There will be no post next week, January 13. I’ll be back January 20.
Epiphany. That’s what today is, on the church calendar: the Feast of the Epiphany. Twelfth night. The magi—three wise men—showed up to pay homage to the babe in the manger and, the story goes, recognized him as the son of God. That’s what, to practicing Christians, “epiphany” marks: the manifestation of the divine.
James Joyce used the word to refer to a literary technique, most famously in Dubliners (“a series of fifteen epiphanies,” he called the stories). Joyce’s epiphanies mark those moments where a story transcends its events and gives us something more—insight, lyricism, beauty. Often actual, physical light is involved, and you frequently find the word “never” or a character “seeing” something. Consider the end of “Araby,” when darkness represents a boy’s fall from innocence, or the last line in Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation”: And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again. Other literary epiphanies are less overtly tagged or subjective, and instead give an action sufficient to reveal change.
When I started teaching fiction writing, during grad school, I gravitated toward these and other stories with clear, dramatic endings. From Aristotle to Hollywood, satisfying storytelling has been defined as reliant upon change, whether in character or situation. An alarm clock going off and indicating that the whole thing has been a dream is not a successful change. Both the Church and Joyce use “epiphany” to mean revelation, manifestation. A true epiphany has power and transcendence. Instead of shutting the story (and the meaning) down, it opens everything up.
Which leads me to a quick, unproven theory: Worthwhile epiphany comes from a character’s action, insight, or thought, not from an outside agent (like a lightning bolt or alarm clock or car crash).
Here are a few I’ve admired. OK, several. I could spend all day at the bookshelves, finding more. I’d love to hear others–which would you add?
Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger. (James Joyce, “Araby”)
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. (James Joyce, “The Dead”)
“I had Barbara,” she said, and began to move ahead of Mrs. Slade toward the stairway. (Edith Wharton, “Roman Fever”)
…I cannot let go of him now, because if I did, all our happiness and my subsequent pain—I cannot vouch for his—will all have been nothing, and nothing is a dreadful thing to hold on to. (Edna O’Brien, “The Love Object”)
I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us. (Denis Johnson, “Beverly Home”)
Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is. (Tobias Wolff, “Bullet in the Brain”)