The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Epigraph: (1) An inscription on a coin, stone, statue, or building. (2) A passage printed on the title page or first page of a literary work or at the beginning of a section of such a work. Epigraphs, which tend to set the tone or establish the theme of what follows, are generally taken from earlier, influential texts by other authors. Some modernist and postmodernist authors, however, have written their own epigraphs, presumably in an attempt to wrest control from the past of the way in which contemporary texts are read.

EXAMPLES: One of the two epigraphs preceding T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” (1925), “Mistuh Kurtz — he dead,” is taken from Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (1899) and refers to the death of Kurtz, the morally hollow antihero of the work.

Postmodernist novelist Kathy Acker wrote her own epigraph to part 2 of Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream (1986), her radical reimagining of Miguel de Cervantes’s classic narrative: “Being born into and part of a male world, she had no speech of her own. All she could do was read male texts, which weren’t hers.”

In We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families (1998), an account of the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which 800,000 minority Tutsis were killed in three months by the Hutu majority, journalist Philip Gourevitch incorporated epigraphs taken from Plato’s Republic (c. 360 B.C.), John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1947), and Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz (1958) and The Drowned and the Saved (1986) to bring home the idea that genocide can happen again — and happen anywhere.