Definition of Epigraph
In literature, an epigraph is a short quotation that is set at the beginning of a text or section of a text to suggest the theme of what’s to come. The epigraph can be a quote from a famous person, an excerpt or full text of a poem, phrase, lyric, or definition. Epigraphs can be a sort of preface or can set the mood or tone of the following work. Epigraphs can also invite the reader to make a comparison between what the epigraph says and what the rest of the text is about. Some authors use epigraphs to tie their own literature to the greater body of literature in the world.
The word epigraph comes from the Greek word epigraphein, which means “to write on.” The contemporary definition of epigraph was introduced into English in the mid-19th century, when it came to mean a motto or pithy sentence that prefaces a book or chapter of a book.
Common Examples of Epigraph
While there is a literary meaning of epigraph, the word epigraph can also refer to inscriptions on buildings, statues, and coins. Non-literary epigraphs work to figuratively label and give some sense of the symbolic meaning of these buildings, statues, and coins. Here are some examples of epigraphs that are used in everyday life that are not literary epigraphs:
- Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. (From Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “New Colossus”)
- United States seal and coins: E pluribus unum (out of many, one)
- Yale University buildings: Lux et veritas (light and truth)
Significance of Epigraph in Literature
Epigraphs became popular in the early eighteenth century, when reading for pleasure became common amongst middle-class citizens. Before this time, people who read literature had generally read all of the canon. When reading surged in popularity as a pastime, authors found it necessary to provide a small excerpt from some work in the canon to give readers a small anchor to the literary tradition. This was concurrent with authors’ optimistic and sometimes presumptuous desires to show how their own new works of literature fit into the canon. The tradition of the epigraph was ubiquitous for a time; some authors began to create fake quotes to use as epigraphs partly to demonstrate their frustration with the literary canon. Epigraphs remain relatively popular today, though, as authors find ways to present the main theme or their works in brief through the words of other writers.
Examples of Epigraph in Literature
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me? — Paradise Lost, X, 743-45
(from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley)
Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in the early nineteenth century when examples of epigraphs were quite ubiquitous. She uses a quote from John Milton’s Paradise Lost in which a human speaks to his maker (i.e., God); the comparison here is that in Shelley’s novel man himself ill-advisedly becomes the maker.
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
(from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
The epigraph example in The Great Gatsby is one that F. Scott Fitzgerald created himself. Fitzgerald is somewhat light-hearted, therefore, in this use of epigraph. It still serves the purpose that others epigraphs do, which is to highlight a theme of the novel to come. In this case, the epigraph suggests that a man must wear nice things (and be of a high class) to impress a woman.
Lawyers, I suppose, were children once. — Charles Lamb
(from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)
Harper Lee’s famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird includes the important perspectives of both Atticus Finch, a lawyer, and his children. While not all lawyers might maintain a childlike empathy with the world, Atticus works hard to be fair and impart this fairness in his daughter, the narrator.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death. – T.S. Eliot, “The Journey of the Magi”
(from No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe)
Chinua Achebe includes a pertinent example of epigraph in his novel No Longer at Ease. He quotes from T.S. Eliot, whose poem mirrors the post-colonial condition that Achebe explores at length in his novel. Just as with the difficult journey the Magi took, the protagonist in Achebe’s novel travels from Nigeria to England, and when he returns to Nigeria he finds himself no longer at ease when he returns back to his home country.
If they give you ruled paper, write the other way. – Juan Ramón Jiménez
(from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury)
Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 contains this epigraph example that encourages going against the rules. While the protagonist of the novel, Guy Montag, originally is part of a society that discourages reading and enforces the burning of books, he later changes his views. The quote from Juan Ramón Jiménez is a brilliantly succinct way of presenting the rebellious nature that Guy embodies.
And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.
And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel; and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?
And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her. —Genesis 30:1-3
(from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood)
Margaret Atwood quotes from the Bible in her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. This short excerpt from Genesis is the basis for Atwood’s entire societal issue, which is the use of women basically as breeding machines. Just as there’s no sense in this passage that the maid Bilhah’s own body or feelings matter, so too is there a lack of protection for the protagonist in Atwood’s novel, or women like her.
