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Did You Know?
The word epistolary has been derived from the Latin word epistolē, meaning a letter.

One of the best things about literature is that it is never limited to one particular style. Authors always experiment, always try to do something new, something unique, and something that will appeal to the reader's mind. Thus, there is no surprise that there are so many different styles of writing novels, poems, and short stories; epistolary writing being one of them. A favorite style among authors since the 17th century, epistolary writing has been a part of famous short stories, novels, as well as poems. Before we get into the classic as well as the modern-day examples of epistolary writing, let us first stop to understand what epistolary writing really is.

Meaning

Epistolary writing is actually writing a novel, a story, or a poem in the form of a series of documents― mostly letters, or journal entries, newspaper clippings, book excerpts, or in more recent times, blog posts, text-messages, or emails. Originally, though, epistolary writing began with novels documented through series of letters. Wait, letters? (This may have been on someone else's mind if not on yours!) Letters really don't seem like a big thing to us these days― the concept of emails and text messages has simply taken over, n'est pas? But back when letters were actually a primary mode of communication, they were written with passion, sentiment, details, and emotions, which is why they have been an important literary device since centuries now.

Epistolary writing is typically categorized into three types―
  • Monologic writing, where the letters/diary entries of only one person are recorded.
  • Dialogic writing, where the correspondence between two characters is documented.
  • Polylogic writing, where more than two characters correspond with one another.
Coming back to our original point, epistolary writing has incorporated letters, diary entries, and newspaper clippings in it to give off a more personal feel to the story. Advocates of this style of writing say that epistolary writing engages the reader more, as compared to a story simply written in the third person. (We frankly cannot pick sides, we feel that every book has its own charm.) Epistolary writing has been adapted as early as the 17th century, and has remained popular till date. Epistolary writing is used in both fiction, as well as non-fiction. Here's a small peek at the background of epistolary writing.

History and Background

The first true example or sample of epistolary writing is a highly debatable point among literary scholars. How this style of writing really originated, is also a debated issue. Some scholars say that this writing genre originated from letters being inserted into the novels, with the third-person narration eventually disappearing from the novels altogether. Others argue that random letters and documentations were compiled together to form a novel, mostly with love as the main theme. History tells us that Love Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister by Aphra Behn is one of the very first examples of epistolary writing in the English language, published in the late 1680s. As a genre, epistolary writing became more and more popular as time passed, with famous authors such as Samuel Richardson, Frances Brooke, and Henry Fielding all experimenting with it in their well-received novels.

Epistolary Examples in Literature

Like we saw earlier, some of the earliest examples of epistolary writing date back to the latter part of the 1600s. Some of the most famous literary works are epistolary novels and poems. Though the list is certainly not limited to what we are going to write about in the next section, it does compile some really famous and important examples of epistolary writing, in no particular order.

Book: Dracula
Author: Bram Stoker
Published: 1897

Bram Stoker's famous novel that continues to send chills up the spines of readers even today, is a good example of epistolary writing. Not only does Dracula consist of letters and diary entries, but it also includes newspaper clippings and excerpts that help the reader understand events that were not directly witnessed by the primary characters. Dracula (as you probably already know) is the chilling tale of the fearsome Count Dracula of Transylvania, his attempts to move to England for spreading the 'undead' curse, and his fight with Professor Abraham Van Helsing and his people.

Book: Daddy Long Legs
Author: Jean Webster
Published: 1912

This much-loved novel by American author Jean Webster is a true epistolary novel, and tells the story (through letters) of Jerusha "Judy" Abbott, who regularly writes to her benefactor, meaning, the wealthy man who sponsors her college education. Judy is an orphan and writes to her mysterious benefactor who she privately calls Daddy Long Legs as she catches a glimpse of his shadow once and observes that he is tall and long-legged. To her, he is only the strange and mysterious John Smith who never replies to her letters. This novel is in the form of one-sided letters, from Judy to Daddy Long Legs.

Book: Pamela
Author: Samuel Richardson
Published: 1740

Pamela by Samuel Richardson is one of the earliest epistolary novels written. The novel, through letters from the pretty, innocent Pamela to her parents, tells the story of her and her life as a maid servant in an upper-class family. The fifteen-year old innocent Pamela is working for Mrs. B, a rich old lady who dies and leaves the impoverished Pamela with her son. Mr B., the son, starts attempting to seduce Pamela, though he knows he can't marry her because of the difference in their social status. The tale is taken forward through Pamela's thoughts and feelings, which are expressed in her letters.

Book: Carrie
Author: Stephen King
Published: 1974

Stephen King's first-published novel, Carrie, is written in an epistolary format, consisting of letters, book excerpts, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, journal entries, etc. Carrie is the tormenting, horrifying, and intensely gripping tale of Carrie White, a high-school student who is bullied in school, is a social outcast, and lives with her religious fanatic of a mother who subjects her daughter to various kinds of abuse under the name of praying and religion. Carrie discovers she has telekinetic powers, which she eventually uses for seeking revenge on all those who ever hurt her and tormented her, including her mother.

