Epiphany is a mystical revelation, a profound insight gained when one suddenly grasps the essence of a mundane object, statement, moment, or gesture—that is, when one suddenly sees these things for what they truly are, their essence, their actual nature. The writer who introduced this term into literary criticism, James Joyce (as he indicates through his alter-ego in Stephen Hero) “believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.” Irrespective of Joyce’s advice or precisely because of it, many authors have done just that, documenting (or inventing) some of the best-known and life-altering epiphanies in the history of human ideas. Here are 10 of them.
10 Examples of Epiphany in Literature
Example #1: The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100 BC)
When they arrived at Uruk the strong-walled, Gilgamesh then spoke to Urshanabi, the ferryman, (and said): ‘Urshanabi, ascend and walk about on the wall of Uruk, inspect the corner-stone, and examine its brick-work, whether its wall is not made of burned brick, and its foundation laid by the Seven Sages. One third for city, one third for garden, one third for field, and a precinct for the temple of Ishtar. These parts and the precinct comprise Uruk.’
There are at least three epiphanic moments in the earliest surviving work of literature. The first one occurs in the very first book of the epic, when Enkidu, a primitive man who eats and runs with the beasts, is seduced by Shamhat, a temple prostitute; after six days and six nights in her embrace, Enkidu realizes that his strength has been “diminished,” but also that he has somehow, in the meantime, acquired judgment and has become wiser. Gilgamesh is the one who experiences the second epiphany, soon after the death of his (by then) faithful friend, Enkidu; suddenly, Gilgamesh becomes aware that he is mortal and that he will one day inevitably die as well (Books VIII and IX). So, he embarks on a mission to become immortal, but the rejuvenating plant he obtains with much effort eventually gets eaten by a snake. And that’s when Gilgamesh’s final epiphany occurs. As he and his ferryman Urshanabi reach Uruk, watching the city walls he had once built, Gilgamesh utters the words above. They signify his realization that, in a way, he has already reached immortality: though he will ultimately die, his creation, the divine walls of Uruk, will remain long after he’s gone. No wonder the “ars longa, vita brevis” motif is such a common topic in literature!
Example #2: Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (1767)
I was but ten years old when this happened: but whether it was, that the action itself was more in unison to my nerves at that age of pity, which instantly set my whole frame into one vibration of most pleasurable sensation;—or how far the manner and expression of it might go towards it;—or in what degree, or by what secret magic,—a tone of voice and harmony of movement, attuned by mercy, might find a passage to my heart, I know not;—this I know, that the lesson of universal good-will then taught and imprinted by my uncle Toby, has never since been worn out of my mind: And tho’ I would not depreciate what the study of the Literae humaniores, at the university, have done for me in that respect, or discredit the other helps of an expensive education bestowed upon me, both at home and abroad since;—yet I often think that I owe one half of my philanthropy to that one accidental impression.
Taken from Laurence Sterne’s picaresque novel Tristram Shandy, the excerpt above describes “possibly the first non-religious epiphany in English literature” (Wim Tigges). It occurs in the twelfth chapter of the second volume of the book, and it follows an extremely trivial moment: Tristram’s uncle Toby setting free a “caught at last” fly “which had buzzed about his nose, and tormented him cruelly all dinner-time.” Lifting up the sash and opening his hand to let it escape, “go,” says Toby, “go, poor devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee? – This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me.” As you can read here, this event left such a profound impression upon the young Tristram that he credits half of the philanthropy of his adult self to it.
Example #3: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, Part One, 775-784 (1808)
An unbelievably sweet yearning
Drove me to roam through wood and lea,
Crying, and as my eyes were burning,
I felt a new world grow in me.
This song proclaimed the spring feast’s free delight, appealing
To the gay games of youth-they plead:
Now memory entices me with childlike feeling
Back from the last, most solemn deed.
Sound on, oh hymns of heaven, sweet and mild!
My tears are flowing; earth, take back your child!
(Tr. Walter Kauffman)
Despairing at his inability to transcend the confines of human knowledge, at the beginning of Goethe’s marvelous play Faust, the title character decides to commit suicide. However, just as he is about to drink a lethal amount of poison—the bowl already pressed to his lips—he hears the chime of the Easter bells and a few choral songs celebrating the rebirth of Christ. Even though not a believer (“Although I hear the message, I lack all faith or trust”), Faust is suddenly overcome with an incredibly sweet feeling which brings tears to his eyes; at first he is confused as to why the Easter bells should have such an effect on him, but he soon realizes that it is because they had involuntarily reminded him of his childhood days when “heaven’s love rushed at [him] as a kiss” and “every prayer brought impassioned bliss.” The epiphanic experience is so strong that, in a second, it inspires Faust to rethink his decision to kill himself and embrace life yet again. By the way, it can be argued that there is nothing more central to Goethe’s greatest work than the power of epiphany; Faust, after all, agrees to give his soul to Mephistopheles only if the latter one provides him with an atemporal experience, i.e., a moment to which he should say: “Abide, you are so fair” (1700). He does do that on two different occasions—but in both cases, his soul is saved.
