A Novel Affair

Epistolary Novels as an Intimate Space

One of the main draws of epistolary novels is their capacity for the creation of an intimate space between the characters and the readers. As letters (including modern correspondence) are intended for a particular audience (the recipient of the letter), they are often written in more personal terms. In fictional letters, authors are able to engage this intimate space by using the personal relationships of the characters to reveal their firsthand experiences and inner thoughts through their correspondence. As letters are usually intended to be a closed communication, the readers are allowed to peer into the relationship created by the author. The epistolary style then allows the reader to see not only into the personal experience and thoughts of just one character, but potentially of multiple through their exchange.

While the letter format is generally an intimate forum to begin with, some of the epistolary novels are even more personal as a result of the specific audience to whom their letters are intended. The epistolary novels whose letters are written to an ambiguous or imaginary party tend to be even more intimate than those written to friends, family, or partners. For example, in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), Walker’s main character, Celie, writes a large number of her letters to God. With God being an unresponsive audience who is already assumed to have omniscient understanding of Celie’s life, she is better able to be considerably candid. Despite the profundity of the abuses Celie endures, she is still able to articulate them as a result of her audience, God.1 Similarly, in Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999), the protagonist, Charlie, writes to an imaginary friend. By writing to an ambiguous party, Charlie is able to talk in more intimate detail about his personal struggles with mental illness and interpersonal relationships.2 While epistolary novels that are written between two or more distinct individuals can be revelatory of the personal experiences of the characters through their inherently intimate exchange, the epistolary novels which include pieces written to ambiguous recipients open an even greater space for the reader to gain an intimate understanding of the character.

(1) Walker, Alice. (1992). The Color Purple. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
(2) Chbosky, Stephen. (1999). The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: Pocket Books.