“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice.
“I only wish that I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!”
-Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
That epigraph comes from Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! I first read it in 2012, and I barely registered the epigraph at the time, or if it did, I didn’t recall it when I reread Swamplandia! earlier this year, which makes it even — pardon me — curiouser and curiouser because I’m mad for Mr. Carroll. Since the reread, I’ve been puzzling over this epigraph, trying to decide what it lends to the story; how it helps to frame the novel; and what, if anything, I feel about it.
Epigraphs: a quote or quotes from other sources that stage sets the forthcoming novel, providing a thematic introduction or a sense of the story to come, and, sometimes, an idea of how to approach the story. Those little nods are often to recognizable household names (I’m looking at you, Shakespeare, Churchill and other dead white men), sacred texts (Proverbs and Psalms make frequent appearances, really anything from the Bible according to an unscientific study I conducted), and other great literature and poetry (again with the dead white men).
Is an epigraph to amuse-bouche as novel is to meal about to be served to the reader? Or is it a dessert to be turned back to once the reader has finished the novel? Or is it a celebrity chef opening a pop-up inside another restaurant to lend his (again, an unscientific study here) credence to the work?
Most things I’ve read about epigraphs say that the chosen text should relate back to the story, perhaps foreshadowing events or highlighting a prescient point the author wishes to make. The epigraph may set or subvert the reader’s expectations. Epigraph comes from a Greek word for “inscription,” and has been in popular use since the 16th century. Many of the earliest epigraphs took the form of fictitious notes from the publisher, and while I briefly went down a research rabbit hole looking at the earliest novels (Gulliver’s Travels, Don Quixote, etc.), I’m less interested in the history of them and more about what they can evoke. For me, herein lies the question of authorial intention.
Back to Ms. Russell. The more times I read her chosen epigraph, the more I like it. It works for the themes of Swamplandia! without giving too much, if anything, away. It feels like a tempting amuse-bouche, a multi-serving dessert and a Lewis Carroll pop-up all at once.
Postscript: I consulted one of the four copies of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass on my bookshelves, this one published in 1963. A poem beginning “All in the golden afternoon / Full leisurely we glide” opens Wonderland; and an illustration of a chess match opens Looking-Glass, neither of which is truly an epigraph. Still, how is a raven like a writing desk?
Melissa Koss is a Senior Associate Fiction Editor for The Flexible Persona.