Example #4: George Eliot, Middlemarch (1872)
She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving—perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labor and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.
In Epiphany in the Modern Novel, Morris Beja rightly claims that “novelists before James and Conrad, say, did not use moments of revelation to the same extent, or with the same emphasis—and certainly not with the same distinct effect—as many modern novelists do.” However, he does point out that authors such as Dickens, George Eliot, and Hardy “wrote novels which contain such moments.” The excerpt above, taken from the 80th chapter of the 8th book of Middlemarch, is enough evidence of this. In it, a casual gaze through the curtains—which reveals to her images of “pearly light” and “figures moving”—opens the eyes of Dorothea Casaubon to “the largeness of the world” and inspires her to start feeling as if a part of—as Walter Pater would say—“the fullness of existence.” Beja’s point is that Woolf or Joyce would have probably ended their short stories or novels here, allowing the reader to experience the full weight of the epiphany by means of an open end; in the case of Eliot, however, as Wim Tigges notes, one is left wondering whether Dorothea is even aware of her revelatory experience as epiphany.
Example #5: Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, “The Student” (1894)
The student thought again that if Vasilisa had shed tears, and her daughter had been troubled, it was evident that what he had just been telling them about, which had happened nineteen centuries ago, had a relation to the present—to both women, to the desolate village, to himself, to all people. The old woman had wept, not because he could tell the story touchingly, but because Peter was near to her, because her whole being was interested in what was passing in Peter’s soul. And joy suddenly stirred in his soul, and he even stopped for a minute to take breath. ‘The past,’ he thought, ‘is linked with the present by an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of another.’ And it seemed to him that he had just seen both ends of that chain; that when he touched one end the other quivered. (Tr. Constance Garnett)
In Anton Chekhov’s charming 1894 short story “The Student”—which the author considered both a favorite of his and a “manifesto for optimism”—the 22-year-old title character, Ivan Velikopolsky, while returning home from shooting, happens upon Vasilisa and Lukerya, a mother and a daughter, both widowed. It is the evening of Good Friday, and Ivan is “the son of a sacristan, and a student of the clerical academy,” so the obligatory greetings quickly evolve into Ivan recounting to the two women the story of the Denial of Peter. Both of them are deeply moved: big tears start flowing down Vasilisa’s cheeks, and Lukerya’s face becomes “strained and heavy like that of someone enduring intense pain.” As you can see yourself in the excerpted paragraph, this is what leads to Ivan’s epiphany, to his realization that all of history must be connected in some way, and that “truth and beauty… had continued without interruption to this day.” Chekhov’s ends the short story with a description of the otherworldly feeling which overwhelms Ivan upon this realization, with one of the simplest and most beautiful depictions of the internal realm of an epiphanic experience: “…the inexpressible sweet expectation of happiness, of unknown mysterious happiness, took possession of him little by little, and life seemed to him enchanting, marvelous, and full of lofty meaning.”
Example #6: Kate Chopin, “The Story of an Hour” (1894)
Now her bosom rose and fell tumultuously. She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will—as powerless as her two white slender hands would have been. When she abandoned herself, a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under her breath: ‘free, free, free!’ The vacant stare and the look of terror that had followed it went from her eyes. They stayed keen and bright. Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body. She did not stop to ask if it were or were not a monstrous joy that held her. A clear and exalted perception enabled her to dismiss the suggestion as trivial.
Louise Mallard, the heroine of Kate Chopin’s somewhat controversial short story “The Story of an Hour,” is afflicted with heart trouble, which is why the news of her husband’s death is broken to her as gently as possible. Devastated, Mrs. Mallard retreats to her room, where she despondently awaits for her grief to either subside or kill her. “There was something coming to her,” remarks Chopin, “and she was waiting for it, fearfully. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air.” And then suddenly that “something coming to her” shows its face: Mrs. Mallard is overcome with an unexpected sense of relief and freedom. She leaves the room triumphantly but, as she descends the stairs, her husband suddenly enters the room: the news of his death was false. Upon seeing him, Mrs. Mallard’s heart gives up; ironically, the doctors say that “she had died of heart disease—of the joy that kills.”
Example #7: Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (1900)
I kept him company; and suddenly, but not abruptly […] he pronounced, ‘Mon Dieu! how the time passes!’ Nothing could have been more commonplace than this remark; but its utterance coincided for me with a moment of vision. It’s extraordinary how we go through life with eyes half shut, with dull ears, with dormant thoughts. […] Nevertheless, there can be but few of us who had never known one of those rare moments of awakening when we see, hear, understand ever so much—everything—in a flash—before we fall back again into our agreeable somnolence. I raised my eyes when he spoke, and I saw him as though I had never seen him before.