Book: The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Author: Stephen Chbosky
Published: 1999

This very famous, very realistic, and touching piece of epistolary work focuses on Charlie, an introverted teenager, and his letters to an anonymous stranger, whose identity is not revealed to readers. Charlie goes through various stages as a troubled teenager― drugs, teenage love, adolescent problems, introversion, troubled relationships, sexuality, etc. Charlie's life, as a freshman in high school is a roller coaster ride, where nothing seems to be going either wrong, or right, and he doesn't know if he's happy, or sad. His love for his friend Sam, his relationship with his troubled sister and some past trauma that continues to haunt him, are all eloquently described through his letters to the anonymous recipient.

Book: Bridget Jones's Diary
Author: Helen Fielding
Published: 1996

Loosely based on Jane Austen's famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones's Diary is a funny take on a 30-something single woman who drinks too much, smokes too much, and worries endlessly about her weight, as well as her career. This novel is an epistolary piece of work, as Bridget's life and events are described through the entries that she makes in her diary. Bridget Jones's Diary is a light-hearted, and yet realistic read on relationships, career issues, and family pressures that most of us face today.

Book: Diary of a Wimpy Kid
Author: Jeff Kinney
Published: 2007

This is definitely one of the cutest series of all time. Loved by children and adults alike, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a series of personal journal entries made by Greg Heffley, the leader character in the book. This epistolary series also includes little drawings made by Greg in his diary, or 'journal', as he likes to call it. This series is a funny, realistic take on the life of the average middle-school student― problems, friends, crushes, family relationships, et al.

Book: Frankenstein
Author: Mary Shelley
Published: 1818

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley is the terrifying, tragic tale of the eccentric and over-ambitious Victor Frankenstein who creates a hideous creature during an experiment. The novel, which was originally supposed to be a short story, is written in epistolary form, with Captain Robert Walton describing the tale and experiences of Victor Frankenstein, who he has just rescued while on a voyage to the North Pole. The story is told in a series of letters from Walton to his sister, Margaret.

Book: The Screwtape Letters
Author: C.S. Lewis
Published: 1942

The Screwtape Letters is an unusual kind of novel, written and published in the epistolary format. Scholars feel that this novel by the legendary C.S. Lewis is both fictional, as well as non-fictional: fictional in its approach, and non-fictional in its essence. The story is in the form of 31 letters, which are written by a senior Demon in Hell, to his nephew, who is a junior Tempter. The letters describe in detail how the inexperienced Tempter can promote sin, and tempt a British man called the Patient in order to bring about his damnation and lead him to Hell.

Book: The Princess Diaries
Author: Meg Cabot
Published: 2000

The Princess Diaries is a series of epistolary books for teenagers. As the name itself suggests, The Princess Diaries tell the readers about the life of an unconventional young princess, Mia, who lives in New York City with her single mother. Mia is far from even a princess-like image: she is not one of the 'popular' girls in school, she is not exceptionally brainy, and she does not possess exceptional talents. Her father, the prince of Genovia (a fictitious European country) and her grandmother, the dowager princess try their best to train her in gracious living, and handling life as an heir. These books are written in the form of diary entries, and account for a funny, light-hearted read.

Book: The Diary of a Young Girl
Author: Anne Frank
Published: 1947

The Diary of a Young Girl, or Anne Frank's Diary is perhaps the most famous non-fictional work in the epistolary format. Anne Frank was a Jewish young girl in her early teens who wrote this diary during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Anne, her family, and some friends were in hiding from the Nazis for two years, before they were betrayed and deported to concentration camps where most of them eventually lost their lives. Anne's diary gives the reader a realistic, horrifying picture of what Nazi Germany was like before and during World War II.

Book: The White Tiger
Author: Aravind Adiga
Published: 2008

The White Tiger is author Aravind Adiga's debut novel, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2008, the year of its release. This epistolary novel is in the form of letters from an Indian villager, Balram Halwai, to the Chinese Premier. Through his letters, Balram tells the Premier as well as the leader, all about his life as the son of a poor rickshaw puller, to a rich man's chauffeur, to eventually a successful entrepreneur. This novel is written in a dark, satirical manner, and portrays the struggle of the Indian working classes in a rapidly globalizing world.

Epistolary Writing: Advantages and Disadvantages

Different points of view, and differences in opinions among scholars have led to defining the advantages and disadvantages of epistolary writing.

Advantages
Epistolary writing helps connect the reader to the characters more easily. The reader becomes a part of the character's world, as the tale progresses through letters, or journal entries. It is more intimate and personal as compared to third-person narration.

Epistolary writing provides an opportunity for the author to share multiple points of view to the reader at once.

It seems more authentic and genuine when in epistolary form, as compared to third-person narration.

Epistolary writing puts the entire focus on the characters of the story, and not much else.

Disadvantages
Since there are barely any present-tense dialogs used, interaction between characters cannot always be deciphered correctly. The reader may look at the interaction from only one viewpoint and not the other.

Understanding the exact relationships between characters is also sometimes confusing in epistolary novels.

It is difficult to portray intimate scenes in an epistolary novel, especially if they are written in the format of letters or newspaper clippings or even diary entries.

Epistolary novels can cause the reader to become biased towards one character and miss the importance of the other characters. Similarly, not every character's point of view may interest the reader.

Epistolary writing is really a very interesting literary device. Though it has its share of disadvantages, we really don't think we can imagine our favorite epistolary novels in third-person narration instead, can you?