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


Epiphany: From the Greek for “manifestation” or “showing-forth,” a term traditionally used to refer to the incarnation or manifestation of a divine being (in Christian circles, Jesus Christ); used more specifically in reference to literature, a sudden revelatory experience or a work in which such an experience occurs. The term was introduced into literary criticism by Irish writer James Joyce, who in Stephen Hero (an early version, not published until 1944, of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man [1916]) used epiphany figuratively to describe the insight or revelation gained when one suddenly understands the essence of an object, gesture, statement, situation, moment, or mentality, seeing the commonplace for what it really is beneath the surface and perceiving its inner workings, its nature. By epiphany, Joyce’s protagonist “meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.”

Although the term can describe secular experience, epiphany retains a mystical, almost religious, connotation due to the emphasis on the intuitive connections made during the epiphanic moment — associations so surprising and unusual as to seem almost unworldly. As Joyce wrote of the epiphanic object: “Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object … seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany.”

FURTHER EXAMPLES: At the end of Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925), a doctor’s account of an ex-soldier’s suicide, offered to explain his late arrival at protagonist Clarissa Dalloway’s party, triggers an epiphanic moment for her. Retreating from her guests to an empty room, she envisions the young man’s death and suddenly has the strange and surprising sense that he may have preserved something by throwing his life away:

He had thrown himself from a window. Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness. So she saw it. But why had he done it? And the Bradshaws talked of it at her party!

She had once thrown a shilling into the Serpentine, never anything more. But he had flung it away… . A thing there was that mattered; a thing wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded; one was alone. There was an embrace in death.

In Leif Enger’s novel Peace Like a River (2001), the protagonist, Reuben Land, describes his father’s “whispered tornado story,” an experience that led the elder Land to abandon his medical studies for plumbing and janitorial work:

Dad, he himself would say, was baptized by that tornado into a life of new ambitions — interpreted by many, including my mother, as a life of no ambitions… . Having been whisked though four miles of debris-cluttered sky, having been swallowed by the wrath of God and been kept not just safe but unbruised inside it, having been awakened mid-morning in a fallow field by a face-licking retriever — Dad’s response was to leave his prosperous track and plunge his hands joyfully into the sewer.