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Epiphany

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English Literature

Epiphanies are an interesting literary device. Epiphanies also happen in reality all the time: in simple terms, an epiphany is someone’s sudden insight into or realisation of their situation or an expression of self-awareness. Think of it as a eureka moment.

Epiphany meaning

An epiphany is a sudden revelation, realisation, or insight. It can be triggered by an object or occurrence in a scene.

The term comes from Christian theology and refers to a declaration of God’s presence in the world. Author James Joyce first introduced it in a literary context with his understanding of an epiphany as a ‘sudden spiritual manifestation’ triggered by the significance of an everyday object, occurrence, or experience.

Why are epiphanies used in literature?

Epiphanies in literature are often used in relation to major characters. The sudden understanding a character gains can add depth to the narrative. An epiphany also exposes new information to the reader, which enhances their understanding of the characters or a scene. The evident and purposeful lack of a character having an epiphany, despite them being in a situation that could prompt one, could emphasise their naivety or unwillingness to adopt self-awareness.

When an epiphany occurs in literature, it could come as a shock to the reader and the character, or it could be information that the reader was aware of, but the writer purposefully ensured stayed obscure to the character for a time.

Examples and quotes of epiphanies in literature

Here, we are going to consider examples from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

I had never seen our neighborhood from this angle. [] I could even see Mrs. Duboses Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough (Chapter 31).

Explanation: Scout, the young protagonist, has the epiphany of the lessons of equality and kindness that her father, Atticus, had been trying to teach her through his practice of these actions inside and outside of the justice courts.

Her image had passed into his soul for ever [] A wild angel had appeared to him [] to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory (Chapter 4).

Explanation: Stephen, the protagonist, has struggled with liberating himself from his Catholic education and devoting himself to his writing. He sees a beautiful girl who inspires an epiphany her mortal beauty is so great that it feels divine, which inspires him to celebrate the beauty of his own work.

How is epiphany quoted in the writing?

James Joyce described an epiphany in writing as a ‘sudden spiritual manifestation’ triggered by the significance of an everyday object, occurrence, or experience. This definition is still relevant today, but an epiphany does not always have a spiritual or religious tone to it. So, we might like to describe an epiphany as a ‘sudden manifestation’ to keep its meaning more neutral.

In literature, an epiphany usually shows a change in a character’s understanding of themselves or their understanding of the world around them. This change is usually sudden and unexpected, almost like a miracle, and one key feature is that it often occurs while the character is doing commonplace things.

TOP TIP: A fun way to think of an epiphany is as a ‘lightbulb moment’ or a ‘eureka moment’.

A woman having a 'lightbulb moment'. She stands to the left with her finger pointed up and a happy, shocked expression on her face. A large lightbulb is switched on in the right hand side of the picture.

A woman having a ‘lightbulb moment’, pixabay.com

How do you use an epiphany in a sentence?

You use an epiphany to signify a character’s altered perspective, which aids in character and plot development. The character has learned something because of the epiphany.

An example of the use of the word ‘epiphany’ is: ‘He had an epiphany that he no longer fit into the group’. It is used as a noun.

A famous example of an epiphany in literature occurs in Ray Bradburys Fahrenheit 451 (1953):

He glanced back at the wall. How like a mirror, too, her face. Impossible; for how many people did you know who reflected your own light to you? People were more often he searched for a simile, found one in his work torches, blazing away until they whiffed out. How rarely did other people's faces take of you and throw back to you your own expression, your own innermost trembling thought?

Montag, the protagonist, has an epiphany when speaking to Clarisse as she notes how boring his life is. Montag then starts to change his way of life by looking for answers in forbidden books.

Epiphanies do not have to be explicitly labelled as such in literature. They can instead be insinuated with a tone of contemplation or realisation.

Synonyms for epiphany

Synonyms for epiphany include:

  • Realisation.
  • Revelation.
  • Insight/inspiration.
  • Discovery.
  • Breakthrough.

