Definition: An epigraph is a quotation at the beginning of a poem, short story, book chapter, or other piece of literature. The epigraph introduces or refers to the larger themes of the piece: in a way, it may help draw the reader's attention to these ideas, setting the stage. The epigraph, unlike quotations that occur within a work, does not require quotation marks.
Each chapter of The Shipping News
begins with an epigraph, often from The Ashley Book of Knots,
for instance. In these cases, the knots symbolically foreshadow the chapter's action. And because these knots are used by fishermen along the Newfoundland coast, where the novel takes place, the epigraphs also contribute to setting and atmosphere. (For more on Annie Proulx' use of old books for inspiration, see her essay in "Writers on Writing