Epistolary Novel: Definition and Examples

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      An Epistolary novel is a novel written as a series of documents usually in the form of letters and some other forms as diary entries, newspaper clippings, journals and other documents composed by one or more of the characters. The word epistolary is derived from the Greek word epistolq (as compared with ‘epistle’), meaning ‘a letter’. Recently, we can see electronic documents like emails, blogs, radio and recordings have come into use in writings. This novel was one of the earliest forms of novel to be developed and remained one of the most popular up to the 19th century. The epistolary novel’s reliance on subjective points of view makes it the forerunner of the modern psychological novel.

      Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Virtue Rewarded (1740) is the earliest example of this genre, where there is the story of a servant girl’s victorious struggle against her master’s attempts to seduce her. Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748) won phenomenal success and were imitated all over Europe. Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, is a good example of an epistolary novel that an impoverished black teenage girl, Celie, tells through writing letters to both; her sister as well as God. Thus readers can hear about the difficult life of Celie through her words and the direct experiences she has faced. Alice Walker has chosen to let the readers know this story by using voice of Celie, providing Celie a power that she could not have in everyday life. However, in film adaptation of this novel, these letters echoed through the monologues of characters. A teenage girl Anne Frank wrote, Diary of a Young Girl, during the years 1942-1944. She accounts her feelings and thoughts, including some important and some trivial details. After a month while writing this diary, Anne along with her family members was forced into hiding in some building in Amsterdam to avoid religious persecution at the hands of Nazis. However, all of them died in 1944, except her father Otto Frank, who got her diary published in 1947. Her diary format provides the readers an intimate insight into Anne’s feelings and thoughts during tough times. It is also remarkable in that Anne describes her dreams and hopes through historical context.

      Epistolary form could add realism in a narrative, as it imitates the real life workings. It is therefore able to describe different point of views. The primary function of this form of writing is that readers can get an intimate view of characters’ feelings and thoughts and develop a direct connection with the events through letters without interference of the author. This technique thus makes the literary piece a real experience for the readers.

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