Epic Literature

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Epic Literature


(Russian epos), one of the three classes, or types, into which literature is divided, the others being poetry and drama. Epic literature includes various genres, such as the folktale (skazka), traditional account (predanie), varieties of the heroic epic, epopee, epic poem, novella (povest’), tale (rass-kaz), short story (novella), novel (roman), and literary sketch (ocherk).

The characteristic feature of epic literature, as of drama, is the representation of an action unfolding in space and time—the course of events in the lives of the characters. A specific trait of epic literature, however, is the organizing role played by narration. The narrator (either the author himself or the teller of the tale) relates the events and detailed circumstances as though recalling them from the past, falling back along the way to describe the setting in which the action takes place and the characters’ physical appearance or, occasionally, to express his own thoughts.

The narrative layer of an epic work is connected in a natural manner to the protagonists’ dialogues and monologues. Epic narration may be self-contained—that is, it may temporarily dispense with direct speech on the part of the characters—or, by letting the characters speak in their own voice, it may become permeated with their spirit; it may function as a framework for the protagonists’ spoken utterances or it may, on the contrary, be reduced to a minimum or be temporarily absent. On the whole, however, narration predominates, binding together everything that is depicted in a given work. Consequently, the quality of epic literature is determined to a great extent by the quality of the narration. The function of speech in epic literature is primarily to relate what has taken place at an earlier time. Temporal distance is maintained between the actual speech and the action being depicted; the epic poet tells “about an event as about something apart from himself” (Aristotle, Ob iskusstve poezii, Moscow, 1957, p. 45).

In epic narration, the person of the narrator is a particular kind of intermediary between that which is depicted and the listener or reader; the narrator is the witness and interpreter of what has taken place. Information is rarely given about the narrator’s life, his relationship to the characters, or the circumstances in which the story is told. The “spirit of the narration” is often “an imponderable, incorporeal and omnipresent” (T. Mann, Sobr. soch., vol. 6, Moscow, 1960, p. 8). At the same time, the narrator’s voice characterizes not only the object being depicted but also the narrator himself; the epic form bears the imprint of the narrator’s manner of speaking, his perception of the world, and his own unique consciousness. The reader’s keen perception is predicated on unflagging attention to the “expressive” sources of the narration—that is, to the storytelling subject, or “figure of the narrator” (a concept elaborated by V. V. Vinogradov, M. M. Bakhtin, and G. A. Gukovskii).

Epic literature has absolute freedom in its use of space and time. The writer may create scenic episodes, or pictures, capturing a place and a moment in the protagonists’ lives (for example, the evening at A. P. Scherer’s in Tolstoy’s War and Peace), or he may use descriptive, broad-ranging, or panoramic episodes in telling about protracted intervals of time or events that have taken place elsewhere (for example, Tolstoy’s description of Moscow, left deserted before the arrival of the French). In its meticulous re-creation of events that range broadly over space and time, epic literature can only be rivaled by the art of cinematography.

Epic literature utilizes the full range of representational means in the literary arsenal, including portraiture, direct characterization, dialogues and monologues, mimicry, and the description of landscapes, interiors, actions, and gestures; such devices make images appear lifelike and create visual and auditory verisimilitude. What is depicted may correspond exactly to the “forms of life itself” or may, on the contrary, appear altogether transformed.

In contrast to the drama, epic literature is not wedded to conventional creative forms. It is not so much what is depicted that conforms to literary conventions as it is the “depictor,” or narrator, who is often endowed with absolute knowledge about the past in minutest detail. In this sense, one might say, the structure of epic narration—as commonly distinguished from nonimaginative communication, such as reporting and historical accounts— seems to “betray” the contrived, imaginary, and illusory nature of that which is depicted.

The epic form relies on a variety of subjects. In some works, eventfulness is pushed to an extreme (as in F. M. Dostoevsky’s adventure-and-detective plots); in others the course of events is slowed down, so that what is happening is drowned, as it were, in description, psychological characterization, and discourse (as in Chekhov’s prose of the 1890’s and in the novels of T. Mann and W. Faulkner). In Goethe’s and Schiller’s opinion, action-delaying motifs are an essential feature of epic literature as a whole.

Epic texts, whether they are prose or poetry, are practically unlimited in scope, ranging from “miniature” short stories (such as those of the early Chekhov and of O. Henry) to lengthy epopees and novels (the Mahabharata, the Iliad, War and Peace, and The Quiet Don). Epic literature can incorporate such a number of characters and events as cannot be contained in other types of literature or art (with the exception of serial television films, which alone can compete with it). Furthermore, the narrative form is capable of re-creating complex, contradictory, and multi-faceted characters in the process of becoming.

Although not all works exploit the potentialities of epic representation, the term “epic literature” connotes the depiction of life in its entirety, the discovery of the essence of a whole era, and the massive scale of the creative act. The sphere of the epic genres is not limited to a given type of experience or world view. It is in the nature of epic literature to encompass on a universal scale the cognitive and ideological potentialities of all literature and art. Any attempt to “localize,” or narrow down, the content of an epic work fails to do justice to the entire history of the epic genre. One such attempt was the 19th-century definition of epic literature as representing the rule of events over men; another example is the “magnanimous” attitude toward man in modern epic literature.

