The Epistolary Novel

The Epistolary Novel refers to a work made up entirely of letters.  This style of writing coined its name from the Latin word, ”epistola” which means letter.  Aphra Behn first wrote the epistolary form in the 17th century in a novel titled Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister.  In this unprecedented style of writing, Behn actually included the voice of a narrator, which he interjected between the letters.  This addition, however, was not typical of the Epistolary form, which became widely popular in the 18th century. 

As the Epistolary novel became a form people wanted to read more of and authors wanted to write, three different types emerged: a monologic work, a dialogic work, and a polylogic work.  A monologic epistolary novel only contains letters written by one character.  The monologic style can be seen in Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s The Sorrows of a Young Werther.  A dialogic work is made up of letters from only two characters, as demonstrated in Marie Jeanne Riccoboni’s Letters of Fanni Butlerd.  The monologic and dialogic forms may contain more than one or two characters, but these characters are only revealed through descriptions and recounts of the letters being written by the main characters.  The third form, polylogic, contains letters written by three or more characters.  A comical example of this form is Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker.  The polylogic form with its letters written by multiple characters allows for a unique transparency throughout the novel and adds depth and character to the story because it contains multiple points of views and perspectives.  Not being limited to one or two characters writing letters, many polylogic works manage to maintain an omniscient narrator without actually having one.  

The Epistolary form offers a different experience for the reader, as it presents the story in a more fragmented way than traditional novels do.  Epistolary works do not have a narrator or stable setting, but rather present the story line and hints of setting through description in the letters.  The exclusivity of narration through letters allows for a deeper and more personal characterization, as the reader is able to see the character’s most intimate thoughts and personal views (and who doesn’t like reading someone’s personal reflections?).  And for the author, this form creates an opportunity to play with an unreliable narration in the letters, as they are the only narration available to the reader.  All these aspects make an Epistolary novel unique among its counterparts. 

The Epistolary novel has continued to stand out and be read since its appearance almost four centuries ago, and has only recently been adapted to modern times.  Epistolary novels written today are made up of series of emails, instead of letters, as the written letter has become a less common form of communication.  This adaptation only shows that the epistolary novel will stand the test of time and will continue to offer readers an intimate, and oftentimes juicy, read. 


Ellis-Christensen, Tricia.  WiseGeek.org. Conjecture Corporation, 23

            February 2013.  web.  10 March 2013. 



 “Epistolary Novel.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.

Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2013. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/190331/epistolary-novel>.


Wikipedia contributors. “Epistolary novel.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 2 Mar. 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2013.

< http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistolary_novel&gt;.


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