Use of the Epigraph in George Eliot's Middlemarch Essay

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Use of the Epigraph in George Eliot's Middlemarch

The epigraph is an unusual, though not uncommon, form of citation. It is a part of the text yet distinct from it. White space and specialized formatting, such as italics, separate the epigraph from the main text, thereby challenging the reader to determine the relationship between the two. Unlike a typical quotation, which dwells in the midst of the text, illuminating one point in the argument, the epigraph's unique positioning prior to the body of the text highlights particular ideas, words, or images and thereby guides the reading of the entire argument. In essence, its shadow falls across and affects the reading of the text it precedes. This shadow looms large because it is
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Eliot's layers of epigraphs complicate the point above, that the epigraph casts a shadow over the entire argument, because the whole of Middlemarch is not captured in a single epigraph. The preface on Saint Theresa may come close, but technically it is not an epigraph. Nevertheless, scholars have used the epigraphs as a way to illuminate particular chapters of Middlemarch and have studied the epigraphs as a body in order to determine how Eliot uses them. In particular, David Leon Higdon, in an article entitled "George Eliot and the Art of the Epigraph," identifies four ways in which her epigraphs function: 1) as allusions to classic texts which structure the chapter, 2) as metaphors which evaluate the characters within the chapter, 3) as abstractions, such as aphorisms, which the chapter then makes concrete, and 4) as ironic refractions--that is, as ironic commentary of the content of the chapter (Higdon). In addition to a kind of authorial guide, the epigraph also functions as an argument from authority. By using quotations from Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Dante, Chaucer, and others, Eliot builds her own ethos. However, Eliot complicates even this seemingly obvious fact about the function of epigraphs by writing approximately one third of the epigraphs in Middlemarch herself, though she posts them anonymously. Obviously, the above listed principles

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