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An epistolary novel is a book made up of a series of documents, usually letters, diary entires, or newspaper clippings.

Contemporary examples of epistolary sometimes contain emails, text messages, and blog posts. This type of story is often fragmented, requiring readers to add together dates, context clues and come to their own conclusions about relationships. Writers of such novels do not “tell” the reader anything about the story. They show them through the documents how one person feels about another, where the story takes place, and so on.

Epistolary pronunciation: uh-pi-stuh-leh-ree

Epistolary definition and examples


Definition of Epistolary

The word “epistolary” comes from the Greek meaning “letter.” The novels or short stories were created through the creation of fictional letters and other documents. An epistolary novel is one letter, newspaper clipping, or blog post after another, providing the reader with insight into the character’s minds and relationships. One of the most famous examples of an epistolary novel is Dracula by Bram Stoker. In this book, the author complied diary entries, telegrams, ship logs, doctor’s notes, and more to tell the very mysterious story of the Count, Lucy, Van Helsing, Mina, and Jonathon Harker.


Examples of an Epistolary

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

This is one of the most famous examples of an epistolary novel made up of diary entries. Anne Frank wrote this collection of her experiences during WWII while her family was hiding for two years from the Nazis. They were apprehended in 1944 and taken to Bergen-Belsen, where Anne died of typhus a year later. The diary found its way into Otto Frank’s hands (Anne’s father) and was later published. It has since been published in over 70 languages. Here are a few lines from the novel:

Although I’m only fourteen, I know quite well what I want, I know who is right and who is wrong. I have my opinions, my own ideas and principles, and although it may sound pretty mad from an adolescent, I feel more of a person than a child, I feel quite independent of anyone.

The diary is addressed as “Kitty” throughout the novel, meaning that each entry begins with “Dear Kitty.” She was aware of the importance her diary might hold for future readers while she was still writing it. She reframed many of her entries, ensuring that each followed the same format.


Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister by Aphra Behn

This well-loved novel was published in 1684. It depicts the events of the Monmouth Rebellion and is usually attributed to Aphra Behn, despite having been written anonymously. The novel is based on a real-life affair that was at the time a known scandal in London. It has been suggested that this book was the first English-language novel ever written.


The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was Brontë’s final novel, published in 1848 under her pseudonym Acton Bell. It is made up of a series of letters from Gilbert Markham to his friend. He depicts meeting a widow, Helen Graham, who lives at Wildfell Hall with her son and a servant. Here are a few lines from the story:

There is such a thing as looking through a person’s eyes into the heart, and learning more of the height, and breadth, and depth of another’s soul in one hour than it might take you a lifetime to discover, if he or she were not disposed to reveal it, or if you had not the sense to understand it.

Today, the novel is considered to be one of the first feminist novels in that it depicts Helen having left her husband, taken her child, and moved somewhere else.

Read Anne Brontë’s poetry.


Carrie by Stephen King

Carrie is a more contemporary example of an epistolary novel. It was published in 1974 and centered on Carrie White, a young high-school student who from a religious household and is mercilessly bullied at school. She discovers the powers of telekinesis and decides to exact her revenge on all those who wronged her. Here are a few lines from the novel in which Carrie considers her new skills:

She did not know if her gift had come from the lord of light or of darkness, and now, finally finding that she did not care which, she was overcome with an almost indescribable relief, as if a huge weight, long carried, had slipped from her shoulders.

The book uses newspaper clippings, letters, and magazine articles to tell the story.


The Color Purple by Alice Walker

The Color Purple is another more recent example. It was published in 1982 and won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It focuses on the lives of Black women in the American south. It is one of the most frequently challenged and censored books in the United States. Here are a few lines from the novel:

I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ask. And that in wondering bout the big things and asking bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder, the more I love.

The book is written as a series of letters, a clever way of allowing Celie to speak for herself and remain unfiltered by an author’s choices.

Explore Alice Walker’s poetry.


Why Do Writers Write Epistolaries?

Writers create an epistolary in order to add realism to a narrative. These novels or short stories imitate real life. They provide readers with realistic correspondence through forms that they should be familiar with. (This is why a contemporary epistolary is often in the form of blogs and emails.) This form gives readers a clear insight into the character’s feelings with the author or a narrator complicating the story with unneeded details. As noted above, this form sometimes also requires more work, such as noting the dates and times and making sure one is aware when events are happening.


Related Literary Terms

  • Characterization–a literary device that is used to detail and explains the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.
  • Antagonist— a character who is considered to be the rival of the protagonist.
  • Dialogue— a literary technique that is concerned with conversations held between two or more characters.
  • Anti-hero— a character who is characterized by contrasting traits. This person has some of the traits of a hero and of a villain.
  • Tragic Flaw–a literary device that is used by writers to complicate their characters. Flaws include pride, envy, and cowardice.


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