I. What is Epiphany?
Epiphany is an “Aha!” moment. As a literary device, epiphany (pronounced ih-pif--uh-nee) is the moment when a character is suddenly struck with a life-changing realization which changes the rest of the story.
Often, an epiphany begins with a small, everyday occurrence or experience. For example:
In the middle of a typical argument with his wife, a man realizes he has been the one causing every single argument, and that in order to keep his marriage, he must stop being such an aggressive person.
In this example, the man’s epiphany is prompted by an everyday argument. The revelation, though, rises above everyday thought: he realizes he must change his attitude in order to fix his marriage.
II. Examples of Epiphany
Epiphanic moments are not restricted to literature. The same instances of revelation occur in everyday life. Here are a few examples:
It’s a normal day in class when Mary trips on her shoelace and falls down. As she embarrassedly stands up blushing and finds her desk, Ryan realizes he is in love with her.
This epiphany is almost comedic in its randomness, but it shows how epiphanies can occur at any moment, and how they tend to occur when they are least expected. Ryan falls in love with Mary not when she looks the most beautiful or speaks the most gracefully, but when she trips on her shoelace and blushes.
Amy has been smoking for fifteen years. She knows she would be healthier if she quit, and people have urged her to quit, but she just can’t. It isn’t until she gives birth to her daughter that she has a moment of revelation: she has to quit. She has to be a role model for her daughter, and she has to live as long as possible to see her grow up.
This third epiphany occurs when a woman gives birth to her daughter. This is a more predictable epiphany, as the moment of birth is a very emotional time for a mother. In this moment, Amy realizes she must change her life to be the best mother she can be.
III. The importance of using Epiphany
Epiphanies provide narratives with some of the most exciting and compelling events, pulled out of ordinary moments. Epiphanies are rare occurrences marked by great philosophical, spiritual, or personal insight. Because epiphanies often occur in real life at such typical and everyday moments, they provide plays, poems, prose, and film with realistic yet inspiring instances of revelation. Epiphanies also provide readers and audiences with hope, as the ability to see things in a new way and to change our lives is inspiring and redeeming, especially for people who have struggled to succeed or to find higher meaning in life. As a plot device, epiphany often marks a turning point in the character’s psyche which leads to the eventual conclusion of the story.
IV. Examples of Epiphany in Literature
Epiphany provides literary plots with sudden turns which remarkably change the character’s point of view and life path.
For a classic example of epiphany, read these excerpts from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Renascence”:
All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked the other way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
The poem begins simply: the speaker is looking at a nature scene. Quickly, though, upon looking at the sky, an epiphany occurs:
The gossiping of friendly spheres,
The creaking of the tented sky,
The ticking of Eternity.
I saw and heard and knew at last
The How and Why of all things, past,
And present, and forevermore.
Once simply looking upon nature’s beauty, the speaker is overwhelmed with ideas like infinity, immensity, and eternity. Suddenly, she is aware of “The How and Why of all things.” The epiphany rises from nothing and strikes the speaker with sudden revelation.
Considered one of the most powerful users of epiphany in prose, James Joyce describes epiphany as a moment when “The soul of the commonest object, the structure of which is so adjusted, seems to us radiant.”
For an example of Joyce’s use of epiphany, read this excerpt from the novel A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man:
A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to the sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful sea bird. Her long slender bare legs were as delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh. … But her long fair hair was girlish: and girlish, and touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face.
In this scene, the protagonist Stephen Dedalus is struck still by the pure beauty of a woman standing in the surf at the beach. It is this ordinary but exalted image that compels him to turn to the pursuit of expressing beauty. Dedalus decides to become a writer.
V. Examples of Epiphany in Pop Culture
Epiphanies provide films, songs, and even advertisements with dramatic moments of recognition and discovery. Characters have revelations which change the course of the plot and remarkably transform their psyches.
For an example of epiphany in a movie, read this excerpt from Clueless:
Cher: Josh needed someone with imagination, someone to take care of him, someone to laugh at his jokes… in case he ever makes any. Then suddenly (pause) Oh my god! I love Josh! I’m majorly, totally, butt crazy in love with Josh! But now I don’t know how to act around him. I mean normally I’d strut around in my cutest little outfits, and send myself flowers and candy but I couldn’t do that stuff with Josh.
Cher has been shopping and is walking down the street when she has an epiphany about Josh (her stepbrother). Even in her mind, she does not sound prepared for it: she is complaining about Josh’s poor style, bad music taste, and unconventional looks when she abruptly realizes she is truly in love with him.
For a second example of epiphany in film, watch this excerpt from Big Fish:
EDWARD: My muscles couldn’t keep up with my bones, and my bones couldn’t keep up with my body’s ambition. So I spent the better part of three years confined to my bed, with the World Book Encyclopedia being my only means of exploration. I had made it all the way to the “G’s,” hoping to find an answer to my gigantificationism, when I uncovered an article about the common goldfish.
YOUNG EDWARD: “Kept in a small bowl, the goldfish will remain small. With more space, the fish can grow double, triple, or quadruple its size.”
EDWARD: It occurred to me then, that perhaps the reason for my growth was that I was intended for larger things. After all, a giant man can’t have an ordinary-sized life.
In this scene, the narrator is lying in bed reading about goldfish when he suddenly has his epiphany: he is meant to do great things with his life.
VI. Related Terms
Anagnorisis, like epiphany, is a moment of revelation. But, anaganorisis is a dark and dramatic element of a tragic story, whereas epiphany can be comedic or uplifting. Also, unlike epiphany, anagnorisis occurs as an accumulation of information that has been slowly revealed throughout the story’s plot. Epiphany, on the other hand, occurs without necessary connection to the rest of the plot, and suddenly, as if divinely inspired.
Here is an example of anagnorisis versus epiphany:
An old man has lived his entire life as someone greedy and driven by money.
The old man has his fiftieth birthday party, attended by no one. The next week, his own daughter accuses him of being too greedy and selfish. That same day, he is informed that his wife wants a divorce and does not care about the money. At this moment, the man realizes his tragic mistake: he has lived a life focused on money rather than love and companionship.
The man is walking down the street when he sees a dirty coin. He picks it up, thinking he’ll save a penny, and realizes it is only a game token from an arcade. At that moment, he realizes his money is no different—it is a game and a distraction to him. He realizes then that he should focus on more important things in life, such as love and companionship.
As is shown in the above example, both anagnorisis and epiphany result in a moment of revelation. Anagnorisis is due to a series of events related to the character’s revelation, whereas epiphany is due to a random occurrence.
VII. In Closing
Characters are rooted in everyday life, but epiphanies allow them to rise above ordinary consciousness in order to have great revelations and realizations which drastically change their perspectives. The epiphany strengthens literary and creative pieces with moments of sudden clarity which can drastically change characters and their plots.