The term refers to a moment in a story (whether narrative or drama) in which something suddenly becomes clear, usually to the a character (most often the protagonist), which in turn causes past events to appear in a significantly new light, to the character or to the audience or to both.
The epiphantic moment for a character can be distinct from what it is for the reader or audience. Consider Robert Browning's dramatic monologue "My Last Duchess." We have to read the entire poem before we can grasp the situation: the Duke of Ferrara is talking to an ambassador for a neighboring count who has come to explore the prospects for a marriage between the count's young daughter and the widowed duke. The duke is accompanying his guest from his quarters to a social event (probably a banquet, with music and dance) on the palace grounds. Just before descending the stairs to the assembled company, the duke pauses to call his guest's attention to the portrait of his dead former wife (to which the poem's title refers). He uses this occasion to acquaint the ambassador with some interesting history concerning the temperament and fate of this young lady. For the ambassador, the interesting realization would be the moment in which the Duke makes his intention plain while simultaneously backing it up with a savage threat: my next wife had better focus her attentions exclusively on me, or she'll end up dead, as my last duchess did. This would be the moment when he reveals that he "gave commands" and then "all smiles stopped together." But, for the reader, the epiphany comes later: when we realize whom the duke is speaking to, and within what situation -- i.e., that he is negotiating with the ambassador of a neighboring count for the hand of his daughter. Only then do we realize what the point was of the story he had been telling his auditor about his former wife whom he'd had eliminated because she took too much innocent pleasure in life.
The term originally expressed the general ideal of a sudden "showing forth," or "manifestation," as when a god appeared to a human being. An example would be the burning bush speaking to the prophet Moses, in the Biblical book of Exodus (3-4:23). In the Christian calendar, Epiphany (January 6) is Twelfh Night (or, in Latin countries, King's Day), in which is celebrated the showing of the Christ Child to the Magi from the East, twelve days after the Nativity. The moment is important in Christian theology, because it is made the occasion of the first revelation that the message of Jesus, and the purpose of the crucifixion, is extended beyond the Jewish people to the Gentiles (i.e., that God's saving purpose, and the kingdom of heaven, extends beyond the traditional Jewish conception of the "Chosen People" [or at least the traditional Christian picture of this conception] to include persons from humanity at large. Two other famous epiphanies are what is known as the Transformation (Matthew 7:1-9; Mark 9:1-9; Luke 9:28-36), when the divinity of Jesus shows through his body to the astounding of his apostles, and at the Supper at Enmaus (Luke 24:13-35), when the risen Christ's appears, in the flesh, to two of the apostles (famously depicted by Caravaggio in 1600-01 and later).
The adaptation of this theological notion to literary critical purposes is owing to the Irish author James Joyce, whose autobiographical hero Stephen (in an early version of what would in 1916 be published as Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) is much occupied with collecting those moments from real life in which the "whatness" of some object or character becomes radiantly evident to the observer: "a sudden spritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself." Joyce's stories in the collection Dubliners often turn brilliantly on such moments, and his longer works -- Portrait of the Artist, Ulysses, and Finnigan's Wake -- are famously rich in them (though the irony confronts us that just what the quiddity is that is supposed to shine forth from some of the moments of the latter is obscure -- that the meaning of some of the clearly meaningful moments remains, well, unclear!)
In narrative, a character's sudden "seeing into the heart" of a situation is usually a moment of special intensity. In plot terms, it amounts to an instance of anagnorisis (or "recognition") and often brings with it peripeteia (or reversal). From the standpoint of character development, it is often axial in a dynamic character's change, or the focal point of a static character's refusal to change. Specifically how an epiphantic moment impacts a protagonist is thus likely to be intimately tied up with which of the four general types of plot a given story choses for the purposes of its particular theme.
Epiphany is often occasioned when some previously unknown fact (apparently insignificant in itself) is introduced. And this in turn can happen in conjunction with some striking image, phrase, or other detail. An especially rich series of such moments occurs at the end of Flannery O'Connor's story "Revelation."
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