At The Millions, Jonathan Russell Clark ruminates on the idea of the epigraph. Over the past decade, Clark has kept a Word document filled with quotes from literature, and the amassed 30,000 words, he admits, are less for insight and inspiration than a source of potential epigraphs for his own work.
Clark analyzes several epigraphs in the contemporary canon, and comes to see them as serving various functions:
Epigraphs are, ultimately, like many components of art, in that they can pretty much accomplish anything the writer wants them to. They can support a theme or contradict it. They can prepare readers or mislead them. They can situate a book into its intended company or they can renounce any relationship with the past. And when used effectively, they can be just as vital to a novel’s meaning as the title, the themes, the prose. An epigraph may not make or break a book, but it can certainly enhance its richness.