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What Is an Epigraph?

J.E. Holloway
J.E. Holloway

In literature, an epigraph is a short quotation, often from a classical or Biblical source, which appears at the beginning of a work such as a novel, poem, or non-fiction book. It can serve a number of purposes, either calling to mind similar themes in the literary canon or serving to establish a contrast. In some works, this may be no more than a line or two, while in others, it can be a lengthy quotation or even an entire poem.

Epigraphs taken from classical or Biblical sources were frequently left in the original language in older works. For instance, the epigraph to Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, published between 1759 and 1769, is a quotation from Epictetus presented in the original Greek. Authors assumed that their readers would be sufficiently well-educated to understand the quotations or, if not, that they would enjoy finding out the meaning of the epigraph. Modern authors usually, but not always, translate their epigraphs into the language of the book. For instance, the epigraph to Robert Graves's 1979 novel I, Claudius is a quotation from Tacitus, presented in English.

F. Scott Fitzgerald used a false epigraph to open "The Great Gatsby".
F. Scott Fitzgerald used a false epigraph to open "The Great Gatsby".

An epigraph can sometimes be directly related to the subject of the novel. The quotation from Tacitus which begins I, Claudius, for example, is directly related to the reign of Claudius. In other cases, however, the relevance is less immediately obvious, as in the case in Tristram Shandy, where the reader only gradually begins to see how the epigraph relates to the novel itself.

False epigraphs are found in a number of novels. These are quotations from authors or sources which do not exist. For example, the epigraph which begins F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby is by Thomas Parke D'Invilliers, a character in the novel rather than a real person. This tactic is especially common among science fiction and fantasy authors who use quotations from their invented settings to provide an additional feeling of depth and realism. Isaac Asimov frequently used invented quotations from reference works in his science fiction novels, while author Tim Powers quotes extensively from the work of fictional poet William Ashbless.

Outside the field of literature, the term has a slightly different meaning. In archaeology and architecture, an epigraph is a short inscription carved on a building or monument. The study of these inscriptions is called epigraphy, and forms the basis for, among other things, modern understanding of the language of the ancient Maya.

Discussion Comments


@orangey03 – Epigraphs in editorials must be fairly common. I have noticed several opinion pieces in my newspaper that start out with epigraphs. Certain authors use them religiously.

Mostly, these editorials are about politics or local issues. They begin with a quote from either a famous politician of the past or from a well known book.

I can always tell by looking at the epigraph whether or not I want to read the article. If it's political, I usually skip it. If it's moral or off-the-wall, I tend to enjoy it.


I have a friend who is an author. He has written a book of compelling short stories, and he included an epigraph at the beginning of each one.

Of course, you have no idea what the epigraph is denoting until you have read the entire story. Then, if you go back and read it again, it will all make perfect sense, and it can even give you chills sometimes.

I was glad he decided to include the epigraphs. To me, it makes him appear to be a more sophisticated author, and it makes his stories seem more important, somehow.


Some television shows start out with an audible form of the epigraph. The narrator reads a famous quote or line from a book or poem that lets you know a little bit about what you are about to watch. Often, it is a lesson that will be learned by the main characters.

Having an epigraph read aloud is just as effective as reading one in a book. It sets the tone for the program, and you have a little hint of what to expect.

The same could be said for movies. Often, more serious, longer films feature an epigraph read aloud at the beginning. It lends a literary feel to the movie.


I had always wondered what those quotes were called! I see them all the time, and I knew there had to be a name for them.

There is a man who writes funny fiction each week for the local newspaper. He always has an epigraph, and the people who lay out the paper stick it in the middle of the page with white space around it. This draws even more attention to it than if it had been at the top of the page.

His epigraphs are almost always quirky song lyrics. They are from real songs, though. They always stick with the theme of the story.

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    • F. Scott Fitzgerald used a false epigraph to open "The Great Gatsby".
      By: Cliff
      F. Scott Fitzgerald used a false epigraph to open "The Great Gatsby".