Writing can have various objectives. It can be an act of intimacy. It can symbolize defiance. It can serve to give vent to emotions. Where all these objectives, and many more, converge, we find the art of letter writing. The permeation of letter writing in the realm of literature gives us an epistolary. The epistolary genre subsumes under it an array of things- epistolary novel, epistolary poem, journalistic epistolary and fiction epistolary. Yet for the purpose of this post, we define an ‘epistolary’ as anything written in the form of a letter. A letter can be written to oneself or to a being of one’s imagination. Therefore, an epistolary does not have to be defined rigidly as an exchange of letters between two or more living correspondents.
The most striking feature of an epistolary is the space that it provides to the writer and subsequent reader of the letter, a space that is usually intended to be intimate, unless the writer expected it to be published on a channel of mass communication. The reader is absent, yet she gains a presence because she is being written to. This creation of a personal space has the effect of drawing the writer out and making her pour her thoughts more freely on the paper. As letters are written for close communication, the innermost thoughts of the writer are revealed. The extent of this revelation, however, is increased when the reader of those letters is only going to be the writer herself. In The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank writes directly to her diary (which she named ‘Kitty’) and indirectly to herself. It is in her diary, to be read only by her, that she expresses aversion to her own mother and gives details of her private moments with Peter.
The revelations in an epistolary can often give it the colour of a confession, where the reader is expected to fill in the role of a confidante. Jenna Krajeski writes, “It’s an occasion when the writer, without the help of facial expressions or gesticulation, must communicate effectively and personally. And spell. And send off something to an unseen recipient, whose reaction maybe kept secret forever. It’s this sightless correspondence- and the vulnerability and bravery that it inspires- that brings out the confessional and, sometimes, the craze”. Such confessionals, however, proceed with the expectation that the reader, internal as well as external, will at least listen with empathy. And the first step towards empathy is to believe that the writer is being honest in what she is writing about (which, as the plot in an epistolary novel advances, might not turn out to be true). Yet a position of distrust should not be a reader’s starting point. The accompanying burden is that the reader will hold back the numerous judgments the confessor’s letter is eliciting. The flow of these judgments is natural because a letter says as much about the writer as the things being written about. Writers, through their letters, expose their prejudices, their mannerisms, their intellect, and their perception of other people. In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Celie’s first letter to God read:
“First he put his thing up gainst my hip and sort of wiggle it around. Then he grab hold my titties. Then he push his thing inside my pussy. When that hurt, I cry. He start to choke me, saying You better shut up and git used to it. But I don’t never git used to it. And now I feels sick every time…”
The letter can startle any reader and lead to a surge of thoughts- she does not know some basic spellings; she is being raped; she is writing about being raped in such crude terms! And that’s one of Walker’s messages- question the way we are eager to fit people’s oppression, and the way they react to oppression, into compartments that we are familiar with. When we listen with the intention to understand first, all judgments are kept in abeyance. The presence of an empathetic reader gains further significance when the subject-matter of the letters itself demands it. Rainer Maria Rilke’s responses to a Mr. Kappus, compiled as Letters to a Young Poet, incorporate the nuanced feedback that Rilke gave to Kappus for the latter’s poetry. The responsibility to give feedback made Rilke conscious of his choice of words, so as not to hurt Kappus, who was just a budding poet then.
An epistolary narration is quite frequently elliptic- events expanding over days, or more, are omitted and do not find their way into the text. Interestingly, what is omitted is generally what the letter writer views as insignificant. If the omitted events were of value to her, or to the recipient of her letters, they would have carved a place for themselves. Apart from this fragmented narration, the events that are actually presented in an epistolary are presented as memories. There is no real-time depiction. Letters about events can be written only after the events have taken place. Therefore, the form that the events are given through words is a corollary of those events getting filtered through the writer’s consciousness. This is where the element of subjectivity seeps in. The writer can tend to exaggerate an event or describe it in an underwhelming tone. The specific spot on the spectrum that the writer chooses has no single determinant. It could be determined by the time lapse between the event and its writing, or maybe some recent happenings have reignited old memories that culminated into thirty-three pages of outpouring to a sibling staying in another town. Whatever it maybe, a strict chronology isn’t an authentic epistolary literature’s best feature. Letters could be less dialogue-driven and more oriented towards expressing thoughts and feelings, or they can be about revisiting and reminiscing old times spent with the recipient. All these expressions are indifferent to any chronological order and will be overlooked by a strict chronological depiction.
The extent of the information revealed in an epistolary gives another message of intimacy. Letters wouldn’t contain information that both the writer and the internal reader are too familiar with. They wouldn’t contain verbose descriptions of ornamented fountains or the physical description of the writer or the reader themselves. Hence, the external reader of the epistolary, the omniscient reader, will have to find joy in that partial knowledge, and be happy to know that she is only being told about the things that truly matter.
Alice Walker, The Color Purple
Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Elizabeth Campbell, ‘Re-Visions, Re-Flections, Re-Creations: Epistolarity in Novels by Contemporary Women’, Twentieth Century Literarute, Volume 41, No. 3 (1995)
Jenna Krajeski, ‘Epistolary Gold’, The New Yorker, available at https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/epistolary-gold
Hannah Brooks-Motl, ‘Learning the Epistolary Poem’, available at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/70050/learning-the-epistolary-poem
‘The Influence of the Epistolary Novel Structure and Means on Madame Bovary’, available at https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-epistolary-novel-revisited/