Epic literature followed various paths in its development. Lyric-epic songs—which, like drama and poetry, were based on syncretic rituals—developed into epic songs proper. The emergence of the prose genres of epic literature, and particularly of folktales, is genetically linked to the individual telling of myths. The early epic works, as well as the subsequently developing forms of narrative literature, were also influenced by traditional historical accounts, which were transmitted orally and later recorded in writing.

A major influence in ancient and medieval literature was the heroic folk epic, which marked the fullest and most extensive utilization of the potentialities of the epic genre. The myth, the parable, and the early folktale—brief accounts characterized by their naive and archaic poetic forms—were replaced by a type of narration that was meticulously detailed, extremely concerned with everything visible, and imbued with a lifelike quality. The heroic epic characteristically “absolutizes” the distance between the protagonists and the narrator; the latter possesses the gift of unruffled composure and “omniscience” (as in the case of Homer, who was likened to the Olympian gods). The image of the narrator is that of a being who looks at the world from above, and the work thus gains maximum objectivity. “The storyteller is alien to the characters; not only is he superior to his listeners by virtue of his judicious contemplation and the fact that his story sets the tune for them; he also, as it were, takes the place of necessity” (F. von Schelling, Filosofiia iskusstva, Moscow, 1966, p. 399).

Even in the ancient prose narratives, however, the distance between the storyteller and the characters was already less than absolute; in such novels as Apuleius’ Golden Ass and Petronius’ Satyricon, the characters themselves tell of what they have seen and experienced. The “personal” and expressly subjective type of narration was dominant in the literature of the last three centuries, which was marked by the prevalence of novelistic genres. On the one hand, the narrator’s omniscience extends to the thoughts and feelings of the characters not expressed in their behavior; on the other, the narrator often looks at the world through the eyes of one particular character, entering into the latter’s frame of mind. Thus the battle of Waterloo in Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma is represented in a manner that is far from Homeric; the author seems somehow reincarnated in the young Fabrizio, the distance between them has practically disappeared, and their points of view have merged (a narrative method that distinguishes L. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Flaubert, T. Mann, and Faulkner).

Such merging of author and character was the result of growing interest in the protagonists’ unique inner world, which is only sparingly and incompletely revealed in their behavior. This new interest also gave rise to the narrative method whereby the story is told in the form of a monologue by the protagonist—as it is in The Last Day of a Condemned Man by V. Hugo, “A Gentle Soul” by Dostoevsky, and The Fall by A. Camus. The internal monologue is the ruling narrative form in the “stream of consciousness” literature of J. Joyce and, to a certain extent, of M. Proust. Not infrequently, different narrative methods are alternated, and events are related by different protagonists, each in his own fashion—for example, in A Hero of Our Time by M. Iu. Lermontov, To Have and Have Not by E. Hemingway, The Mansion by Faulkner, and Lotte in Weimar by T. Mann. R. Rolland s Jean Christophe, T. Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, M. Gorky’s The Life of Klim Samgin, and Sholokhov’s The Quiet Don are monumental examples of 20th-century epic literature in which a synthesis is achieved between the older principle of “omniscience” on the narrator’s part and the personal type of narration with its psychological bent.

Emotional and semantic links between the narrator’s and his characters’ utterances have an important place in the novelistic prose of the 19th and 20th centuries. Their interaction imparts the quality of inner dialogue to the language of the novel; the text in these works bears the imprint of different and conflicting consciousnesses. The “voices” of various characters may be reproduced in turn or, alternatively, may be combined into one voice—what M. M. Bakhtin described as “two-voiced speech” (Problemypoetiki Dostoevskogo, 1972, p. 324).

“Many-voiced” narration was not characteristic of the recognized literary genres of antiquity, when the narrator’s voice held undivided sway—a voice whose tones were reflected in the protagonists’ speech as well. In contrast, the literature of the last two centuries tends to be characterized by internal dialogue and many-voicedness, thus incorporating people’s verbalized thinking and intellectual intercourse.


Hegel, G. W. F. Estetika, vol. 3. Moscow, 1971.
Veselovskii, A. N. lstoricheskaiapoetika. Leningrad, 1940.
Teoriia literatury, book 2: Rody i zhanry literatury. Moscow, 1964.
Bakhtin, M. M. Voprosy literatury i estetiki. Moscow, 1975.
Gachev, G. D. Soderzhatel’nost’ khudozhestvennykh form: Epos, lirika, teatr. Moscow, 1968.
Friedemann, K. Die Rolle des Erzählers in der Epik. Leipzig, 1910.
Flemming, W. Epik und Dramatik. Bern, 1955.
Scholes, R., and R. Kellogg. The Nature of Narrative. New York, 1966.
Grundzüge der Literaturund Sprachwissenschaft, vol. 1: Literatur wissenschaft. Munich, 1974.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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