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Epistolary Novels: The Unique Literary Appeal of Stories Told through Letters

Letters are among the most significant memorial a person can leave behind them. ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Historically speaking, a letter is a much older concept than novels as a written document. Hence, it was not uncommon to include letters and make it a fictional work. In this age, although digital means of communication are very efficient and effective immediately, the anticipation of a letter and the emotion behind the words of the sender is more personal.

Epistolary novels are a type of narrative where the plot proceeds through a series of letters written by one or more people and their interaction. Apart from letters, the novel could also include documents like newspaper cutting, telegraphs, diary entries, etc. The term 'epistolary' arises from the Latinised Greek word 'epistle,' which means letter. Developed during the 18th century, it gained popularity in the following centuries. Prominently written in the first person, the actions and characters are described from the point of view of one of the characters. Based on the number of people taking the plot forward, epistolary novels can be monologic, dialogic, or polylogic. It is monologic if the story unfolds through the letters written by a single person, dialogic if it is a correspondence between two, and polylogic if it includes letters or documents by numerous people. 

The unique manner of storytelling in an epistolary novel allows the reader to learn not only about the person writing the letters but also about what they think about the person to whom the letter is written. Though tinged with personal beliefs and biases, the novels offer a glimpse into the complexities of the lives and nature of its people. If the work contains more than one person's perspective, then it can provide contrasting viewpoints, giving the reader more knowledge on the subject of discussion. Dracula by Bram Stoker narrates an enticing vampire experience through the accounts of different people through journals, letters, and even telegraphs.  

Intimacy is another factor that makes these works captivating to the reader. Reading the personal accounts of people makes it seem like the reader is eavesdropping on the characters, privy to their most private thoughts. It is a forbidden thrill that no one admits to but enjoys nonetheless. Intimacy is a crucial factor that helps create a connection between the audience and the characters, making it easier for viewers to empathize with them. 

Epistolary novels also provide excellent character development as the characters reveal themselves through their letters. It adds growth which the reader can witness, making the experience more enjoyable. This factor forms an authentic connection between the reader and the character in the novel. Pamela, by Samuel Richardson, is one of the first-ever epistolary novels describing the intricacies of the relationship between a servant and her master through the letters she writes to her parents. 

Epistolary novels are a unique way of storytelling that captures the depth and growth in the plot and its people in an authentic manner, engages the reader, and makes it a type of narrative that stands the test of time. From the commentaries of Samuel Richardson to the horror of Dracula and the confessions of Alice in Colour Purple, they make the experience seem real, thus making this genre a precious gem among the treasures of literature. 

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Manik Chaturmutha