The reader should realize himself that it could not have happened otherwise, and that to give him any other name was quite out of the question. — Nikolai Gogol, “The Overcoat”
(from The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri)
Jhumpa Lahiri’s recent novel The Namesake focuses on a character who is named Gogol Ganguli, named as such for his father’s favorite author. This naming choice haunts the protagonist of Lahiri’s novel because it is so unusual. Yet the epigraph example here presents the key dilemma; that Gogol’s story would not have happened otherwise if he had been named anything else.
All the lives we could live, all the people we will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is what the world is. –Aleksander Hemon, The Lazarus Project
(from Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann)
Colum McCann quotes Aleksander Hemon’s The Lazarus Project to open his contemporary novel Let the Great World Spin. In McCann’s brilliant novel many people witness one event, which is a tight-rope walker walking between the Twin Towers in New York City. McCann then follows many different stories of people before, during, and after they witness the event, showing the interconnectedness of all people.
Test Your Knowledge of Epigraph
1. Which of the following statements is the best epigraph definition?
A. An adjective or phrase expressing a quality of the person it’s representing.
B. A short quotation set at the beginning of a novel or chapter.
C. An inscription on a gravestone.
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2. Why might an author choose to use an epigraph?
I. To connect his or work her of literature to the greater body of literature.
II. To show off how much better his or her own literature is than the already existing canon.
III. To offer a brief statement that hints at the theme of the work.
A. I and II
B. II and III
C. I and III
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3. Consider the following epigraph:
Behind every great fortune, there is a crime. –Balzac
Which of the following novels would you guess this epigraph example is from?
A.The Godfather by Mario Puzo
B.1984 by George Orwell
C.Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
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Setting Up the MLA Paper Format
When writing an assignment in MLA style, you must follow the MLA paper format. This means following guidelines for everything from margins and spacing or font type and size to using a header that shows up on every page. This format also dictates putting endnotes and your Works Cited page in a certain place within your paper and other formatting guidelines.
The goal of these MLA paper format guidelines is to create a consistent page setup and to foster readability within a paper or written text. Unless you are directed by an instructor to break from the formatting guidelines below, use the information to set up your MLA paper format.
Paper size and type
Use standard white computer paper that measure 8.5 x 11 inches. Avoid using thicker, card-stock type paper.
Margins and spacing for MLA paper format
The MLA paper format for margins and spacing is easy to set up in any word processor, so make sure to follow these guidelines when formatting your paper.
- Use 1-inch margins on the top, bottom and both sides.
- Indent the first sentence of each paragraph 1 inch from the left margin of your paper. The default setup of the “Tab” key is set to 1 inch, and the MLA paper format suggests using the Tab key instead of entering five spaces using the space bar.
- Use standard double spacing throughout the entire text of your paper.
- Avoid entering a double space between paragraphs by hitting the “Enter” key twice. There is already a space, and the 1-inch indentations notes the start of a new paragraph.
- Use single spaces between sentences after the sentence-ending punctuation. This is the modern convention for spacing, so use single spacing unless assignment instructions specify otherwise.
- Avoid increasing the margins or spacing to stretch the length of your paper.
Font size and type for MLA paper format
The purpose of using a particular font size and type in your MLA paper format is to make your text easy to read. While some assignment instructions may specify which font type or size to use, not all do. When you are not given specific instructions, use the following guidelines in your MLA paper format:
- Choose a legible font by selecting one where the regular type and the italic type are different enough to make the use of either clear. “Times Roman Numeral” is always a great choice, but “Arial,” “Lucina,” “Modern,” and “Palermo” are also okay.
- Avoid scripted fonts. While these fonts might appeal to you, they often make your content harder to read.
- Use 12-pt. font as recommended by the MLA paper format. Sometimes, it is permitted to use 10- or 11-pt. font, but make sure this is okay under your instructions.
