In a piece of fiction, an epiphany is the realization that occurs at the moment that the main character discovers an important insight about himself or herself, about another character, or about a relationship. This realization might be of almost any type, such as religious, psychological, or political. Epiphanies in fiction are also often followed by consequences, which are sometimes dramatic but can also be humorous. The most general definition of a fictional epiphany is an event that causes the main character to change. It can provide a powerful emotional moment for the reader as well.
In Paton’s short story ‘‘Ha’penny,’’ the narrator reaches an epiphany at the end when he understands his connection to Ha’penny’s illness and subsequent death. For the narrator, this is a psychological as well as a relational epiphany. On one hand, the narrator has learned a lesson through his relationship with Ha’penny. After Ha’penny succumbs to tuberculosis, the narrator comprehends the boy’s psychological need to keep his imaginary family alive. The narrator had not fully understood how fragile Ha’penny’s mental state was. When he brought the truth to the surface, Ha’penny’s whole world collapsed, making him lose the desire to live. The narrator then promises himself he will not make this same mistake in his relationships with other children at the reformatory.
The epiphany the narrator experiences also has psychological consequences. Though he thought he understood how to help promote the psychological health of the young inmates in his care, he discovers too late that he might have been arrogant in his assumptions. He discovers that he might not have been as smart as he thought, that his conclusions and assumptions might have been misguided. His errors have a devastating result—Ha’penny’s death.
Paton tells this short story from the perspective of the narrator. This narrator is the main character through whose eyes, ears, and inner voice readers are told the story. There are no physical descriptions offered about the narrator; it is told as if the narrator were writing a diary. In this way, the narrator is presented as if he were interested only in telling the story, not being a character in that story. Rather, he sees himself as a witness. Just as a reporter for a magazine or newspaper does not insert personal information or descriptions of himself or herself into a story, so too the narrator of this story remains distant. Unlike in a newspaper story, however, the reader is placed inside the narrator’s mind and not only observes what is happening but also hears what the narrator thinks and concludes concerning what is happening around him.
In using an objective narrator, the story directly conveys what the narrator experiences but not what other characters are feeling or thinking. Therefore, readers do not know what Ha’penny or Mrs. Maarman is thinking or feeling, at least not directly. Mrs. Maarman does tell the narrator about some of her feelings, but the reader is never privy to what she is thinking. Ha’penny, likewise, is seen only through what the narrator tells the readers. In a story as short as this one, the author can keep the storyline simple and brief by using just this single point of view.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Alan Paton, Published by Gale Group, 2001.