Definition of Epiphany

When used as a literary device, an epiphany is a moment in which there is a sudden realization that leads to a new perspective that clarifies a problem or situation. A character may have an epiphany, or it may also occur in the narration such that the reader has the epiphany.

The word epiphany comes from the Greek word epiphainein, meaning “reveal” or “striking appearance.” Historically, the concept of epiphany evolved as a religious term and generally referred to insights that come from a divine source. There is a definition of epiphany that also relates directly to the Christian church; the Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the revelation of Christ as the Son of God. There are similar moments of epiphany in other religions, such as the Buddha attaining enlightenment or the realization in Hinduism that Krishna is the representation of the Universe. Other terms are used to represent these epiphanies; in Hinduism there is the word bodhodaya, which means “rising wisdom,” while in Zen Buddhism there is the word kensho to describe the feeling of understanding the meaning of an enigmatic question or statement.

Common Examples of Epiphany

Epiphany is often associated with scientific discoveries and innovation. There are many famous examples of epiphany in the history of science, such as the following anecdotes:

  • The ancient Greek mathematician and physicist Archimedes was tasked with calculating the density of a gold crown to ascertain whether it was pure gold; he was not allowed to melt down the crown for his calculations. When he got in the bathtub to take a break from his work, he realized that his volume displaced the same amount of water in the tub. He could use this fact to determine the volume of the crown, and thereby the density. When he realized this, he famously cried out the Greek word Eureka, meaning, “I have found it!”
  • Isaac Newton was sitting below an apple tree when an apple fell on his head, which caused him to develop his Universal Law of Gravitation.
  • Albert Einstein developed his Special Theory of Relativity after arriving home one night feeling defeated. He imagined having arrived home at the speed of light, and how the light from the town’s clock tower would not have reached him in his car, even though the clock inside the car would be ticking normally. This would make the time outside the car and inside the car just different enough to be striking.

You may have also had epiphanies in your daily life that have caused you to change your outlook on yourself, other people in your life, or the world at large.

Significance of Epiphany in Literature

While epiphanies are relatively rare in real life, they are somewhat common in literature. Most literature shows a change in a character’s nature from the beginning to the end of the work, and many of these changes are attended by an important epiphany on that character’s part. Epiphany is also a very important element in certain genre works, such as mystery novels. There is often an epiphany when all the clues are put together and the mystery is solved near the end of the book. For this reason, epiphany is also often related to the climax of a book, in which something occurs after which nothing is the same. An epiphany can have this effect by changing a character’s point-of-view or motivations.

Epiphany also has some significance for the author him- or herself, in that it can be such an important part of the creative process that the author does not quite know how a book will end until it is revealed in an epiphany. Some authors do like to attribute these epiphanies to “muses,” while others insist that the hard work of laboring over a story eventually leads the brain to make certain connections that originally did not seem clear.

Examples of Epiphany in Literature

Example #1

EMILIA: O thou dull Moor! That handkerchief thou speak’st of
I found by fortune and did give my husband.
For often, with a solemn earnestness—
More than indeed belonged to such a trifle—
He begged of me to steal it.

(Othello by William Shakespeare)

The above speech is an important epiphany example from William Shakespeare’s Othello. In it, Emilia reveals in a moment of dramatic irony what the audience has known all along—Desdemona’s handkerchief was given to Cassio by Emilia, thus clearing Desdemona of guilt. Unfortunately, this epiphany comes too late for Othello. He has already murdered his wife, and the realization that she was innocent is enough to make Othello take his own life.

Example #2

“Look’ee here, Pip. I’m your second father. You’re my son—more to me nor any son. I’ve put away money, only for you to spend. When I was a hired-out shepherd in a solitary hut, not seeing no faces but faces of sheep till I half-forgot wot men’s and women’s faces wos like, I see yourn. . . . I see you there a many times plain as ever I see you on them misty marshes. ‘Lord strike me dead!’ I says each time—and I goes out in the open air to say it under the open heavens—‘but wot, if I gets liberty and money, I’ll make that boy a gentleman!’ And I done it. Why, look at you, dear boy! Look at these here lodgings of yourn, fit for a lord! A lord? Ah! You shall show money with lords for wagers, and beat ’em!”

(Great Expectations by Charles Dickens)

The revelation that the convict Magwitch is Pip’s benefactor is a huge example of epiphany for Pip. Pip has assumed for most of his life that Miss Havisham was his benefactor, and this epiphany changes everything for him. Pip must reassess his understanding of his own standing as a gentleman and reconsider his relationship with Magwitch, who is dramatically changed in his eyes to be a noble and loyal man, regardless of his criminal past.

Example #3

His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

(“The Dead” by James Joyce)

There are many examples of epiphany in the works of James Joyce. In fact, epiphany had such importance to him that he created his own definition of epiphany in his work, Stephen Hero. Joyce writes that epiphany is, “a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.” Epiphany is even more significant in his story “The Dead” from his collection Dubliners, as the setting is on the Feast of the Epiphany. The main character in “The Dead” Gabriel Conroy attends a birthday party on this day that symbolizes the dullness of Conroy’s life. After he returns home he has an epiphany about the inevitability of death that ultimately changes his outlook on life.

Test Your Knowledge of Epiphany

1. Choose the correct epiphany definition from the following statements:
A. A strictly religious concept, relating only to the revelation of faith or divinity.
B. A concept used only in science to describe the way that people make discoveries.
C. The experience of a striking realization which offers a new perspective.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Consider the following conversation between Pip and Magwitch in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (Pip is the only one who speaks):

“Dear Magwitch, I must tell you, now at last. You understand what I say?”
A gentle pressure on my hand.
“You had a child once, whom you loved and lost.”
A stronger pressure on my hand.
“She lived and found powerful friends. She is living now. She is a lady and very beautiful. And I love her!”

Who has the epiphany and the subsequent change in worldview due to this conversation?
A. Pip
B. Magwitch
C. No one

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following scenes in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet contains an epiphany example?
A. Romeo and Juliet meet at the Capulet ball
B. Romeo and Juliet decide to marry, against the wishes of their families
C. Juliet realizes that Romeo has killed himself, and decides to take her own life

Answer to Question #3 Show

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