- Never increase your font size to stretch the length of your paper.
The first page of MLA paper format
The first page of the MLA paper format differs from subsequent pages. It contains more heading information, your paper title and, if it applies, an epigraph. The first page is the only page that includes the whole heading and your paper title.
- List your full name, your instructor’s full name or preferred title, the name of your course or class and the date you are turning in the paper, each on a separate line. Double space between each line.
- Make sure to use a double space between the date and your paper title.
- Center your title, and use title case for capitalization. Do not use underlining or italicizing within your title, and avoid using quotation marks unless the title of something else is within your title. Do not put your title in all capital letters.
- Double space between the title and the start of the first paragraph.
Epigraph formatting for MLA paper format
Using an epigraph (a quotation that precedes the body of your paper) is common, but there is no official MLA guideline. If you choose to include an epigraph, use the formatting guidelines for a block quote by indenting 1 inch inside your paper margins. If the epigraph consists of multiple lines of short text, center the lines below your title, and follow these MLA paper format guidelines:
- Use double spacing below and above the epigraph.
- Use single spacing within an epigraph consisting of multiple lines.
- Include the author’s name immediately below the epigraph, single-spaced from the previous line. The author’s name should appear on the right side of the text, and a corresponding entry in your Works Cited page is necessary.
Header and page numbers for MLA paper format
In addition to the extended heading information that is included on the first page, a header with page numbers is required on every page of the MLA paper format unless assignment instructions specify it is okay to omit the page number header on page one of your paper. Format your header using the following MLA paper format guidelines:
- Create a header that uses consecutive page numbers in the right-hand top corner of your paper.
- Set the header a ½ inch from the top edge of your paper while making sure the text is right aligned.
- Include your last name three character spaces to the left of the page number.
- Ensure this header appears on every page, including an endnotes or Works Cited page.
Section headings in MLA paper format
Section headings are not required in MLA paper format. However, you may opt to use them to increase the readability of your paper. You can use one or more levels of section headings and subheadings. If you choose to use section headings, keep the following MLA paper format guidelines in mind:
- If you divide your essay into sections, number the sections with Arabic numbers and a period. Enter a space, and type the section heading.
- When you are using only one level of section headings, maintain parallelism by making sure the headings are grammatically similar. If you use full-sentence section headings, make sure every section heading is a full sentence, for example. Likewise, if you use a short noun phrase, make all section headings a short noun phrase.
- Should you use section headings, there are no set formatting guidelines. You can use bold, italics or underlining within the headings, and you can place the text use left alignment or center positioning. The important thing is to stay consistent throughout all your section headings by using the same formatting.
- When using multiple levels of subheadings, you should create a key to the formatting for your instructor to avoid problems with grading on format.
Endnotes and Works Cited for MLA paper format
For endnotes and the Works Cited page, MLA paper format dictates that these are both placed on separate pages from one another and from the body of your research paper. The creation and use of endnotes and the Works Cited page are covered in another section of the MLA guide, but remember that both are separate documents that attach to your paper and use consecutive numbering in relation to your paper’s page numbers.
Title page for MLA paper format
A title page is not required under the MLA paper format. However, you might be asked in assignment instructions to provide one. If the format for the title page is identified within those instructions, use the details provided in formatting the title page. If not, follow the below guide for making a title page:
- Do not put a page number on your title page. The first numbered page in MLA paper format is the first page with your paper text.
- On the title page, create a 2-inch top margin.
- Details to include in your title page should be included in the assignment instructions when a title page is asked for, so incorporate any additional information asked for within them. Following any formatting guidelines outlined in the instructions as well.
Following the MLA paper format helps increase the readability of your paper and helps your grade. Whenever you are unsure of the correct formatting, check the MLA guide to determine which, if any, MLA paper format rules applies. In addition, parenthetical citations (in-text citations) should be documented properly with all your sources cited correctly. When you follow these guidelines, your paper is a stronger one that has easy readability.