The Light Dawns: Epiphanies in Fiction

In Christian doctrine, the epiphany refers to the manifestation of God to the Magi in the form of the Christ child. In Stephen Hero, James Joyce adapted this term to secular and literary purposes. An epiphany is, his protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, informs us, “a sudden spiritual manifestation” of the essential nature of a person, situation or object.

David Jauss—Some Epiphanies about Epiphanies, Writers Chronicle

The epiphany has become a common literary technique. Our erstwhile protagonist has an earth-shaking revelation, often accompanied by sunlight bursting through the clouds. Joyce didn’t invest the epiphany; it’s been around long before he set pen to paper, but he did popularize the form. Here’s an example from The Dubliners:

She stood among the swaying crowd in the station at the North Wall. He held her hand and she knew that he was speaking to her, saying something about the passage over and over again. The station was full of soldiers with brown baggages. Through the wide doors of the sheds she caught a glimpse of the black mass of the boat, lying in beside the quay wall, with illumined portholes. She answered nothing. She felt her cheek pale and cold and, out of a maze of distress, she prayed to God to direct her, to show her what was her duty. The boat blew a long mournful whistle into the mist. If she went, tomorrow she would be on the sea with Frank, steaming towards Buenos Aires. Their passage had been booked. Could she still draw back after all he had done for her? Her distress awoke a nausea in her body and she kept moving her lips in silent fervent prayer.

A bell clanged upon her heart. She felt him seize her hand: `Come!’

All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would drown her. She gripped with both hands at the iron railing.


No! No! No! It was impossible. Her hands clutched the iron in frenzy. Amid the seas she sent a cry of anguish.

James Joyce—Eveline

Here Eveline has a sudden realization about where her duty lies. There’s no sunlight streaming through the clouds, but she prays to her God to direct her and God answers.

In A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O’Connor pulls off the rare double epiphany:

I wasn’t there so I can’t say He didn’t,” The Misfit said. “I wisht I had of been there,” he said, hitting the ground with his fist. “It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady,” he said in a high voice, “if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.” His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother’s head cleared for an instant. She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children !” She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.

Hiram and Bobby Lee returned from the woods and stood over the ditch, looking down at the grandmother who half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child’s and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.

Without his glasses, The Misfit’s eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking. “Take her off and thow her where you thown the others,” he said, picking up the cat that was rubbing itself against his leg.

“She was a talker, wasn’t she?” Bobby Lee said, sliding down the ditch with a yodel.

“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Both the Misfit and the grandmother have epiphanies at the end of the story. Some literary critics say that O’Connor’s epiphanies don’t work here, and even though I poke fun at her epiphanies, it’s a wonderful story. Read it and decide for yourself.

Epiphanies don’t necessarily have to come at the end of a story. Here’s an example from my novel in progress, Thunderhead, that occurs early on in the novel:

(Warning: This passage lacks political correctness. I drop the N-word here and a couple of others folks might find offensive.)

“I know you, Matthew Harkness,” she whispered in my ear. “You are a God-fearing man. Join the Passionate Heart. Be with me.” She kissed me. Her tongue slithered into my mouth and danced with mine. My hand caressed the back of her neck and I pulled her hard against me. When we came up for air, she moaned. “I need your passion.” My head spun and I lost track of where I was.

We were in the middle of the second long, lingering kiss when the light dawned as if from above. I pushed her from me and clambered up. “You know what feeds my passion?” I asked.

Her eyes trailed to the erection straining against the fabric of my jeans. “Tell me.” Her eyes filled with promise.

“Not you.” She jerked back as if I had slapped her. My body weaved and I put my hand on her desk to steady myself. “Back when Coach Conroy rampaged through this country, I stopped a Negro man just passing through. Family man. He was heading up to Portland to work in the shipyards. Once he got established, he was going to move his family up there. Nice feller, real nice feller. Expect his family was just as nice, too. He would have fit right in here. Been solid in the community. He’s the kind of feller that anchors a town. But I had to move him along, hit him up along side the head with my sap and run him out of town like some petty vagrant. You know why?” My hands fluttered about and my will couldn’t still them.

Love looked frightened. “Wrong color.”

“Exactly. Wrong color. Some redneck would have burned him out. Dagos and micks and polacks and jerries can live in Barnestown, but not niggers or spics or japs. Why? Because they’re the wrong color. So, why do you all tell folks that Bull’s an Eskimo?” When she didn’t answer, I said, “Because he’s an Injun. A god-fearing Injun and we sure can’t have them kind of folks around here, even if they are good people.” I gulped air as if I were drowning. “There are good God-fearing folks here, but sometimes I hate this town and most everyone in it.”

Here Harkness has two epiphanies, first he realizes that the Reverend Love has drugged him and second that the local racial intolerance sickens him.

Epiphanies come in all shapes and sizes. They can be simple, ‘the light dawned’ or extensive. They’re a little like cayenne pepper, effective but if overdone they ruin the dish. Use them with care, but don’t avoid them altogether.

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