My top five literary epiphanies


With New Year just around the corner, the time for introspection is upon us once more. For many, the New Year is a great time to discover lessons learned over the past. It’s easy to think that all lessons will be delivered in the gift-wrapped form of an ‘epiphany.’ But revelations and ‘truths’ remain far less self-evident in reality than they are in literature.

There is, however, a reason behind the common New Year’s resolution to renew one’s zeal for reading. Literature is an excellent self-improvement technique (Yes, I am biased!) It breeds discipline and a wider vocabulary, but most exhilaratingly, it permits you to vicariously experience the epiphanies of others. As one year comes to a close and we are on the cusp of another, I thought I’d share my top 5 favourite literary epiphanies to peruse as you sit and consider what your own epiphanies of the past year have been.

1. The ‘Last Minute’ Epiphany: The Crucible by Arthur Miller 

The Crucible by Arthur Miller

The Crucible is a thrilling drama that plays with the Aristotlean mode of tragedy whereby a tragic hero’s life journey must include an ‘anagorisis’ (a moment of critical self-discovery.) An ‘anagnorisis’ is the classical equivalent to an ‘epiphany’, as it similarly entails a profound recognition of one’s flaws. John Proctor’s epiphany is made wholly explicit by Miller with him bellowing ‘with [the] cry of his whole soul.’ Proctor’s speech transcends rage into a magnificent moment of righteous revelation, as he renounces all but honour and pride. This crucial moment in the narrative is delayed to the very end, thereby (in my naïve mind perhaps?) attempting to reassure his audience that redemption is always available to those who seek it – no matter how late. The wonderfully comforting thing about last minute epiphanies is the deliciously human nature of them. It is so typically and endearingly to postpone self-improvement. Indeed I am particularly fond of this epiphany because of Proctor’s fervent desire to believe that ‘it is never too late.’

2. The ‘Life-is-Fleeting’ Epiphany: The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam 

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The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The sumptuous lyricism of Khayyam’s poetry beautifully carries the nearly-literal translation from its original Persian. The quatrain form is unique and capsule-like; each poem is an epigrammatic stanza or a series of interconnected thoughts meandering to an epiphany-like conclusion. The seventeenth century Persian poet Sa’ib was spot-on when he proclaimed “in the ruba’i the last line thrusts the finger nail into the heart.” Each ruba’i is a brusque rumination that ultimately embraces the brevity of worldly pleasures. I highly recommend leisurely (Khayyam places words so delicately that it will seem only right to savour each) reading as many of Khayyam’s ruba’iyat as possible. Each pithy verse presents the old truism of ‘carpe diem’ in a fresh way that seems an apt way to ring in any new year.

3. The Lover’s Epiphany: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë 

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

If you are able to harden your heart enough to complete the tormented whirlwind of chaotic human experience that is Wuthering Heights, then you will have witnessed the bitter futility of a lover’s realisation that their affections are misguided at best. This deeply moving and bitterly passionate tale contains one of the most glorious love epiphanies ever to be penned. However, as the series of tragic events unfurls, Cathy’s epiphany becomes lost in the web of deceitful manipulation that the intense and venomous love between her and Heathcliff has created. The inefficacy of Cathy’s epiphany doesn’t make it any less glorious, but ingeniously depicts how the glory of human self-awareness is often inextricable from its pathetic limitations. I always find myself thinking about this particular epiphany at the end of the year; it’s a perfect literary stimulus for considering one’s own addictions and ghosts.

4. The ‘I Refuse To Be Defined By Others’ Epiphany: De Profundis by Oscar Wilde 

De Profundis by Oscar Wilde

You’d expect the epistolary account of Wilde’s own epiphany to be nothing short of dazzling, and indeed De Profundis does not disappoint. Written during his incarceration, De Profundis is so heart-rendingly personal that it’s impossible to dismiss Wilde’s angst as artificial (a shocking rarity for the man who ever so consciously constructed his identity as the consummate performer and poseur.) I strongly recommend De Profundis for all who seek the courage to cleanse their lives of poisonous influences. Wilde’s prose is blazing in style and infused with an eloquent and poised sense of courage. In just over a hundred pages the reader vicariously experiences Wilde’s emotional purge as he rejects the way in which society ostracised him for his homosexuality. De Profundis is the perfect way to open the New Year for anyone looking for a literary route to amplifying their self-confidence.

5. The ‘Life Is An Ongoing Epiphany’ Epiphany: Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia by Mayra Hornbacher 

Wasted by Mayra Hornbacher

Marya Hornbacher, in contrast, actively deflates the grandiose myth of the life changing epiphany. In her unflinching retelling of her life with anorexia, Hornbacher denies the idea of a true and complete conversion experience. Wasted suggests that the frenetic pace of life combined with human obstinacy makes for many epiphanies, interspersed and woefully inefficient. This memoir details how humans are too fluid and resistant to be wholly shaped by a single ‘epiphany’; life is simply and inescapably the incessant re-education of humanity. Wasted does not romanticise change, but discusses how personal revelations are not always followed by resolution. Hornbacher’s searing poetic prose style presents this fact as not morbid but as a truth that, once accepted, is exceedingly liberating.

I’m sure that I’m not the only English student who attempts to mentally plot her own character trajectory, hoping to note a remarkable transformation – from chronic procrastinator to human with impeccable time management skills, from caffeine addict to detoxed health guru, from one with an unhealthy preference for books over people to gregarious social butterfly. These are all valid transformations that continue to evade me; while I wile away the time waiting for my transformation, all I have are these books.

PHOTOS/Zyan, Penguin Books, Edmund Dulac, Random House Books, Vintage Books, Fontamara


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