Epigraphs: Inspiration or Post-Completion Accessory?

Epigraphs are handy little tools for authors, it seems. Their placement at the beginning of a novel sets the tone for the entire book and lays out the main themes in a way that is nuanced rather than blatant. But I’ve read several books lately that have had epigraphs, and it has made me wonder: which does the author choose first, the epigraph or the story?

Today a writer could simply type in “quotes related to (theme)” to Google and find a plethora of great quotes to put at the beginning of their book. Technology has made it easy. But what about for great writers of the past, like Dostoevsky and Hemingway, who didn’t have the luxury of internet search engines? I suppose it differs for each writer whether an epigraph inspires the story or if it is simply chosen after the fact because it fits the story that has already been written. But it’s fun to speculate. Now for some examples.

This epigraph from Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls seems pretty straightforward; the title of the book is lifted from the epigraph, for pity’s sake. But it’s also possible that while Hemingway was searching for a quote that would fit with the themes of war, he came upon this portion of John Donne’s poem and instantaneously knew when he read the words “for whom the bell tolls” that it was the perfect title for his as-yet-untitled epic.

One of my favorite book epigraphs of all time, from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Can’t you just see Ms. Lee, sipping on sweet tea in her native Alabama, reading this quote by the English essayist and immediately starting to piece together the brilliant facets of Atticus Finch’s character? It so perfectly describes so much of the book, it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t the initial inspiration.

Epigraphs lifted from the Bible are a lot more difficult to speculate on. Especially because a concordance in the back of a Bible is like a more tedious, old-fashioned version of Google. Leo Tolstoy’s epigraph from Anna Karenina (above) is one of those Bible quotes that is repeated so often that most don’t even realize it’s from the Bible (I definitely didn’t), which makes me think that this quote was the inspiration for the feminist revenge tale. Dostoevsky’s epigraph from The Brothers Karamazov (below), however, is a lesser known verse, and is in fact quoted by one of the characters in the story, which points to the story preceding the epigraph.

Maybe no one cares about these epigraphs and whether they inspire the story or not, but I think it’s a fascinating aspect of the writing life. I know that I, for one, am always looking out for quotes that inspire me to write and create, and maybe that’s something I’ll extrapolate on in a future post. Are there any epigraphs from books that you’ve read that have really stood out to you, or profound quotes that could inspire you to write a novel?


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