell the story of life and death, the Biblical passage states that generations will come and go; however, the sun will continue to rise. This implies positivism, since he wants to convey that there is always a future ahead for mankind.
On the other hand, the book is set against the backdrop of World War I and inspired by real incidents, which states how a generation has suffered due to the effects of war.

'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows' by J.K. Rowling

But there is a cure in the house,
and not outside it, no,
not from others but from them,
their bloody strife. We sing to you,
dark gods beneath the earth.
Now hear, you blissful powers underground -
answer the call, send help,
Bless the children, give them triumph now.


More Fruits of Solitude by William Penn

Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas... For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass, they see face to face... This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense... immortal.
Both epigraphs set the mood of the story for the reader. It is going to be very dark and painful for Harry, since he has already lost his friends and is under the constant threat of losing others. However, the second epigraph states that death is just physical non-existence of a person, although the souls remain connected and will do so forever.

Epigraph on the Statue of Liberty

'Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.'

These are lines from the poem the 'The New Colussus' by a Jewish American poetess Emma Lazarus. It has been inscribed on the bronze plaque on the pedestal of the statue. The original poem is a sonnet that reads as follows.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
This poem describes the 'Statue of Liberty' as a mother who welcomes everyone who has been denied land and have come to seek shelter.
It says, she holds the golden torch and opens her gates to all the homeless people around the world, and is asking the world to send their poor, oppressed people to her. Unlike the Greek Colossus of Rhodes, this is the new colossus that stands tall with her torch that has given a ray of hope to millions of immigrants.

How to Format an Epigraph

If you wish to follow the MLA format in an essay style, though there is no standard format prescribed, here are some basic guidelines to follow for formatting an epigraph.
❏ If your epigraph has more than one line, use single spacing.
❏ The epigraph should be immediately followed by the author's name, on the right side.
❏ The spacing above and below of the epigraph should be double.
❏ It should be placed with an indent of one inch further, from both sides.
Epigraphs can indeed add the essence of your literary work. Derive inspiration from these cult examples, and try incorporating apt ones for your write-ups.