Epistolary novels, packed with letters, diary entries, and other written communications, are more than just a cool narrative style. They’re a window into the human heart and a masterclass in how to put our deepest thoughts and feelings into words. Let’s take a look at these fascinating novels.
History and Evolution of the Epistolary Novel
The epistolary novel is a story told through documents. This includes letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, emails, text messages, or any other kind of document that characters would write in their daily lives. It’s like peeking into someone’s mailbox or diary. Back in the 18th century, Samuel Richardson wrote Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, as a series of letters from a young woman to her parents. This is one of the earliest known epistolary novels.
Fast-forward a few centuries to see that epistolary novels have changed a ton. They’re not just about letters anymore. You’ve got books written as diary entries, like The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, which gave us a real-life look at what it was like hiding from the Nazis during World War II. There are also novels written as a series of emails, like Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple, which adds a modern spin to the form.
The Epistolary as a Teacher
When you’re reading an epistolary novel, you’re reading personal letters or diary entries. You’re getting a center-stage view into a character’s deepest thoughts and feelings. It can make you realize that it’s ok to express yourself, too. Feeling their joys, fears, hopes, and sorrows right along with them is powerful. It’s like a masterclass in introspection and learning empathy.
Beyond teaching the reader introspection and empathy, writing epistolary novels can help with character development as well as engaging fully with the text. It can definitely be used as a teaching implement in a writing classroom, and, to be honest, it’s a lot more fun to write than a traditional academic paper.
Now to Read!
We’ve talked about what epistolary novels are and why they can teach effective communication skills. It would be horrible if I didn’t actually give you some top-notch novels that use the epistolary form? To redeem myself, here are four amazing reads, both classic and modern, that are epistolary in nature and are definitely worth putting on your TBR.
Dracula by Bram Stoker
This 1897 Gothic horror novel is told in epistolary form through a series of letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, and ships’ log entries. The different documents are meant to piece together the story of Count Dracula’s attempt to move from Transylvania to England and spread the undead curse. It also gives context to the battle between Dracula and a small group of people led by Professor Abraham Van Helsing.
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
A science fiction novel that employs the epistolary form through progress reports written by the main character, Charlie Gordon. Charlie has an IQ of 68 and undergoes an experimental surgery to increase his intelligence. The progress reports start off with spelling errors and simplistic language, reflecting Charlie’s original state. As he becomes more intelligent, his understanding of the world evolves, as well as his language. This novel highlights how the epistolary form can showcase a character’s internal transformation and development in real time, providing a direct and intimate insight into their mind.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
An exceptional epistolary novel composed of letters that give voice to Celie, a marginalized woman in the rural South, offering her a form of self-expression. Her letters reveal her deepest thoughts, fears, and experiences. This intimate look into Celie’s life fosters empathy, providing an impactful exploration of resilience and identity. The novel exemplifies how epistolary literature effectively communicates deep personal experiences, bridging understanding and empathy between readers and characters.
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
This text is a myriad of academic texts, footnotes, and wild visual layouts. Its plot includes a house that’s somehow bigger inside than outside. It’s like nothing you’ve ever read before. It approaches themes like fear, love, and family. House of Leaves isn’t your traditional epistolary, but it modernizes the idea. Effective communication isn’t always straightforward; sometimes have to decipher what’s being said and draw your own conclusions. It teaches you to look beyond the explicit to the more complex.
Whether reading, writing, learning, or teaching, there’s a lot to learn from epistolary novels. They’re not just a cool narrative form, they’re also a powerful tool for learning about communication, self-expression, and empathy. In a world where communication is more important than ever, that’s something we can all appreciate.
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