Reviewing Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim for the 26 July 1917 edition of The Times Literary Supplement, Virginia Woolf excerpts the passage above and says that it is “one of those passages… which interests us almost more for what they reveal of the writer than for any light they throw on the story.” In it, Marlow is drinking with “that French naval officer who appears very distinctly for a few pages and then drops out altogether” and experiences an enlightening revelation (excerpted here), even though its trigger is a pretty commonplace remark: “how the time passes!” The “moment of vision,” Woolf continues, is such which allows Conrad himself to see his own characters “as if he had never seen them before; he expounds his vision, and we see it, too. These visions are the best things in his books.” At about the time Woolf wrote this, Joyce settled on a name to describe these visions: epiphanies.
Example #8: Robert Musil, The Confusions of Young Törless (1906)
He was standing very straight, as proudly as if he were the judge here; and he looked straight ahead, past the men facing him—he could not bear the sight of this ridiculous assembly. There outside the window was a crow, perching on a branch. Apart from that there was nothing but the vast white plain. He felt that the moment had come when he would talk clearly, coherently, and triumphantly of the things that had at first been vague and tormenting within him, and later had been lifeless, without force. (Tr. Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser)
The Confusions of Young Törless is the unjustly overlooked literary debut of Robert Musil, whose magnum opus, The Man Without Qualities, is widely considered one of the most important novels of the 20th century. A bildungsroman, The Confusions of Young Törless is set in an Austrian boarding school, where three students— Reiting, Beineberg, and Törless—catch their classmate Basini stealing money, and, instead of turning him over, decide to punish him themselves. As time passes, Reiting and Beineberg torture Basini ever more sadistically, and Törless (who is mostly an onlooker) grows disgusted with the three of them. Eventually, at the advice of Törless, Basini turns himself in, and the matter is investigated by the school authorities. While being questioned by them, Törless seems disinterested in defending himself, as he suddenly realizes that there is “something quite weird” in him; “as though soliloquizing,” with eyes fixed on some far distance, he proceeds to give the board an inspired—but utterly irrelevant—speech on his unique capability to “see things in two different ways.” Even though nobody but Törless grasps its depth, it is evident to everybody that he has experienced some sort of epiphany at this moment, since the words and the figures of speech he uses are far beyond what is appropriate to his age, and yet they flow “easily and naturally from his lips in this state of vast excitement he was in, in this moment of almost poetic inspiration.” In the end, he is deemed too intelligent for punishment—and even for the institute itself.
Example #9: H. P. Lovecraft, “The Outsider” (1921)
Nearly mad, I found myself yet able to throw out a hand to ward off the foetid apparition which pressed so close; when in one cataclysmic second of cosmic nightmarishness and hellish accident my fingers touched the rotting outstretched paw of the monster beneath the golden arch. I did not shriek, but all the fiendish ghouls that ride the nightwind shrieked for me as in that same second there crashed down upon my mind a single fleeting avalanche of soul-annihilating memory. I knew in that second all that had been; I remembered beyond the frightful castle and the trees, and recognized the altered edifice in which I now stood; I recognized, most terrible of all, the unholy abomination that stood leering before me as I withdrew my sullied fingers from its own.
In H. P. Lovecraft’s most commonly reprinted short story “The Outsider,” the unnamed title character tells us that he has spent all his life alone living in an abandoned, decaying castle, surrounded with fabulously high trees which block out all sunlight. In search for companionship, he decides one day to leave his ruined home and, after wandering through desolate realms, he eventually encounters a group of partygoers. However, upon his joining the party, the people start screaming and fleeing from the room, seemingly afraid by some monster, the appearance of which is so ugly (“a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable”) that the narrator himself is utterly abhorred. However, when he accidentally touches the creature, he is swiftly overawed by one of the unholiest epiphanies in world literature: in that second, he understands all that had been and all that is but would rather not to. Because, as we learn in the final sentence of the short story, what he touches at the party is not another being, but “a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass.”
Example #10: Katherine Mansfield, “The Garden Party” (1922)
There lay a young man, fast asleep—sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy… happy… All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.
At the beginning of Katherine Mansfield’s most celebrated short story, “The Garden Party,” we find the Sheridans in the midst of their preparations to host a lavish party for their wealthy friends. However, soon after rearranging the furniture, they learn about the death of their working-class neighbor, Mr. Scott. The only one even superficially affected by this seems to be Laura, Mrs. Sheridan’s daughter, whose suggestion for the party to be called off is not accepted by the rest of her family. However, after its conclusion, Mrs. Sheridan sends Laura with a basket full of leftovers to the Scotts. And there, looking at the face of the deceased man, Laura suddenly experiences something sublime and “marvelous,” something difficult to be put into words. “Isn’t life,” she stammers through tears to her brother Laurie, “isn’t life—” “But what life was,” adds Mansfield, “she couldn’t explain. No matter. He quite understood. ‘Isn’t it, darling?’ said Laurie.”