The epigraph is an unusual, though not uncommon, form of citation. It is a part of the text yet distinct from it. White space and specialized formatting, such as italics, separate the epigraph from the main text, thereby challenging the reader to determine the relationship between the two. Unlike a typical quotation, which dwells in the midst of the text, illuminating one point in the argument, the epigraph's unique positioning prior to the body of the text highlights particular ideas, words, or images and thereby guides the reading of the entire argument. In essence, its shadow falls across and affects the reading of the text it precedes. This shadow looms large because it is formed not only by the body of the epigraph but also by the scholar, philosopher, or poet, and textual source from which it is taken. Like all citations, the epigraph creates an intertextuality and a dialogue with another author.
The heuristic function of the epigraph may seem relatively simple when looking at a journal article that begins with an epigraph. However, things become much more complicated when examining a text like George Eliot's Middlemarch where Eliot begins each chapter with an epigraph and the whole work with a preface on Saint Theresa. Eliot's layers of epigraphs complicate the point above, that the epigraph casts a shadow over the entire argument, because the whole of Middlemarch is not captured in a single epigraph. The preface on Saint Theresa may come close, but technically it is not an epigraph. Nevertheless, scholars have used the epigraphs as a way to illuminate particular chapters of Middlemarch and have studied the epigraphs as a body in order to determine how Eliot uses them. In particular, David Leon Higdon, in an article entitled "George Eliot and the Art of the Epigraph," identifies four ways in which her epigraphs function: 1) as allusions to classic texts which structure the chapter, 2) as metaphors which evaluate the characters within the chapter, 3) as abstractions, such as aphorisms, which the chapter then makes concrete, and 4) as ironic refractions--that is, as ironic commentary of the content of the chapter.
In addition to a kind of authorial guide, the epigraph also functions as an argument from authority. By using quotations from Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Dante, Chaucer, and others, Eliot builds her own ethos. However, Eliot complicates even this seemingly obvious fact about the function of epigraphs by writing approximately one third of the epigraphs in Middlemarch herself, though she posts them anonymously. Obviously, the above listed principles of heuristics still apply to these epigraphs, anonymous or not--with the notable exception of the allusion function. However, while it may have been true that these anonymous, self-created epigraphs at one time merely raised curiosity about the author's identity, since Eliot has been identified as the author, scholars' responses to these epigraphs have been varied--ranging from viewing her epigraphs as inartistically forcing her readers to be sympathetic to Will and Dorothea to seeing her use of her own epigraphs as a subversive attempt to undermine the authority of the tradition that she draws upon.
As Eliot's use of the epigraph in Middlemarch demonstrates, the epigraph is not a simplistic citation device, but rather a complex system between texts, authors, and readers, which the author uses to control the reading of the text and to establish an ethos.
Eliot, George. Middlemarch: An Authoritative Text Backgrounds, Reviews, and Criticism. Ed. Bert G. Hornback. New York: Norton, 1977. xiii-578.
Higdon, David L. "George Eliot and the
Art of the Epigraph." Nineteenth Century Fiction 25 (1970): 127-51.