The 25 Greatest Epigraphs in Literature


The epigraph is a funny literary convention: excerpting lines of someone else’s work — or quotes, adages, lines of verse, lyrics, snippets of conversation, etc — to put before your own. The effect varies: often the epigraph serves as a sort of thematic gatekeeper, or simply sets the mood for the prose to come, sometimes it gives the reader a glimpse into the author’s intentions or inspirations, or it may serve as a joke or warning. They may seem a trivial part of the work they come attached to, but we think, if done properly, they can be very illuminating. In case you couldn’t tell, we’ve been thinking about the convention quite a bit lately, partly due to the numerous hours we’ve spent perusing one of our new favorite Tumblrs, Epigraphic, which collects the fragments. Some are funny, some are poignant, some are strange, but all of them are wonderful in their own way. Click through to read 25 of our all-time favorite epigraphs in literature, and let us know if we’ve missed any of your own favorites in the comments!

When we are not sure, we are alive. — Graham Greene (from Reality Hunger by David Shields)

Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten. — G.K. Chesterson (from Coraline by Neil Gaiman)

What do you mean where does the music come from? Where does the music ever come from? The guy says to the girl Something is on my mind and the girl says Really? What is it? and somebody in the orchestra hits a note and they sing. That’s where the music comes from. — Morrie Ryskind on the set of a Marx Brothers movie (from Adverbs by Daniel Handler)

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)

You are all a lost generation. — Gertrude Stein in conversation (from The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway)

If they give you ruled paper, write the other way. — Juan Ramón Jiménez (from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury)

Lawyers, I suppose, were children once. — Charles Lamb (from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

In the desert there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones. — Sufi proverb (from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood)

Vengeance is mine; I will repay. — Deuteronomy 32:35 (from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy)

An oak is a tree. A rose is a flower. A deer is an animal. A sparrow is a bird. Russia is our fatherland. Death is inevitable. — P. Smirnovski, A Textbook of Russian Grammar (from The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov)

Honesty’s the best policy. — Miguel de Cervantes Liars prosper. — Anonymous (from On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King)

The motions of Grace, the hardness of the heart; external circumstances. — Pascal, Pensée 507 (from Rabbit, Run by John Updike)

NOTICE 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. (from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , Mark Twain)

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)

“What?” — Richard M. Nixon (from book four of Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon)

… and so who are you, after all?

— I am part of the power which forever wills evil and forever works good. — Goethe’s Faust (from The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov)

Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. — John 12:24 (from The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky)

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)

No one knows how to love anybody’s trouble. — Frank Stanford (from Look! Look! Feathers by Mike Young)

I enquire now as to the genesis of a philologist and assert the following: 1. A young man cannot possibly know what Greeks and Romans are. 2. He does not know whether he is suited for finding out about them. — Friedrich Nietzsche, Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen

Come then, and let us pass a leisure hour in storytelling, and our story shall be the education of our heroes. — Plato, Republic, Book II (from The Secret History by Donna Tartt)

There, where one burns books… one, in the end, burns men. — Heinrich Heine (from People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks)

We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed. — Frank Bidart, “Borges and I” (from The Pale King by David Foster Wallace)

Behind every great fortune there is a crime. — Balzac (from The Godfather by Mario Puzo)

Never again will a single story be told as though it’s the only one. — John Berger (from The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy)

Passage home? Never. — The Odyssey, Book 5, Homer (trans. Robert Fagles) (from Lit by Mary Karr)