15 Epic Epigraphs

handmaidEpigraphs are pretty versatile little literary devices. They can be the uncensored mouthpiece of an author. They are, at times, like an outside source brought in to demonstrate the author’s authority on a subject (ahem…Moby Dick). They can provide insight into the author’s inspiration, as in the case of the newspaper article quoted in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. They can be playful; a witty one-liner that encapsulate an idea or feeling. Sometimes, an epigraph doesn’t make sense until you’ve read the book. (Does it then go from serving as an epigraph to an epitaph?) The best, though, are powerful on their own. Here’s a gathering of some great stand-alone epigraphs:

This is the patent age of new inventions, For killing bodies, and for saving souls, All propagated with the best of intentions. –Lord Byron (The Quiet American, Graham Greene)

Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten. –C.K. Chesterton (Coraline, Neil Gaiman)

Lawyers, I suppose, were children once. –Charles Lamb (To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee)

There, where one burns books…one, in the end, burns men. –Heinrich Heine (People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks)

Behind every great fortune, there is a crime. –Balzac (The Godfather, Mario Puzo)

I remember my own childhood vividly…I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let the adults know I knew. It would scare them. –Maurice Sendak (The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman)

Everything not saved will be lost. –Nintendo “Quit Screen” message (The End Games, T. Michael Martin)

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, The Textbook of Russian Grammar (The Gift, Vladimir Nabokov)

“What?” –Richard Nixon (Gravity’s Rainbow, part four, Thomas Pynchon)

How can I live my life without committing an act with a giant scissor? –Joyce Carol Oates, “An Internal Monologue” (“Willing“, Lorrie Moore)

All the lives we could live, all the people we will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is what the world is. –Aleksander Hemon, The Lazarus Project (Let The Great World Spin, Colum McCann)

In the desert there is no sign that says, Thou shalt not eat stones. –Sufi proverb (The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood)

Vengence is mine; I will repay. –Romans 12:19 (Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy)

“What star falls unseen?” –William Faulkner (Distant Star, Roberto Bolano)

“We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” –Dr. Mark Vonnegut, M.D. (Letter to Author, 1985) (Bluebeard, Kurt Vonnegut)

What’s your favorite epigraph?

Follow BNReads