What is an epigraph? Definition, types & examples

what is an epigraph

In the realm of literature, the epigraph definition may seem esoteric to some, yet its presence is ubiquitous across countless works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. This literary device provides readers with a preview of a work’s themes and offers context. In this article, we will answer the question “What is an epigraph?” and uncover its features, exploring its history, purpose, and significance. Through engaging examples and insightful analysis, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of how epigraphs enrich storytelling, enhance thematic exploration, and invite readers into a deeper intellectual engagement with the text.

Epigraph meaning and purpose 

It is a brief quotation positioned at the outset of a written work. Originating from the Greek “epigraphein,” meaning “to write on,” it was initially related to an inscription on buildings or statues. Epigraphs containing different types of analogy and metaphor can be used in various forms of writing, including novels, poetry collections, essays, and academic papers, to enhance the reader’s understanding and involvement in the narrative. 

What purpose does an epigraph serve? 

  • Theme introduction.

This element serves as a tribute from one writer to another, acknowledging influence or inspiration. Authors may employ it from a story or poem, sharing thematic similarities with their work. Placed early on, it instantly signals the thematic currents of the book and can foreshadow future events.

  • Context establishment.

This literary device offers readers a glimpse into the thematic essence of a piece before delving into the narrative itself. Whether it's a profound quotation, a snippet of poetry, or even a cryptic phrase, epigraphs hold a unique power to set the tone in writing, provide context, and offer insight into the author’s intentions. 


“War is peace. 

Freedom is slavery. 

Ignorance is strength.”

This is the opening quote of George Orwell's “1984” that sets the tone for the novel’s exploration of propaganda, surveillance, and totalitarianism. It provides context for the oppressive society depicted in the book and hints at the themes of manipulation and control that permeate the narrative.

  • Information revelation.

As a literary tool in novels, it can convey crucial information. Let’s consider one of the famous epigraphs.


“Then wear the gold hat if that will move her;

If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,

Till she cries, ‘Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,

I must have you!’”

This is the opening quote of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” This epigram example, taken from Thomas Parke D’Invilliers’ poem “Then Wear the Gold Hat,” provides insight into the themes of wealth, status, and pursuit of the American Dream central to “The Great Gatsby.” It sets the stage for the novel’s exploration of ambition, materialism, and the elusive nature of love and happiness.

  • Aesthetic value.

This literary device, which often includes an idiom, enhances the overall aesthetic allure of a literary piece, ensuring a sophisticated and intellectually stimulating introduction that serves as an ideal hook, captivating the reader’s attention.

Types of epigraphs

Now that you've grasped the epigraph definition literature, let’s consider the diverse forms these literary gems take. From intriguing quotes sparking curiosity to moving poems stirring emotions, here are some common types:

  1. Literary allusion.

You may come across this epigraph in poetry as it references other literary works, such as novels, poems, or plays, and establishes connections between the quoted text and the content of the work in which they appear.


“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

This literary allusion from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” reflects the themes of longing, nostalgia, and the elusive pursuit of the American Dream that permeate the novel. Thus, it alludes to the protagonist’s relentless pursuit of an idealized past despite the currents of time and fate working against him. 

  1. Ironic or humorous quote.

To define epigraph of this type, you should understand it’s designed to challenge reader expectations and playfully subvert the text’s tone, offering alternative interpretations. It may originate from unexpected sources or feature passages deliberately at odds with the work’s overall atmosphere, injecting surprise and complexity into the reading experience.


“Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic.”

This example from Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” sets a tone of irony and foreshadows the novel's darker themes, given the context of Dorian’s life and the consequences of his pursuit of beauty and pleasure.

  1. Historical quote. 

This type of epigraph in essay derives from historical sources like letters, speeches, or significant events. Consequently, it provides historical context or highlights connections between the past and present. Fortunately, our paper help service can assist you in finding the best historical quote for your essay. 


“...that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

This is Lincoln’s iconic speech delivered during the American Civil War. It emphasizes the idea of government being derived from the consent of the governed, reflecting the principles of democracy and the importance of popular sovereignty.

  1. Contrasting quotation. 

This type presents an idea that contradicts the central argument or theme. It creates tension, provokes critical thinking, or challenges conventional beliefs.


“All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

This example from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” presents a direct contradiction, playing on the concept of equality while highlighting the irony and hypocrisy within the novel's narrative.

  1. Classic epigraph. 

These quotes are drawn from ancient texts such as Greek or Roman literature, religious scriptures, or mythological sources. They offer a timeless and enduring perspective to the essay’s subject matter.


“Arma virumque cano” (Latin for “I sing of arms and the man”)

This is a classic quote from Virgil’s “The Aeneid.” It is placed at the beginning of the epic poem and sets the tone for the narrative, foreshadowing the themes of warfare and heroism that will unfold throughout the story.

