Spoon River Anthology Reading Pointers for sharper Insights eText

Edgar Lee Masters

Reading Pointers for sharper Insights

  1. Setting: Imagine a graveyard in Spoon River, Illinois. It is a fictitious, small town, where everyone knows everyone. Many of the characters are actual portrayals of people Masters knew from his own hometown, Lewistown, Illinois, and from his grandparents' town, Petersburg, Illinois. For this anthology, Masters created individual epitaphs for the townspeople.

    Spoon River was a community that longed for perfection. The town officials and many of the townspeople wanted their town to be free of sin and full of faith and goodness. As a result, this conservative town became extremely judgmental, harsh, and conforming, which caused hostility and animosity in some of them.

    • Masters chose to write the epitaphs using a free verse poetic form; this technique adds to the unique style of Spoon River Anthology.

    • The inhabitants have written their own epitaph after their death.

    • The epitaphs are written with honesty, confidence, and are free of shame. During life, everyday facades typically hinder people from telling the whole truth; now that they are dead, they have nothing to fear.

    • The afterlife is not a typical topic in the epitaphs because the dead seem most concerned with other issues (their gravesite, the way they died, their actions during life, asking for forgiveness, the community, etc.).

    • Many epitaphs are used to teach a lesson. Those characters who realize the mistakes they made during life, will try to convey that as a warning, but other epitaphs use the way the deceased were treated by the community as examples of how not to live life.

    • The town of Spoon River was small, so most of the characters knew each other and mention people in their epitaphs.


    • Regret: The notion of regret is alluded to in many epitaphs; however, each individual deals with regret differently. Some may express their regrets as a lesson, hoping to pass experiences on in such a way that the living will not make the same mistakes. Others simply tell their story, expressing their regrets honestly and without shame.

    • Peace through death: Many people from Spoon River found peace in death. In some cases, individuals had become lonely or sorrowful, and, therefore, found that death relieved them of those emotions. Others found peace because of the way they lived their lives, so they were able to die with a clear conscience.

    • Guilt: Some epitaphs express guilt. Perhaps he or she left behind a significant other, family members, or close friends. The guilt leaves the dead restless and anxious, haunted with the pain of leaving life. Others may experience guilt because of the actions they made through life; they may have lived a life of crime, or committed a grave sin.

    • Life: For most of the epitaphs, life is the topic. Many epitaphs simply detail the person's daily life before death. In some cases, people may have been ignored during life, and now, through death, they finally have the opportunity to express the way their life was led.

    • Equality: Although, equality is not alluded to through the words in each epitaph, the overall theme of Masters' work seems to be focused on the graveyard as a whole. Regardless of how the individual chose to live his or her life, each has experienced death, and is now buried beneath the soil in the same yard.

    Themes/Motifs: Although each epitaph is very different, some are linked through common motifs or themes.

  2. Metaphors/Similes: There are metaphors and similes included in nearly all the epitaphs in Spoon River Anthology. Note that the metaphors take the form of something near and dear to the deceased person. As an example, an avid gardener will metaphorically define life using terms or situations related to gardening. This technique allows the reader to experience each epitaph separately and note how different each individual was.

To fully appreciate the complexities found in Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, be aware of the following concepts as you read:

  • albeit – although
  • Diana – the Greek goddess of the hunt, also known as Artemis
  • Hamadryad – a wood-nymph
  • Naiad – a fresh-water nymph in Greek mythology
  • tamarind – a tropical tree that bears fruit