What Is an Epiphany?

How are epiphanies used in literature?

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

An 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. 

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.

Examples of Literary Epiphanies

Epiphanies are a common storytelling device because part of what makes a good story is a character who grows and changes. A sudden realization can signify a turning point for a character when they finally understand something that the story has been trying to teach them all along. It is often used well in the end of mystery novels when the saluteth finally receives the last clue that makes all the pieces of the puzzle make sense. A good novelist can often lead the readers to such epiphanies along with their characters. 

Epiphany in the Short Story "Miss Brill" by Katherine Mansfield

"In the story of the same name Miss ​B rill 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)

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

It is a literary critics job to analyze and discuss the ways authors use epiphanies in novels. ​

"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)