What is the difference between epigraphs and epigrams?

Epigrams and epigraphs, though named similarly and sharing concise forms, are distinct literary terms. They are brief statements utilized by various figures like poets and politicians to make a memorable impact, yet they serve different purposes.

How to write an epigraph:

  • An epigraph in an essay is a brief quotation, excerpt, or phrase typically found at the beginning of a literary work, such as a novel, poem, or essay.
  • Its purpose is to set the tone, introduce themes, provide context, or deliver insight into the author's intention.
  • Epigraphs are usually attributed to another source and serve as a literary device to enhance the reader’s understanding and engagement with the text. For this purpose, our law essay writing service can assist you with using this technique in your papers.


“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mold me, Man, did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me?”

This is the opening quotation from Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”. Taken from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” it sets the tone for Shelley’s novel by addressing themes of creation, responsibility, and the relationship between creator and creation.

How to write an epigram:

  • An epigram is a short, witty, or satirical poem or saying that often conveys a clever or humorous message concisely.
  • Unlike an epigraph, typically found at the beginning of a work, an epigram can stand alone as a complete piece of writing.
  • Epigrams are characterized by their brevity and sharpness and often contain a twist or surprise in their expression.
  • While epigraphs primarily enhance longer literary works, epigrams are standalone pieces that provoke thought or amusement.


“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.”

This quotation by Oscar Wilde is concise and witty and encapsulates a profound insight into the nature of learning and growth through life’s trials and errors.

In summary, while both involve brief texts, an epigraph introduces or frames a literary work, while an epigram stands alone, known for its clever and often humorous or satirical nature. Moreover, it is crucial to distinguish epigraph vs epitaph. The second term is a short writing in cursive tribute written on a tombstone to honor a deceased person. Make sure to pay attention to these concepts for accurate usage.

How to incorporate an epigraph in academic writing?

After clarifying the question “What is an epigraph?” it is important to understand how to implement this literary technique in your papers. Here are some considerations when contemplating the inclusion of an epigraph in your discursive essay or other writing:

  • Relevance: Choose a quotation that aligns with your piece’s themes, subject matter, or tone, setting the stage for your work. For example, for a mystery novel set in Victorian England, consider using a quote from a classic detective novel.
  • Source reliability: Ensure your source is well-known and credible, adding weight to your message. For instance, consider using a quote from a popular motivational speaker for a personal development book.
  • Expressive language: Select epigraph examples with memorable words that capture the essence of your work. For example, a quote from Shakespeare could be fitting for a book on the sense of life.
  • Contextual positioning: Define the best location for your quotation within your work to maximize its impact. Experiment with placements; consider placing epigraphs before the essential paragraphs for a historical novel.
  • Interpretive flexibility: Recognize readers can interpret quotes differently, inviting engagement with the text on various levels. Allow for multiple interpretations, sparking curiosity and exploration.

Epigraph formatting: tips & hacks 

Structuring the text is an artistic decision that should complement your writing style and the overall design of your work. Here are some guidelines from our professional literature review writing service to assist you in your efforts to follow the correct epigraph format:

  • Placement: Position this element preceding the main text, aligned to the right margin. Attribute the source below or integrate it into the same line.
  • Typography: Italicize the text to distinguish it, or use quotation marks if an italicized text is inside.
  • Indentation: Separate the epigraph from the main text through indentation, either block style or by indenting the first line.
  • Consistency: Maintain uniformity in size, font, and style for all elements to enhance visual appeal.
  • Punctuation and length: Use shorter quotations as they have more impact, and maintain the original punctuation unless it conflicts with your sentence’s grammar.

How to format an epigraph MLA?

  • Use a separate page to add a quote before the main document.
  • Apply the same size and font as in other paragraphs.
  • Ensure the text is single-spaced and centered horizontally on the page.
  • Indicate the author’s name followed by a dash and the epigraph’s source; these details should be indented and placed to the right of the page.

How to format an APA style epigraph?

  • Add the epigraph before the main document on a separate line.
  • Follow the same size and font requirements as the rest of the paper.
  • Ensure the epigraph is double-spaced and left-aligned.
  • Add the author’s name followed by a dash and the source below the epigraph; ensure these elements are indented and located to the right of the page.

Final thoughts

Epigraphs serve as important and powerful literary devices that enrich the reading experience by setting the tone, introducing themes, and offering insight into the author’s intentions. Whether they are literary allusions, thematic references, or philosophical statements, epigraphs play a crucial role in framing the narrative and engaging readers from the very beginning. Should you have any lingering questions about how to write an epigraph or require assistance in mastering the art of epigraphs in your writing endeavors, consider seeking support from expert writers at EduBirdie. With our guidance, you can confidently use epigraphs to enhance the depth and impact of your literary creations.

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