What is Epiphany in Literature? - Definition, Examples & Quiz
Writers often use epiphany, a moment of stark realization in which something is seen in a new light, to advance plot and character development. Explore this concept through a comprehensive definition and examples. Then test your new expertise with a quiz.
Most people have at least one moment in life when they experience a new revelation or a new perspective on something that jolts them out of their current state. For example, imagine a man who has smoked a pack of cigarettes every day for ten years, but then he finds out his wife is finally pregnant when they thought she was infertile. He immediately begins to examine his life and evaluate how he'll be as a father, and is struck with the knowledge that he doesn't want his baby exposed to a life of second-hand smoke. He's motivated to drastically change because he sees his habits in a new light and that his habits affect more than only himself.
This moment of realization, when a person sees reality in a new light, is called an epiphany. Epiphany moments occur frequently in literature; writers use them to show the growth of a character or provide rationale for a major plot shift.
Let's look at some examples of how differently writers can use this threshold point of human experience as a tool:
Epiphany as a Plot Shift
'He glanced back at the wall. How like a mirror, too, her face. Impossible; for how many people did you know who reflected your own light to you? People were more often--he searched for a simile, found one in his work--torches, blazing away until they whiffed out. How rarely did other people's faces take of you and throw back to you your own expression, your own innermost trembling thought?'
-- Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
This excerpt from Bradbury's futuristic novel where reading is a crime depicts the main character, Montag's epiphany from his conversations with Clarisse, a seventeen-year-old girl who sheds light on the dullness and meaninglessness of his own life. For someone who feels disconnected from life, this moment of intense connection and soul-gazing 'wakes' Montag and sparks reformation. Montag's dissatisfaction with his life and himself pushes him to find answers in the very books that are forbidden. In this way, his moment of epiphany caused a revolution inside of himself and became the justification for social disobedience.
Epiphany as Transcendence
By way of contrast, let's look at an epiphany moment in the poem, 'A Blessing' by James Wright, which depicts a moment of sheer transcendence:
Just off the Highway to Rochester, Minnesota
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
- 'A Blessing' by James Wright
James Wright is known for his narrative poetry, or poetry that tells a story. The majority of the poem then is simply a description of the poem's speaker and his friend interacting with two ponies. However, in the last three lines, Wright takes a beautiful epiphanic turn where the speaker is so at one with the moment and nature that it feels like spring would burst out of his skin. This is a moment of ultimate gratitude, of being filled to the brim and overflowing with life.
Epiphany as Character Development
One final example is an excerpt from the recent New York Times bestseller, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs:
...And I really did believe him -- for a few years, at least -- though mostly because I wanted to, like other kids my age wanted to believe in Santa Claus. We cling to our fairy tales until the price for believing them becomes too high, which for me was the day in second grade when Robbie Jensen pantsed me at lunch in front of a table of girls and announced that I believed in fairies. It was just deserts, I suppose, for repeating my grandfather's stories at school but in those humiliating seconds I foresaw the moniker 'fairy boy' trailing me for years and, rightly or not, I resented him for it...
In this excerpt, main character, Jacob recounts his varying beliefs about the peculiar children his grandfather claims to have known when he was an orphan at Miss Peregrine's home. This is one epiphany of several as Jacob wrestles with myth versus reality, as well as with his relationship with his grandfather. Because author Ransom Riggs shows us Jacob's internal struggle with belief, we, as readers, follow him more closely on his journey to discover the truth. We grow in belief with him.
Epiphany is a precipice where both risk and reward are present. In this way, writers use epiphany for many ends - to further plot development, character development, to reveal a moment of transcendence, add mystery, and so on. Moments of epiphany can do anything: they can prompt a character to change his/her life, spur a mother to abandon her child, or provide the reasons for a villain to commit heinous acts.
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