5

There are multiple examples of works of fiction using for their title a quote from another famous work: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls and more.

The advantages are clear: by means of the quote, one can hint at the work's subtext, say something about the work on a meta level, stress a central theme. Invoking another work, one can summon a complex array of ideas, images and emotions using only a few words.

As an example, it would have been easy to think of For Whom the Bell Tolls as a distant story of some Robert Jordan - some individual entirely unrelated to me. But Hemingway tells us - no, you can't distance yourself in this fashion. You have no right. The tragedy touches every man.

Any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee. (John Donne)

Are there disadvantages? Any situations when I would not wish to use a quote from another work as my title, even though I have found one? (Finding a quote that says what I want, evokes the right ideas, and is also sufficiently recognisable to be effective, is of course a challenge, but one separate from this question.)

3

No drawbacks, except for quoting trademarks, and for setting expectations.


Quoting trademarked sentences may be bad

"I'm lovin' it."

may have the drawback of a fast-food chain sending their lawyers knocking at your door.

Quoting may just happen, make it obvious

On the other hand, the number of possible quotes from the existing wealth of literature that mankind has produced is such that any shorter title may be quoting something. Unknowingly.

For instance,

Chapter 1 - Let your indulgence set me free.

is a line from The Tempest. I doubt anyone would associate it to the play, unless you make it obvious. Making it obvious communicates to the reader that you indeed intended to create the link. It also tells the reader that when you did not make it obvious you had no intention of creating the spurious link that they may be seeing.

Chapter 1 - Let your indulgence set me free -- [W.Shakespeare, The Tempest]

Expectations are set

It should follow that intentionally creating the link, and more so making it obvious to the reader, it is not just for looking well-read or for being kind in attributing a pretty sequence of words to the original author. The link is there to draw a parallel, and borrow the emotions and themes from another work. In a sense, the reader is told that the story unfolding has roots that transcend the simple plot you are about to expose. This sets very high expectations in terms of themes, depth of your story, in the power of the emotions that you are about to convey, and, in some cases, also in terms of style. That is the premise of great narrative: just make sure your story lives up to it.

4

When authors use quotes from another work as the title for their own work, they use quotes from works that are familiar to their readers. Commonly quotes as titles come from the Bible, from Shakespeare, or from similarly well-known works.

Using a quote as a title that your readers don't recognize as a quote does not work – you might as well use an original phrase, if your readers don't get the reference.

If most of your readers don't get the reference, a quote from another work as title becomes an in-joke. Only your buddies or the people that belong to your subculture (e.g. Trekkies) will understand your reference. That can be something you want, but for most readers that inside joke isn't apparent and the reference become meaningless.

If your readers understand the reference, the only reason not to want to use a quote from another work is that with that reference you refer not only to that single phrase and its meaning but to the whole work and its cultural implication.

When I pick up Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, I not only think of the first passage as being told from the perspective of an "idiot" – "it is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing" –, but also of the whole story of Shakespeare's Macbeth and I begin to draw parallels between his tale and the events in Faulkner's narrative.

If you don't want these sometimes farreaching associations, over which you have no control (i.e. readers will draw connections that you did not mean), then you might want to avoid a quote as a title. Think for example of everthing that the Bible might stand for for some people. In Germany and Ireland today many people may be reminded of child sexual abuse in the church. Do you want to bring that into your work?

  • 4
    While I'm well read, I don't recognize most of the quotes in question as such. But as a reader, I find it fascinating to discover that the title of a book is in fact a quote and where it comes from. This can be as I start the book, because the author has included the fuller quote and attributed it, within the book, or years later. And the working title for my novel in progress is in fact a Bible quote. – Cyn says make Monica whole Aug 11 '19 at 14:09

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