All terms

What is a Preface?

An introductory statement or essay at the beginning of a book or other literary work.

Prefacing the Plot: An Introduction to Prefaces

A preface is an introductory statement or essay at the beginning of a book or other literary work. It is commonly written by the author and serves to give the reader an insight into the motivation, inspiration, or personal experience behind the writing of the book.

From a grammatical perspective, the preface can be viewed as a type of parenthesis, set off from the main body of the text by a distinct font, indentation, or numbering system. This helps to signal to the reader that the preface is a separate entity from the rest of the book, allowing them to engage with it differently.

Etymologically, the word 'preface' derives from the Middle French 'preface', which means 'prologue' or 'introduction'. The earliest recorded use of the term in English literature dates back to the 14th century, when it was used to describe a short statement or dedication at the beginning of a prayer book.

Opening Lines: Examples of Prefaces in Literature

Here are two examples of how authors have used prefaces to introduce and contextualize their work.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

In the preface to the 1831 edition, Shelley explains that the idea for Frankenstein came to her as a result of a 'waking dream' inspired by conversations with her husband, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron. She then goes on to defend the novel against critics who dismissed it as 'a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity'. The preface serves as an opportunity for Shelley to give her own interpretation of the themes and message of the novel before the reader has a chance to make their own judgments.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

In the preface to the novel, Wilde discusses the aesthetic principles that underpin the work, famously declaring that 'all art is quite useless'. He also uses the preface as a way to answer critics who had accused the novel of immorality, arguing that 'There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.' The preface sets the tone for the book, framing it as a work of art that is intended to be appreciated on its own terms.