How to Put an Epigraph in an Essay

Studio Portrait Of Teenage Girl Reading Book

What is an epigraph?

An epigraph is a quote before the introduction of a novel, poem, or essay. Usually the few words or sentences quoted, pack great impact for an epigraph.

Rosemary Ahern, author of “The Art of the Epigraph: How Great Books Begin,” compares the epigraph to a "baptism" before you share your work with an audience, so it should not to be taken lightly.

By choosing the right epigraph, you can allude to a theme or drive home an idea with more power.

An epigraph is like a baptism before you share your work to the audience.

When to Use an Epigraph

An epigraph is a great way to start your paper:

  • An epigraph is set off from the introduction of your essay.
  • An epigraph grabs the reader’s attention.
  • The reader may likely assume the quotation is important to understanding your work.

An epigraph can set the stage:

  • For your ideas
  • To summarize or contrast themes
  • To be humorous
  • Or, to provide insight.

An example of humor

Ahern mentions author Vikram Seth’s use of a Voltaire quote, “The secret of being a bore is to say everything,” before his 1400-page novel "A Suitable Boy."

Choosing an Epigraph

After you decide to use an epigraph for your essay, you must consider what quote will have the greatest impression on your reader or set the tone of your essay.

Ahern mentions that some writers choose a favorite author, and many epigraphs are specific to a particular individual’s tastes.

3 Qualities for effective epigraphs:

  1. Brief
  2. Funny
  3. Wise

She also identifies three qualities of effective epigraphs -- they are brief, funny or wise, or sometimes all three at once.

  • Choose an epigraph that is no longer than a few words or a complete sentence.
  • Use a comical epigraph to challenge expectations, make fun of yourself or make your essay enticing to the reader.
  • Wise epigraphs provide insight to your paper, which might be revealed to the reader at the end of your essay.

three qualities of effective epigraphs -- they are brief, funny or wise, or sometimes all three at once.

Examples of Epigraphs From Literature

Notable examples include:

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

“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mound me Man, did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?” - Paradise Lost from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

"Behind every great fortune there is a crime." - Balzac from The Godfather by Mario Puzo.

"If they give you ruled paper, write the other way." - Juan Ramón Jiménez from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

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