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Gatsby and Steak: Why You Should Read Epigraphs

Gatsby and Steak: Why You Should Read Epigraphs
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Palina Dolia

“Palina, when you become a writer, you will put my thoughts as epigraphs.
"What epigraphs?"
"Deep, Palina. Smart."
Dad

The first lines in a book are always very important. They set the tone, catch the reader's attention, lead him or her by the hand into a wonderful world of literature. But few people remember that just before the beginning of the story, there is a small epigraph huddled in the corner of the page, waiting for you to finally pay attention. And you are scrolling, scrolling... That's a pity. Today we will figure out what's good about epigraphs and why you'd better not ignore them.

As always, let's start with the terminology. An epigraph is a short quote, line, or paragraph that appears at the beginning of a book. Its use is optional, but most authors use epigraphs to give a writing some theme or context. So that you know from the first lines what awaits you under the cover – and this is before reading the first chapter!

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Quotations from already written works often act as epigraphs. As they say, young poets imitate, mature poets steal. Nevertheless, whether the phrase from the epigraph is familiar to you, whether it is pretentious or overly prosaic, this is still an important nuance of a writing, which can tell a lot not only about the book but also about the author.

Let us turn to a famous story with an interesting epigraph: do you remember how "The Great Gatsby" began? Curiously enough, with a poem:

“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! '”

And signed: Thomas Parke D’Invilliers. It would seem that this is the classic case of an epigraph – thoughtful verses that refer us to the further image of rich, glamorous Jay Gatsby, who is unsuccessfully trying to regain the attention of his beloved. But if you want to learn about D’Invilliers, you will face some hurdles…

Because he doesn't exist.

Thomas Parke D’Invilliers is not a real poet, but the hero of another Fitzgerald novel, "This Side of Paradise", which appeared five years before "The Great Gatsby. "Thomas is described there as “a blighted Shelley, changing, shifting, clever, unscrupulous, representing the critical consciousness of the race” – do you remember now? Such is a curious reference. For the story of Jay Gatsby, with his mysterious past, an epigraph of dubious quality is used by a poem authored by a pretentious poet. Besides, fictional.

However, it would be too simple and superficial to consider epigraphs as mere quotes for the general tone of the narrative, and you and I are not like that. Let's keep on digging.

Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk in his "Black Book" amusingly played with this stereotype, choosing as an epigraph the phrase "Never use epigraphs, they kill the mystery in the work!" But in fact, epigraphs can also add mystery, as in the case of the aforementioned "Great Gatsby". Moreover, it can become a kind of key to the writing – the author chose this particular quote for a reason! You definitely need to figure it out.

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Of course, not all books have epigraphs, which is perfectly normal. But because of this optional nature, readers often get the feeling that the quote at the beginning is something that is not important at all. Since it is not everywhere, then you don't need to read it. After all, these two or three lines can't affect the whole reading experience.

Yes, they can. Ignoring the epigraph is like rushing into a restaurant to devour a steak the size of a high schooler without taking off your coat. Vandalism. After all, going to a restaurant, or reading a book, is a wholesome event. You need to tune in, relax, get the most out of the atmosphere. Epigraphs immerse you in the world of the book slowly and gently, becoming a layer between a story and harsh reality.

The epigraphs gained their popularity in the 18th century: then, references to classical literature were considered an important sign of the seriousness of a writing, and their absence was bad manners. Often, thoughtful quotations from ancient authors appeared as epigraphs. Or lines from the Bible, too.

Choosing a quote for an epigraph looks like a tricky task. There are many different sources to choose from! How can you ever settle for just one? Herman Melville couldn't. There are not one, but as many as 80 epigraphs in his iconic "Moby Dick". Translated into Russian, they are usually omitted (if you close your eyes, the terrible epigraphs will disappear), but in general Melville's epigraphs are very diverse. From Plinius to Shakespeare, from Montaigne to Hobbes, from American folk songs to sinister Leviathan stories. Melville chose everything at once.

Often, not only books, but also chapters acquire epigraphs. George Eliot was a serial epigraphist – each of the 86 chapters in her late novel, "Middlemarch," has a quotation at the beginning.

Are you fed up with large epigraphs? You will be comforted by the work of Thomas Pynchon. In his "Gravity's Rainbow" the fourth chapter begins with the epigraph "What?" And a signature: Richard M. Nixon.

Sometimes the best epigraphs are the simplest ones. Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things" begins with a quote from John Berger: "Never again will a single story be told as though it's the only one." It's eye-catching and striking, and at the same time sets the tone for the future story of the caste system in post-colonial India.

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Epigraphs can be funny, disturbing, deep and dark, but they mean more than you thought. In his "Don Quixote", Miguel de Cervantes wrote a speech instead of an epigraph that he does not want to put epigraphs, sonnets and eulogies at the beginning of the book, because he does not see the point in them. We, of course, will not argue with him (he is dead, anyway), but something suggests that Cervantes missed a lot by rejecting an epigraph.

In order to finally convince you that ignoring the epigraph is a crime against all reading humanity, we will give a few more examples that will certainly touch you.

"The Godfather" by Mario Puzo:
“Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.”
Honoré de Balzac

"The Gift" by Vladimir Nabokov:
"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. Smirnovsky.

"Coraline" by Neil Gaiman:
"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. Chesterton.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee:
"Lawyers, I suppose, were children once."
Charles Lamb

"Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley:
“Did I request thee, Maker,
from my clay / To mould me man?
Did I solicit thee. From darkness to promote me?"
John Milton

"Distant Star" by Roberto Bolaño:
"What stars fall unseen?"
William Faulkner

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