The author has kindly shared with readers of The Victorian Web, the following passage from her Literary Epiphany in the Novel, 1850-1950: Constellations of the Soul, which Palgrave Macmillan published in 2012. — George P. Landow.

Thackeray's decorated initial I

The epiphany has long been understood as a central trait of modern fiction, in works by James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, and Katherine Mansfield, among others. M.H. Abrams identified it as an outgrowth of nineteenth-century lyric poetry, with origins in Wordsworth’s spots of time. While noting how modernists adapted poetic techniques to the novel, others have also placed epiphany in relation to poets like Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Browning, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Yeats, and Pound. In The Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Northrup Frye first described epiphany as an archetypal literary moment. Handbooks now include it as a standard literary term, although its popularity among critics has waned, perhaps due to the postmodern skepticism toward the “felt ultimacies” implicit in epiphany (Tucker 1209; Saltzman 498; Maltby, McGowan). In the field of philosophy, epiphany takes a decidedly modern cast. Charles Taylor explains modern epiphanic art as a reaction against the emergence of a modern “commercial-industrial-capitalist society” (422), while Jacques Aubert and Karl-Heinz Bohrer both suggest that Joyce’s Stephen Hero makes “suddenness” the “‘mode of appearance of meaning’” not only in modern fiction but in modern art and intellectual experience (Bohrer 216).

Like philosophers, literary critics have approached epiphany primarily in terms of time, emphasizing the suddenness of the “sudden, spiritual manifestation” and its temporality. From Theodore Ziolkowski to Maurice Blanchot, time saturates all major approaches to epiphany to the extent that Leon Edel calls epiphany a “slice of time” (147), and many discuss it not only as the descendent of Wordsworth’s spots of time but also the collision of two different forms of time, chronos and kairos. In his Epiphany and the Modern Novel (1971), Morris Beja classifies epiphanies almost entirely in relation to time, with chapter headings such as “The Present of Things Present” and “The Present of Things Past.”

However, I consider epiphany more as a form of being than as a form of time, shifting the kaleidoscope from the “sudden” to the “manifestation.” When viewed as a manifestation, epiphany presents an unusual form of vision that does not rely upon a metaphysical mechanics of perception. It does not automatically conflate the eye, the mind, and knowledge or require a mind-body dualism. As the mutual visibility of both the revealed and the perceiver, epiphany offers a gaze that does no harm to the other and does not predicate being upon objectification or a transgressive form of knowledge. The rarity of such a gaze attracts the language of spirituality. These moments become definitive and transformative for the one who sees.

Throughout a range of nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels, epiphanies present the shining points around which character and narrative accrue like constellations. But under what conditions will these forms appear, invisibly drawn in the mind and named after myths and gods? What elements can illumine the constellations of the soul?

Related Material

Works Cited

Abrams, M.H. Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature . New York: Norton, 1971. Print.

Aubert, Jacques. The Aesthetics of James Joyce. 1973. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1992. Print.

Beja, Morris. Epiphany in the Modern Novel. London: Peter Owen, 1971. Print.

Blanchot, Maurice. “Proust.” The Sirens’ Song: Selected Essays of Maurice Blanchot. Ed. Gabriel Josipovici. Trans. Sacha Rabinovitch. Bloomington, IA: Indiana UP, 1982. 66-78. Print.

Bohrer, Karl Heinz. Suddenness: On the Mode of Aesthetic Appearance. Trans. Ruth Crowley. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. Print.

Cornwell, Ethel F. The “Still Point”: Theme and Variations in the Writings of T.S. Eliot, Coleridge, Yeats, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and D.H. Lawrence. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1962. Print.

Delville, Michel. “Epiphanies and Prose Lyrics: James Joyce and the Poetics of the Fragment.” Giacomo Joyce: Envoys of the Other. Ed. Louis Armand and Clare Wallace. Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2006. 101-130. Print.

Edel, Leon. The Modern Psychological Novel. New York: J.B.Lippincott Co., 1955. Print.

Frye, Northrup. The Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1957. Print.

Gillespie, Gerald. “Epiphany: Notes on the Applicability of a Modernist Term.” Proust, Mann, Joyce in the Modernist Context. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic U of America P, 2003. 50-67. Print.

Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending. New York: Oxford UP, 1967. Print.

Langbaum, Robert. “The Epiphanic Mode in Wordsworth and Modern Literature.” Tigges 37-60. Print.

Tigges, Wim. "The Significance of Trivial Things: Towards a Typology of Literary Epiphanies." 1-16.

Genre Literary Technique

Last modified 28 June 2013