In the standard (general) definition, “epiphany” refers to “an appearance or manifestation, especially of a deity” (OED). When related specifically to Christian doctrine, it refers to the “manifestation of Christ to the gentiles in the persons of the Magi.” And, most generally, it refers to any “sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something” (all definitions from OED). In this last sense, then, may one intend a statement such as, “I had a sudden epiphany”.
In the fiction of James Joyce the epiphany, deriving primarily from the last (most general) definition, serves a distinct narrative function: to signal the moment when a character attains a deeper insight. This typically occurs at the conclusion of a story or scene, as at the conclusions of many of the stories collected in Dubliners (1914), and in certain instances contains overtones of dramatic irony. Joyce definitely secularizes the notion of the epiphany, by placing the scene of insight in a commonplace setting, allowing it to be triggered by the accidental — often vulgar — details of everyday life, and by insisting on the role subjective perception plays in the apprehension of the epiphanic moment. At the same time, he does not divorce the epiphany from its theological and spiritual associations. Indeed, it is the very irruption of spiritual meaning amidst habitual actions that gives the epiphany its symbolic force. The everyday detail that triggers the epiphany may, in turn, be said to embody the particular meaning of the insight, as a poetic symbol embodies meaning. Stephen Dedalus, the main character of Joyce’s autobiographical novel, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), comes to realize (like Joyce himself) the aesthetic value of the epiphany: “By an epiphany [Stephen] meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments” (Portrait, 211). Critics, it should also be noted, disagree on some of the finer points of the Joycean epiphany — with some seeing Joyce’s approach as more symbolic, others as more realistic.
An interest in religious symbolism is something Joyce no doubt inherited from his Catholic upbringing in Ireland. And among the unique contributions he makes to the art of fiction in the modernist period is his transformation of the epiphany into a powerful narrative technique.