The epistolary form of literature, where tales are told through letters written by characters within a story, has been a popular literary form throughout history. Some well-known works that employ the epistolary form include "The Screwtape Letters" by C.S. Lewis and "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" by Choderlos de Laclos. Certain advantages are available when a work is presented as a letter or as a number of letters, and two classic pieces that use and profit from the epistolary form include the poem "Eloisa to Abelard" by Alexander Pope and "Clarissa" by Samuel Richardson.

Writing a story in an epistolary form proves advantageous by allowing the actual character or characters to express themselves through their own words. Presenting a work as if it were written by a character involved creates a sense of story genuinity for the reader as well as giving them a more personal connection to the character, since the words written are not simply a narrater's observances. Also, letters project the idea of present existence; the reader percieves the story taking place at the moment the individual reads it. The epistolary form can provide better suspension of disbelief for the reader as well, because reading the character's actual thoughts and feelings produces a sense that what is occurring in the story honestly happened. Often times a narrator will speak in the past tense, or in second or third person, while the use of an epistle can avoid this and create a livelier ambiance to the tale itself. During the eighteenth century the epistolary form of writing grew quite popular, since at that time letter writing was a primary source of communication. Two widely read works at that time were written in the epistolary form.

Alexander Pope's poem "Eloisa to Abelard" was written during the eighteenth century, and in this piece Pope applied the epistolary form of writing. Since the poem evolves around the forbidden devotion of a young woman to an older man, presenting the piece as a heroic epistle proves extremely beneficial. Delivering the work to readers as a letter written by Eloisa herself permits the character's emotions to be displayed in first person, where she herself wails with pain and complains that "only death can break the lasting chain;/ And here ev'n then, shall my cold dust remain." In a line such as this, where Eloisa herself exhibits her emotions with ardent passion, the poem becomes filled with Eloisa's strong personal sentiments and becomes livelier and more romantic to the reader. The personal emotional energy created in this epistle is a potent way to reach the reader and skillfully shows Eloisa's vitality and veritability.

Another eighteenth century work that utilizes the epistolary form is "Clarissa," written by Samuel Richardson. "Clarissa" includes a number of characters and their letters and profits from the sole use of letters for several reasons. Again, the letters invoke greater emotions from the characters and places the story in a more immediate state; Clarissa is writing about what is presently taking place in her household; Anna is writing about what is currently being said in the town about Clarissa. Another advantage is that since the characters cannot be omniscient, there is no way the reader can be informed of what will happen next in the story unless a character is aware. An anticipation is created since little can be revealed about the future of the characters and the reader becomes enticed into reading the rest of the story. For instance, at one point Clarissa writes to Anna of an impending trouble: "They have found another lover for me; an hideous one! - yet he is encouraged by everybody. No wonder that I was ordered home so suddenly." Once Clarissa states this, a sudden and unexpected change occurs in the story and Lovelace is not the only man vying for Clarissa's attention. So on one hand the reader is placed more deeply into the characters' actual thoughts and emotions, and on the other they are held back from the action approaching to create more excitement.

Story-telling in the epistolary form can be an excellent style to use. Letters written by characters personalize the people and gives them a sense of authentic existence. The characters can come alive through their own words. And the time, even if it actually takes place in the eighteenth century, becomes the present moment.

E*pis"to*la*ry (?), a. [L. epistolaris, fr. epistola: cf. F. 'epistolaire.]

1.

Pertaining to epistles or letters; suitable to letters and correspondence; as, an epistolary style.

2.

Contained in letters; carried on by letters.

"Epistolary correspondence."

Addison.

 

© Webster 1913.

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