Epiphany - Key takeaways

  • An epiphany is a sudden revelation, realisation, or insight triggered by an object or occurrence in a scene.
  • James Joyce is noted as first introducing the idea of epiphany in a literary context. His definition of an epiphany was a ‘sudden spiritual manifestation’ triggered by the significance of an everyday object, occurrence, or experience.
  • Epiphanies expose new information and add depth to a scene, character, or narrative.
  • Epiphanies do not have to be explicitly labelled as such in literature. They can instead be insinuated with a tone of contemplation or realisation.
  • You can use epiphanies to show character development.

Epiphany

An epiphany is a sudden revelation, realisation, or insight.

James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

‘Her image had passed into his soul for ever […] A wild angel had appeared to him […] to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory.’


Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

‘I had never seen our neighborhood from this angle. […] I could even see Mrs. Dubose’s … Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.’


George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945)

‘All Animals are Equal but a few are more equal than others.’

An epiphany is a sudden revelation, realisation, or insight. It can be triggered by an object or occurrence in a scene. Epiphanies in literature are often used in relation to major characters.

The sudden understanding a character gains can add depth to the narrative. An epiphany also exposes new information to the reader, which enhances their understanding of the characters or a scene.

In simple terms, an epiphany is a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something. Think of it as a ‘eureka’ moment.

Final Epiphany Quiz

Question

What is epiphany?

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Answer

An epiphany is a sudden revelation, realisation or insight.  

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Question

What is an example of epiphany? 

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Answer

  • James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

    ‘Her image had passed into his soul for ever [...] A wild angel had appeared to him [...] to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory.’

    The epiphany is that the girl's beauty inspires Stephen, the protagonist, to celebrate the beauty of his own works of art.




  • Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

    ‘I had never seen our neighborhood from this angle. [...] I could even see Mrs. Dubose's... Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.’ The epiphany is that Scout has a realisation about the lessons of equality and kindness her father, Atticus, had been trying to teach her.



  • George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945)

    ‘All Animals are Equal but a few are more equal than others.’ The epiphany is the realisation of the failure of the Russian Revolution of 1917 to truly fulfil what claimed to- equality.  

Show question

Question

How do you describe an epiphany in writing? 


Show answer

Answer

An epiphany is a sudden revelation, realisation or insight. It can be triggered by an object or occurrence in a scene. Epiphanies in literature are often used in relation to major characters. 

Show question

Question

Why are epiphanies used in literature? 


Show answer

Answer

 The sudden understanding a character gains can add depth to the text narrative. An epiphany exposes new information to the reader which enhances their understanding of the characters or a scene.  

Show question

Question

What is the etymology of the word ‘epiphany’?


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Answer

‘Epiphany’ comes from the ancient Greek word ‘epiphainein’, meaning ‘reveal’.

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Question

What is the original meaning of ‘epiphany’?


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Answer

‘Epiphany’ was originally a Christian theological term meaning the manifestation of God’s presence in the world.

Show question

Question

Who first introduced epiphany in a literary context and what was its definition according to them?


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Answer

Author James Joyce is noted with first introducing the idea of epiphany in a literary context. 

Show question

Question

What is the definition of ‘epiphany’ according to the person who first introduced the term in a literary context?


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Answer

James Joyce’s definition of an epiphany was a ‘‘sudden spiritual manifestation’ triggered by the significance of an everyday object, occurrence or experience. 

Show question

Question

How do you use the word epiphany?


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Answer

An example of the use of the word ‘epiphany’ is: ‘He had an epiphany that he no longer fit into the group’. It is used as a noun. 

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Question

What are some synonyms for ‘epiphany’?


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Answer

Realisation; revelation; insight/inspiration; discovery; breakthrough. 

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Question

Do you always have to state explicitly that an epiphany is an epiphany?

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Answer

No, an epiphany does not always have to be stated explicitly. It can be insinuated with a tone of contemplation, realisation and how you structure the content of the epiphany.

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