Derived from the Greek word “epiphaneia”, epiphany means “appearance” or “manifestation. In literary terms, an epiphany is that moment in the story where a character achieves realization, awareness or a feeling of knowledge after which events are seen through the prism of this new light in the story.
James Joyce, the great Irish writer used this term in his writings to indicate a sudden eye-opener regarding the nature of a person or situation. He said that it is the moment in which “the soul of the commonest object … seems to us radiant, and may be manifested through any chance, word or gesture.” He means to say that even insignificant things in our life can suddenly inspire in us an awareness that can change our lives for good.
A Common Example of Epiphany
Let us consider an epiphany of a smoker:
“I used to smoke a lot. Everyone let me know that it was bad for my health however, I didn’t pay any notice. One day I saw my two years of age offspring trying for a used cigarette within an ashtray. Seeing this, abruptly it dawned upon me how terrible smoking was and I stopped smoking.”
So, this sudden feeling of knowledge that brings to light what was so far hidden and changes one’s life is called epiphany.
Let us analyze some epiphany examples from different genres of literature.
Epiphany Examples from Literature
James Joyce’s novel “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” shows two examples of epiphany.
Stephen Dedalus, the main character of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, experienced his first epiphany when he was sixteen and in a boarding school.
One day he goes back to his room. Depressed by his sins, he falls ill and makes a decision to reform himself. He goes to church for confession where the priest is very kind. So, Stephen finds a new course in life – he becomes a priest.
Stephen’s second epiphany was when his life took another turn. He realizes that he cannot waste his life living as a priest. He wants to live in the real world and be creative like an artist. He sees some boys diving from the rocks, and sees and follows attractive girls standing in the water – this moment in the novel is Joyce’s “epiphany”. It is an emotional moment with an emotional meaning which marks a realization leading to a transformation in Stephen’s life.
Shakespeare also makes use of an epiphany in his play “Hamlet”. It is when Hamlet, the hero, is on a ship sailing to England. Till then, he was over-burdened with thinking and planning a flawless revenge on his father’s murderer, Claudius. Suddenly there is a flash of realization and he says:
“there is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we may.”
He realizes that there is no wisdom for him to try to inflict the perfect revenge on Claudius — he must take hold of the moment and go with the current.
We find another example of epiphany in the short story “Miss Brill” written by Katherine Manfield. Miss Brill, being delighted to be part of the season in the “Jardins Publique”, particularly on Sundays, prepares herself for the occasion on a chilly day. She wears her fur coat and walks towards a band playing music in the park. She sees life everywhere around her, and it pleases her to imagine that she is part of all that takes place; a component of a living life that makes itself visible every Sunday to notice and be noticed. In a flash of epiphany, she recognizes that she and everyone else in the park are mere actors, acting out their roles. There was nothing important about that gathering of actors and she was alone despite being with a crowd.
Function of Epiphany
The purpose of epiphany in a novel or a short story is to use it for the characters to point out a turning point in the plot in the near future. It may also be used to change the opinion of one character about other characters, events and places after a sudden awareness of the situation. It may also be a sign of a conclusion in the story.