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Definition:

A term in literary criticism for a sudden realization--a flash of recognition in which someone or something is seen in a new light. Adjective: epiphanic.

In Stephen Hero (1904), Irish author James Joyce used the term epiphany to describe the moment when the "soul of the commonest object . . . seems to us radiant. The object achieves it epiphany." Novelist Joseph Conrad described epiphany as "one of those rare moments of awakening" in which "everything [occurs] in a flash."

See also:

Etymology:

From the Greek, "manifestation" or "showing forth." In Christian churches, the feast following the twelve days of Christmas (January 6) is called Epiphany because it celebrates the appearance of divinity (the Christ child) to the Wise Men.

Examples and Observations:

  • Epiphany in the Short Story "Miss Brill" by Katherine Mansfield
    "In the story of the same name Miss Brill discovers such annihilation when her own identity as onlooker and imagined choreographer to the rest of her small world crumbles in the reality of loneliness. The imagined conversations she has with other people become, when overheard in reality, the onset of her destruction. A young couple on her park bench--'the hero and the heroine' of Miss Brill's own fictive drama, 'just arrived from his father's yacht' . . . --are transformed by reality into two young people who cannot accept the aging woman who sits near them. The boy refers to her as 'that stupid old thing at the end' of the bench and openly expresses the very question that Miss Brill has been trying so desperately to avoid through her Sunday charades in the park: 'Why does she come here at all--who wants her?' Miss Brill's epiphany forces her to forgo the usual slice of honeycake at the baker's on her way home, and home, like life, has changed. It is now 'a little dark room . . . like a cupboard.' Both life and home have become suffocating. Miss Brill's loneliness is forced upon her in one transformative moment of acknowledgment of reality."
    (Karla Alwes, "Katherine Mansfield." Modern British Women Writers: An A-to-Z Guide, ed. by Vicki K. Janik and Del Ivan Janik. Greenwood, 2002)


  • Another View of Epiphany in the Short Story "Miss Brill" by Katherine Mansfield
    "Miss Brill is delighted to be part of the Season in the Jardins Publique, especially on Sundays. For the occasion, a chilly day, she has taken her fur from its box, brushed it off, and walked purposefully toward the band playing in the park. Everywhere around her she sees life, and it please her to think that she is part of all that takes place, part of a living organism that manifests itself every Sunday to see and be seen. In a moment of epiphany, she knows that she and everyone else in the park are actors, playing out their roles, and she is sure that her absence would be noticed if she were to miss the gathering one weekend."
    (Patrick A. Smith, Thematic Guide to Popular Short Stories. Greenwood, 2002)


  • Critical Observations on Epiphany
    "The critic's function is to find ways of recognizing and judging the epiphanies of literature which, like those of life itself (Joyce borrowed his use of the term 'epiphany' directly from theology), are partial disclosures or revelations, or 'spiritual matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.'"
    (Colin Falck, Myth, Truth, and Literature: Towards a True Post-Modernism, 2nd ed. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994)

    "The definition Joyce gave of epiphany in Stephen Hero depends on a familiar world of objects of use--a clock one passes every day. The epiphany restores the clock to itself in one act of seeing, of experiencing it for the first time."
    (Monroe Engel, Uses of Literature. Harvard Univ. Press, 1973)
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