The Martian

The Epistolary Novel, Revisited College

The epistolary novel structure, first produced by accident in The Persian Letters by Charles Secondat de Montesquieu, is a series of fictional letters or other forms of communication. The structure allows a writer to present different people’s perspectives and experiences, often while they are in separate locations, while still advancing the plot of the novel. However, the epistolary technique depends on two things: the natural limitations of the individual letter writer’s perspective and the fact that the letter writer cannot communicate directly or in “real time” with the letter recipient. Although the epistolary structure can be extremely useful in terms of conflict and character development, it presents challenges to the author when the needs of the plot require characters to “write” in an unnatural way that interferes with the reader’s suspension of disbelief. This essay, using examples chiefly from The Persian Letters, will identify the key ways in which the epistolary structure contributes to character and plot development. It will discuss the weaknesses inherent in the structure, address problems presented by modern communication, and present an example of a modern science fiction novel that relies on epistolary...

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