An epiphany (ih-PIH-fah-nee) is a sudden realization that changes a character’s worldview. Epiphanies tend to be revelatory, as they allow characters to see information in a different or clearer light. They also enable characters to view the past with a new perspective.
The word epiphany stems from the Greek epiphaneia, meaning “manifestation” or “appearance.” Long associated with religion, epiphany’s literary sense first emerged in the 19th-century romanticism era, though it was not popularized as a literary device until the advent of modernism in the 20th century.
A Brief Literary History of Epiphany
Prior to the 19th century, epiphany had primarily religious connotations. Its literary connotation developed in the 1800s thanks to writers like Thomas De Quincey and William Wordsworth. But modernist writer James Joyce is most known for literary epiphanies as they are known today.
Joyce first expounded upon the idea of epiphany in Stephen Hero, an unfinished autobiographical novel published posthumously. In the novel, protagonist Stephen Dedalus says writing is meant to “record epiphanies with extreme care.” He defines epiphanies as “a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.”
This conception of epiphany recurs throughout Joyce’s work, in which several protagonists experience realizations that transform their perceptions of self or social circumstance.
How Epiphany Is Used
According to author and poet Maya Angelou, epiphany is “the occurrence when the mind, the body, the heart, and the soul focus together and see an old thing in a new way.” Some epiphanies are indeed awakenings or life-altering revelations. These often occur when a character is confronted by a certain image, detail, or situation, or they may be inspired by a previously unknown fact. For example, a sedentary, chronic smoker might have a health scare that leads to the realization that a lifestyle change is necessary to prolong their life.
Epiphanies can also be basic, little “aha!” moments akin to the small understandings people achieve daily. These simple but insightful moments of clarity are part of life, so they can lend greater authenticity to a story.
Epiphanies can demonstrate the difference between knowing in theory and knowing from experience. A young couple might know intellectually that starting a family will change their lives; such change is expected and predictable. But experiencing pregnancy, labor, and everything that comes after can inspire a series of epiphanies that transform this intellectual understanding into something fuller, deeper, and nuanced.
Why Writers Use Epiphany
Epiphanies are motivators of change. Writers use them to demonstrate character growth and development. Epiphanies usually allow characters to see previously obscured flaws or connections, and these revelations in turn affect a character’s opinions, perceptions, and choices.
Epiphanies also represent narrative turning points. Writers use them to redirect the plot, either by challenging a protagonist’s worldview or enabling sudden understanding that inspires a new course of action. Such shifts often heighten the tension, keeping readers engrossed and engaged.
Epiphany vs. Anagnorisis
Epiphanies are sudden, serendipitous realizations. Anagnorisis, however, has darker undertones. It’s typically the point in a tragedy when the protagonist recognizes another character’s true identity or the exact nature of their circumstances. Anagnorisis often features in twist endings, as the truth upends the character’s worldview.
A classic example of anagnorisis is Oedipus Rex, in which Oedipus is confronted with several shocking realizations: he has married his mother; he unknowingly murdered his father; and his own sins are bringing misfortune down upon Thebes.
Examples of Epiphany in Literature
1. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which features several ideas from Joyce’s Stephen Hero, follows Stephen Dedalus as he grows into adulthood, experiencing religious and intellectual awakenings along the way. In Chapter 4, Stephen is caught between his faith and his artistic ambition until he encounters a girl on a beach and is struck by her beauty:
Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy. Her eyes had called him and his soul had leaped at the call. To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life! A wild angel had appeared to him, the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life, to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!
This sudden yet transformative revelation provides a new path and purpose for Stephen’s life. In this moment, he’s inspired to use writing to express the beauty of the girl, which strengthens his resolve to pursue art.
2. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
To the Lighthouse chronicles the Ramsay family’s summer holidays on Scotland’s Isle of Sky. They are joined by several individuals, including Lily Briscoe, who experiences many realizations, including this epiphany about epiphanies:
What is the meaning of life? That was all—a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.
Lily realizes the futility in hoping for life-altering epiphanies about the fundamental meaning of life. Everyday life is more commonly comprised of smaller, simpler revelations like the one above—which the text itself notes (e.g., “here was one”).
Further Resources on Epiphany
Wikipedia’s entry on literary epiphany describes the history of the device in addition to providing examples and listing other authors noted for using it.
The James Joyce Centre explores Joyce’s philosophy of epiphanies and how they function in his work.
In her book Epiphany: True Stories of Sudden Insight to Inspire, Encourage, and Transform, Elise Ballard shares how 50 figures (including Maya Angelou and Desmond Tutu) were struck by life-changing revelations.