Epilogues Explained

Hundreds of books in chaotic order

Alexander Spatari / Getty Images

An epilogue is a concluding section of, or a postscript to, a speech or literary work. It is also called a recapitulation, an afterword, or an envoi. Though usually short, an epilogue may be as long as an entire chapter in a book.

In discussing the arrangement of a speech, Aristotle reminds us that the epilogue "is not essential even to a forensic speech—as when the speech is short or the matter easy to remember; for the advantage of epilogue is abridgment." The word comes from the Greek word for "conclusion of a speech."

Origin and Definition

The epilogue dates at least to the time of the ancient Greeks. Edward P. J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors, in "Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student," describe the epilogue and Greek philosopher Plato's own words on the device. "[A]n epilogue is a discourse that leads itself back upon demonstrations that have been said beforehand, encompassing a collecting of matters, characters, and emotions, and its task consists also of this, says Plato, 'at last to remind the listeners of the things that have been said.'"

An epilogue serves to sum up and remind readers what they have read or viewers what they have seen, but it also satisfies curiosity about what comes after the concluding action. In Greek plays, an epilogue often reiterated or explained the moral lessons the play meant to convey. It contributes to character development and plot resolution.

Epilogues in Plays and Literature

William Shakespeare not only used epilogues in his plays, but he also specifically mentioned the term and explained why he was using it in at least one of his works, "As You Like It."

"It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue; but it is no more unhandsome than to see the lord the prologue. If it be true, that good wine needs no bush, 'tis true that a good play needs no epilogue. Yet to good wine they do use good bushes; and good plays prove the better by the help of good epilogues. What a case am I in then, that am neither a good epilogue, nor cannot insinuate with you in the behalf of a good play?"

This scene, which is actually part of the epilogue of the play, was centuries ahead of its time in terms of subject matter, and it draws interesting parallels between literary devices and reality.

Modern Uses

But the use of the epilogue hardly stopped with Shakespeare. Movies and television shows today use epilogues regularly, as Roy Peter Clark wrote in "Help! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces." Clark explains that an epilogue helps readers or viewers learn what happens after the action described or written about concludes:

"Readers are often curious about what happens to the characters after the narrative ends. An epilogue satisfies this curiosity, leaving the reader informed and fulfilled ... [T]here is the infamous epilogue of the movie Animal House, in which stop-action frames of the characters contain comic captions describing what happened to them. So the gross-out king, John Blutarsky, becomes a United States senator; and the make-out king, Eric Stratton, becomes a Beverly Hills gynecologist. The desire to know more about characters after the natural ending of a narrative is not a critique of the story, but a compliment to the writer."

As anyone who has seen "Animal House" knows, the epilogue added to the humor and irony of the movie itself. This epilogue showed what became of the characters, showing underdog characters as victorious and their foes as unsuccessful.

Epilogues for Reflection

Finally, an epilogue presents the writer or speaker with a chance to reflect, to explain the key points of what they have described or what the action has portrayed, and to convince the reader or viewer of the thoughts and conclusions they should have taken away from the story. Michael P. Nichols and Martha B. Straus explain this view of the epilogue in "The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships," a 2021 work where they give relationship advice.

"An epilogue is where the author can be expected to wax philosophical. Here, for example, I might tell you that better listening not only transforms personal and professional relationships (which it does) but can also bring understanding across the gender gap, the racial divide, between rich and poor, and even among nations."

Nichols, a family therapist, and Straus, a psychology professor at Antioch University New England Graduate School use the epilogue to pontificate about everything from gender to race to socioeconomics. Their point is that an epilogue can cover any topic the author wants to convey. It is a final chance for the writer to explain what people should take away from the story and think about the issues discussed.

Sources

  • What Is an Epilogue? Writing 101: Definition & How to Write an Epilogue.” MasterClass.
  • Clark, Roy Peter. Help! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces. Little, Brown, 2013.
  • Corbett, Edward P. J., and Robert J. Connors. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Nichols, Michael P., and Straus, Martha B. The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships. The Guilford Press, 2021.
  • Shakespeare, William. As You like It. Sweet Cherry Publishing, 2020.
Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Epilogues Explained." ThoughtCo, Jun. 8, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-an-epilogue-1690606. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, June 8). Epilogues Explained. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-an-epilogue-1690606 Nordquist, Richard. "Epilogues Explained." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-an-epilogue-1690606 (accessed August 5, 2021).