Into whatever houses I enter, I will go into them for the benefit of the sick. -- Hippocrates (466?-377? B.C.)
-- epigraph for StarDoc by S.L. Viehl
Last week in comments I mentioned that Tennessee Williams used the last line of my favorite e.e.cummings poem as an epigraph for The Glass Menagerie, and promptly got three e-mails asking me what epigraphs are and why writers use them.
To put it simply, the epigraph is a very brief preface, usually in the form of a line or two, placed at the front of a book or chapter by an author. Epigraphs are almost always a quotation of someone else's work, and are frequently borrowed from verse or text that has some relation to the story or some personal significance to the author (or both.) Epigraphs became popular back during the early eighteenth century when printing processes had evolved enough to make mass-produced books less expensive and more accessible by the general population. Authors and publishers knew many of these folks didn't have extensive backgrounds in literature so they used the epigraph to give the reader a preemptive shove in the correct thematic direction.
Why do writers use epigraphs? Lots of reasons that have to do with our love of words and wisdom from other writers. Epigraphs could also be interpreted as the copy we would write for our stories (if publishers ever let us.) I can't dismiss how very cool they look at the front of a book, either. Epigraphs quoting Scripture, poetry and classic literature are common, but there are plenty of other forms. I used the definitions of genetic terms as epigraphs for my Kyndred novels. Quotations by Kafka and Nietzsche are particularly, ploddingly popular among the literati, but Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides coolly opted to use lyrics from a Talking Heads song for The Marriage Plot.
Up there you see the very first epigraph I published, which I did not place in the front pages of StarDoc but used to open book's first chapter. This was deliberate; I wanted the statement by Hippocrates to be the very first words of the story that the reader saw. Yes, it was that important. StarDoc's epigraph doesn't simply describe the main character's goals and conflict or what drives the plot for ten novels, or even give a big hint about the series. Those sixteen words are the series.
Other writers with interesting epigraphs:
E.M. Forester was famously, fabulously brief with the two-word epigraph for Howard's End: "Only connect . . ."
Going for the ego gold F. Scott Fitzgerald decided to quote himself as an epigraph for The Great Gatsby: "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!'" (It's a line he wrote for Thomas Parke D’Invilliers in This Side of Paradise.)
Ernest Hemingway made John Donne pull double duty when he used him for the epigraph and the title of For Whom the Bell Tolls: "No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."
Mario Puzo was extremely cold and direct with his Balzac quotation epigraph for The Godfather: "Behind every great fortune there is a crime."
Mark Twain is the author of my all-time favorite epigraph, which you can find (if you dare) in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By Order of the Author Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance."
If you want more examples of book epigraphs, visit Epigraphic, a Tumblr blog devoted to them.