epiphany (fiction and nonfiction)

Glossary

pilgrim_at_tinker_creek.jpg
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard (1974); rpt. by Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007.

Definition

Epiphany is a term in literary criticism for a sudden realization--a flash of recognition in which someone or something is seen in a new light. Adjective: epiphanic.

In Stephen Hero (1904), Irish author James Joyce used the term epiphany to describe the moment when the "soul of the commonest object . . . seems to us radiant. The object achieves it epiphany." Novelist Joseph Conrad described epiphany as "one of those rare moments of awakening" in which "everything [occurs] in a flash." Epiphanies may be evoked in works of nonfiction as well as in short stories and novels.



The word epiphany comes from the Greek for a "manifestation" or "showing forth." In Christian churches, the feast following the twelve days of Christmas (January 6) is called Epiphany because it celebrates the appearance of divinity (the Christ child) to the Wise Men.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

 

Examples and Observations

  • Epiphany in the Short Story "Miss Brill" by Katherine Mansfield
    "In the story of the same name Miss Brill discovers such annihilation when her own identity as onlooker and imagined choreographer to the rest of her small world crumbles in the reality of loneliness. The imagined conversations she has with other people become, when overheard in reality, the onset of her destruction. A young couple on her park bench--'the hero and the heroine' of Miss Brill's own fictive drama, 'just arrived from his father's yacht' . . . --are transformed by reality into two young people who cannot accept the aging woman who sits near them. The boy refers to her as 'that stupid old thing at the end' of the bench and openly expresses the very question that Miss Brill has been trying so desperately to avoid through her Sunday charades in the park: 'Why does she come here at all--who wants her?' Miss Brill's epiphany forces her to forgo the usual slice of honeycake at the baker's on her way home, and home, like life, has changed. It is now 'a little dark room . . . like a cupboard.' Both life and home have become suffocating. Miss Brill's loneliness is forced upon her in one transformative moment of acknowledgment of reality."
    (Karla Alwes, "Katherine Mansfield." Modern British Women Writers: An A-to-Z Guide, ed. by Vicki K. Janik and Del Ivan Janik. Greenwood, 2002)
  • Another View of Epiphany in the Short Story "Miss Brill" by Katherine Mansfield
    "Miss Brill is delighted to be part of the Season in the Jardins Publique, especially on Sundays. For the occasion, a chilly day, she has taken her fur from its box, brushed it off, and walked purposefully toward the band playing in the park. Everywhere around her she sees life, and it please her to think that she is part of all that takes place, part of a living organism that manifests itself every Sunday to see and be seen. In a moment of epiphany, she knows that she and everyone else in the park are actors, playing out their roles, and she is sure that her absence would be noticed if she were to miss the gathering one weekend."
    (Patrick A. Smith, Thematic Guide to Popular Short Stories. Greenwood, 2002)
     
  • Epiphanies in Annie Dillard's Creative Nonfiction
    "[Annie] Dillard's last comments in the introduction of Encounters concerning her use of 'moments' . . . becomes a definitive statement about the use of illumination in the Dillard canon:
    These are only glimpses, not portraits; their subject is not China, and not even entirely Chinese writers, but a few vivid, equivocal moments in the days of some of earth's people in the twentieth century. What interests me here, and elsewhere, is the possibility for a purified nonfiction narration--a kind of Chekhovian storytelling which might illuminate the actual world with a delicate light--coupled with humor in the American tradition and no comment. [Encounters with Chinese Writers, 1984]
    Dillard has been working toward these 'few, equivocal moments'  which 'illuminate the actual world with a delicate light' since Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She suggests here her technical approach to composing the epiphany with the phrases 'purified nonfiction narration,' 'illuminate the actual world,' and 'no comment.' . . . Her 'actual world' includes suffering and violence, but if the narration can be purified from extraneous observation, language might provide the peculiar, delicate lighting of epiphany."
    (Sandra Humble Johnson, The Space Between: Literary Epiphany in the Work of Annie Dillard. Kent State University Press, 1992)
     
  • Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom's Epiphany in Rabbit, Run
    - "They reach the tee, a platform of turf beside a hunchbacked fruit tree offering fists of taut ivory-colored buds. 'Let me go first,' Rabbit says. ''Til you calm down.' His heart is hushed, held in mid-beat, by anger. He doesn't care about anything except getting out of this tangle. He wants it to rain. In avoiding looking at Eccles he looks at the ball, which sits high on the tee and already seems free of the ground. Very simply he brings the clubhead around his shoulder into it. The sound has a hollowness, a singleness he hasn't heard before. His arms force his head up and his ball is hung way out, lunarly pale against the beautiful black blue of storm clouds, his grandfather's color stretched dense across the north. It recedes along a line straight as a ruler-edge. Stricken; sphere, star, speck. It hesitates, and Rabbit thinks it will die, but he's fooled, for the ball makes its hesitation the ground of a final leap: with a kind of visible sob takes a last bite of space before vanishing in falling. 'That's it!' he cries and, turning to Eccles with a grin of aggrandizement, repeats, 'That's it.'"
    (John Updike, Rabbit, Run. Alfred A. Knopf, 1960)

    - "The passage quoted from the first of John Updike's Rabbit novels describes an action in a contest, but it is the intensity of the moment, not its consequences, that [is] important (we never discover whether the hero won that particular hole). . . .

    "In epiphanies, prose fiction comes closest to the verbal intensity of lyric poetry (most modern lyrics are in fact nothing but epiphanies); so epiphanic description is likely to be rich in figures of speech and sound. Updike is a writer prodigally gifted with the power of metaphoric speech. . . . When Rabbit turns to Eccles and cries triumphantly, 'That's it!' he is answering the minister's question about what is lacking in his marriage. . . . Perhaps in Rabbit's cry of 'That's it!' we also hear an echo of the writer's justifiable satisfaction at having revealed, through language, the radiant soul of a well-struck tee shot."
    (David Lodge, The Art of Fiction. Viking, 1993)
  • Critical Observations on Epiphany
    "The critic's function is to find ways of recognizing and judging the epiphanies of literature which, like those of life itself (Joyce borrowed his use of the term 'epiphany' directly from theology), are partial disclosures or revelations, or 'spiritual matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.'"
    (Colin Falck, Myth, Truth, and Literature: Towards a True Post-Modernism, 2nd ed. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994)

    "The definition Joyce gave of epiphany in Stephen Hero depends on a familiar world of objects of use--a clock one passes every day. The epiphany restores the clock to itself in one act of seeing, of experiencing it for the first time."
    (Monroe Engel, Uses of Literature. Harvard University Press, 1973)